Looking in my note book, I notice that I have observed that on the 3rd of March, the first Curlew arrived in the glen, followed shortly afterwards by an Oyster catcher. These birds are pretty much the first signs of change after winter has begun to loosen its grip on the area. Bob, one of the game keepers I beat for from time to time and a chap who seems to be very connected to his environment also mentioned that he had heard Snipe drumming. Snipe produce a drumming or humming sound with modified tail feathers which vibrate in the slipstream of a high speed aerial dive towards the ground. This is part of their courtship routine and is another clue that Spring is nearly upon us. One piece of slightly odd animal behaviour I have noticed recently was being carried out by a female pheasant which likes to roam the lawn. She has taken recently to raking up the moss amongst the grass, presumably to find insects and other small food items which lurk in the luscious depths of moss that make up much of the lawn, the side effect of this is that she is providing a useful service to me in scarifying out the moss, which is giving the grass a better chance of survival, she has inadvertently improved quite a large area of lawn now, long may it last.
The first visible signs of Spring in my garden are the snow drops which had delivered a bountiful display this year, probably due to the mild winter. Spring does not necessarily imply an end to the snow, we had quite a dump at the beginning and towards the end of April, but it does not tend to last. Snow at this time of the year is known locally as ‘Lambing snow’, this snow can be a disaster if it hangs around, happily this year it didn’t.
The secondary signs that Spring has really arrived are the needles appearing on the larch trees, they are beautiful soft filigree things, like a delicate squirrels tail, the needles seem to just quietly appear. Another clue are the daffodils finally fading out of bloom and the arrival of Pied wagtails and Swallows, these are all indications that things are about to get greener. The Swallows are little dare devils, flying like fighter planes round the cottage narrowly missing trees and chimneys and on a few occasions, me. Challenging the Swallows for evening aerial supremacy is the bat colony, they too enjoy skipping through the air in and around the trees and out-buildings, hopefully hoovering any airborne insect nuisances. The pheasants and partridge are all in a frenzy of courtship which seems to make them impervious to any nearby dangers, at least one of the resident Partridges has been killed by something. I have only seen a hare a couple of times, the second time it was being attacked by the stoat, so that probably explains why my herbs have not been eaten. Since that event I have not seen the stoat and I am assuming that with the warmer weather there will be mice and shrews in abundance for it to feed on. All of these migratory visitors are also attracting more birds of prey, a friend of mine who is working up the track at Daldhu happened to mention that he had seen the Golden eagle yesterday, so the glen has suddenly become a rich and diverse place to live unless you are a sparrow, in which case it’s time to get life insurance. There is a cherry tree to one side of the cottage which burst into flower about a week ago, yesterday I looked out of the sitting room window and initially thought it was snowing, until I realised that it was the blossom blowing off the tree in the breeze. An easy mistake to make, we generally get more snow than blossom up here!
I looked after my landlords dog ‘Ella’ for about ten days, which was fun and gave me an excuse to get out every day for a walk or a bike ride up the track. Ella is a black Lab and has a nose which is finely tuned to this part of the world, she can sniff out a sheep or fox carcass, or perhaps a deer’s shin discarded by one of the stalkers from miles away. It was Ella who found the dead Partridge just on the other side of the deer fence which surrounds the garden. This ‘super nose’ makes walking a fairly stop and go event, we strolled most of the hills round the cottage and walked to loch Loch from Daldhu which is a return journey of around seven miles, give or take the occasional Ella derived off piste snack diversion. Ella also managed to find a pheasant’s nest in the garden, I think the eggs were laid before the cold snap and probably wouldn’t have survived. It was fun having a dog for a short period but I don’t think I would want one full time, they are good company but they need looking after and owning one would restrict my ability to jump in a train to visit Edinburgh or go sailing for a week without having to make arrangements, so for the time being I am happy to enjoy other people’s dogs on a part time basis.
