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Posts tagged ‘Red deer’

Making morning memories

P1070232When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.

I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.

My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.

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At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.

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I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.

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There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.

And I resolved to make more morning memories.

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Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

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Heading into the hills

It can take a lot of plotting, planning and scheming to find a way into one of the most spectacular pieces of wilderness in Scotland.

Unless you have the time and energy to carry a pack for days,  you first have to negotiate your way through a padlocked gate which bars entry to most vehicular traffic. Local knowledge and being able to utter  the “magic words” overcame that controversial barrier.

But the first 16 miles of bumpy road  up the Glen Strathfarrar track were just the beginning. More scheming had resulted in a rendezvous and the opportunity to hitch a lift on a boat all the way up remote Loch Monar.

View from my tent

View from my tent on the shore of Loch Calavie

That gave us a fascinating insight into the way of life for folk who live up here all year round and a summit by summit commentary.

By the time we reached the stalkers’s house at Pait and finally heaved on our rucksacks to walk five miles further to Loch Calavie we had taken a few shortcuts and learned a lot. Choosing a campsite beside the loch was a great piece of advice.

We pitched our tents near the shore and set off on the slog up Lurg Mhor, the 986m hill which rises straight up from the loch. It’s known  as Scotland’s most remote Munro and it’s a steep pull up to the summit cairn.

From here we were close to the neighbouring and (to me at least) terrifying Meall Mhor summit. I preferred to turn my back on it and look west instead, over the sea to Rum, Skye and the wonder of the jaggy Cuillin Ridge.

Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor

Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor

We considered tackling Bidean a’Choire Sheasgaich. It was close but would require another couple of hours of effort at the end of an already long day.

Instead we enjoyed the long walk back across a  mossy hillside carpeted with wild flowers to stop for the day and cook down beside the water. I fell asleep to the sound of birds and the scent of a Highland hillside in June. No midges. No phone signal or internet access. Just peace and the stars.

Sutherland Trail: Camping at Lone Bothy

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When you welcome the sight of an open-sided agricultural shed  spattered with wet hen dung as though it’s a four-star hotel you know you’re in trouble.

It had been a long day and Lone Bothy was locked (and uninhabitable anyway), the rain was bucketing down, a gale was howling and we were chilled and hungry. Options were somewhat limited. So we brewed up some soup in the shed and debated what to do. My main objection to sleeping there was the strutting cockered who P1030837was  proclaiming his presence and would do so again, repeatedly, from around 4am. I also figured the tent could only be warmer.

The stalker turned up in his truck and we chatted about deer numbers on the high hills while we cooked our dinner in his shed. He described the growing pressure from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to cull ever higher numbers of hinds to protect vegetation – something he was reluctant to do.

He seemed pretty relaxed about us using his Argocat as a clothes drying horse and makeshift P1030840sitting room then he looked out at his hills, cheerfully forecast more snow, wished us luck and headed off to a cosy house somewhere down the glen. We looked at one another and laughed but the tent ended up doing a great job and we were warm and dry in the morning.

We didn’t take time to search for fresh eggs for breakfast (although he said we were welcome to them if we could find them) but the cockerel and his small harem tucked in to our leftovers.

We looked around and considered. The weather was closing in and we would have no more shelter for another two days so reluctantly we decided to pull out and complete the route another time.

There would be one bus passing through Achfary at 9.30am which would take us to Lairg and from there we could catch a train to Inverness.

I left the glen reluctantly, looking wistfully up to Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven. And vowed I’d be back.

Sutherland Trail: Over the hill from Kylesku to Achfary

P1030824We saw little wildlife or even farm stock during our four days on the hills. There were a few red deer and some oystercatchers and when we got down to croft land there were plenty Cheviot ewes, many of them leading their lambs astray onto roads.

It was too early for midges but there were ticks, and one took a firm hold of my forearm. I’ve encountered them plenty of times in the past and always used to soak a tissue in whisky and twirl the tick round until it dropped out – drunk! – but that method has been discredited these days in favour of a tool which cost £5 but P1030853didn’t work for me. It’s unnerving having an insect’s jaw fixed in your flesh, but it’s finally out now.

The day began with us retracing our steps of the night before, past Kylesku and over the modern curved bridge to Kylestrome, via the monument to the submariners and “human torpedoes” who trained in these deep waters during the Second World War.

P1030800The stone at Kylestrome is engraved : “The security of these top secret operations was guarded by the local people who knew so much and talked so little.” Quite a tribute.

A hydro electric plant is being built at the foot of the waterfalls which tumble down the  Maldie Burn out of Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and a road is being bulldozed all the way over the top to Achfary. It made walking easy but was leaving a scar and felt incongruous in such a remote place. There were several men working on “landscaping” in the freezing conditions, attempting to soften the edges and minimise erosion but I wonder how successful that will be in such a climate. A couple of landrovers carrying equipment trundled past as we toiled up the hill to the snow line where we stopped to boil soup and noodles, only to discover a workmen’s hut just a couple of hundred yards further on. Bad planning!

P1030820It was remote up here yet we often saw the ruins of ancient settlements  and sheilings, even at the top of the Achfary Forest, opposite Ben Stack. And here my map, bought just two weeks ago, was already out of date because most of the trees have been felled recently and the new road ploughs steeply down the hill to the village which is the headquarters of  Reay Forest estate.

There’s a plaque on a wall here which has an obsequious feel to it in this land where so many poor people were cleared by absentee P1030850landowners to make way for sheep and I find it hard to believe all the Duke’s “servants” were so “grateful” to him – or that they would want to list his vast collection of properties “with the angling attached”! It’s interesting that his descendants still find it necessary to feature such feudalism so prominently.

I walked on in the rain, pondering the words and their contrast with the stone I had admired earlier in the day to the men who had given their lives for their country and who hadn’t been recognised at all until just 20 years ago.

In the Duke’s case “He understood so little and boasted so much” would be a more appropriate monument.