Apart from the occasional snow flurry it has been very dry here, so much so that there have been some quite out of control wild fires in the area. My fire brigade friends recently spent three days putting out a large fire just outside Pitlochry, which it is believed was started by an irresponsible camper. The fire threatened to overwhelm a farm and was finally controlled with the combined force of all of the local fire appliances and some from further afield. There was also a helicopter which was bucketing water out of the nearby lochs to dump on the fire. The land around me is largely woodland, heather and grass and if a spark had made its way onto any of the surrounding hillside it would have caught very easily, possibly spreading into the woodland which would have done hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to the forestry, farm stock and the wildlife. This dry weather has also been keeping the river levels very low and until recently there has been no sign of trout in the pools by the cottage. The last couple of days has brought some wet and drizzly weather and the river levels have risen a bit, but probably not for long. The water levels are reliant on the hillside peat becoming waterlogged during the winter months, which then operate like a reservoir, gradually releasing water into the burns and river systems. This year however has been so dry that I don’t think the peat has had a proper soak.
The track past me has been very busy recently, with machinery and building supplies going to the Fealar Estate at the end of the track. They are building a hydro scheme up there in order to be less reliant on the diesel generators which are currently their only supply of electricity. They are miles from anywhere and even once their Hydro scheme is up and running they will not be able to connect it to the National grid, which is the usual way of recouping some of the cost of a hydro installation. I understand that they will be able to obtain some grants to help with the scheme because of the renewable nature of their power generation, but I think it is still a pretty costly enterprise.
I took a bike ride to Fealar last week, the first time I have actually made it to the lodge. I was intending to go and introduce myself to my up track neighbours. While on the way up I remembered that I was wearing a Scottish and Southern Energy T’ shirt from my days working with SSE and thought it might be an amusing icebreaker to say that I cycled all the way up the track to read the meter. When I finally got to the lodge and knocked on the door, there was nobody at home, so my gag went un-tested. Probably a good thing in hindsight. Nobody wants to have a lunatic for a neighbour even if they are nine and a half miles down the track. The ride up the track takes the weary rider 1125 feet uphill from my cottage to the top of the pass in about four and a half miles, so it’s quite hard work, but it is beautiful and once over the crest of the pass, another glen and the countryside opens up, all of these glens seem to have their own personality and presence. There are limitless views to the North and grouse and deer to keep you company all the way, there is a beautiful river which has over thousands of years eroded and sculpted the igneous rocks that it passes through by the bridge on the track. I have not used my good mountain bike much recently and it rather annoyingly sprung a leak in one of the seals on the front suspension on the way home, which tamed an otherwise exhilarating, high speed roller coaster ride from the top of the ridge.
Last Sunday I went fishing for a few hours with Graham on Loch Crannach, another small loch on the estate. Graham is a naturally gifted fisherman and caught a couple of small brown trout and a rainbow which was duly returned as the rainbow trout are stocked in the loch. I only managed one small but very feisty wild brown trout, it was a great way to spend a few hours on Sunday morning but I won’t be getting fat (fatter) on my catch. On the way down the track to the pub later in the day, I bumped into a group of teenage girls and their mentors who were doing a Duke of Edinburgh award of some sort, and when I asked the team leader where they had been, she said the girls had camped up at Loch Loch. On hearing that and with fishing still on my mind I mentioned that there were some Arctic Char in the Loch. The team leader then said that they had seen an Osprey take a large fish from the surface of the Loch and fly off with it, which they had all agreed was quite a privilege to witness.
I managed to sell the bog oak grouse I carved, the one mentioned in the previous blog to Bob the keeper and in the process I have a new commission from another keen shot to carve a woodcock. So that is what is currently taking shape in the shed. Woodcock are interesting birds it seems. They come to Scotland and the west coast of England, Ireland and Wales when they are driven off mainland Europe by the cold weather. They have long straight beaks which they use to probe the soft ground for worms and other invertebrates, so when the land freezes they have to move to softer ground to feed. This weather driven migration can make them pretty unpredictable. The long beak is going to give me some design headaches with this project. I have considered making the beak out of red deer antler scavenged from the hills, which should hopefully make it less brittle than trying to carve the beak from the bog oak wood. Fingers crossed!
On that sunny note, it’s off to the shed for me.