A dodgy walk to the hill

The extremely icy hill road

The extremely icy hill road

Continuing my walks on a Perthshire estate last year, Part one of the next walk:

Monday 12 December.  Weather: Cold but bright. Little or no wind for a change.

It was almost a month since my last visit, and six weeks since I had been walking on the estate rather than rowing on the big estate loch.  The weather over the past few weeks had been terrible and on the days when I was free or when it wasn’t blowing a gale or teeming down with rain, there was a pheasant shoot on.  If any of the shoots coincided with the very windy days I’m sure the cartridge to kill ratio would be very high, since fast and high flying pheasants curling on the wind are extremely testing shots. I did have a visit a couple of days ago, being asked by the owner to stand in on a syndicate shoot for one of the members who was poorly.  There were only six guns and we were shooting odd corners of the estate rather than the main drives, and had a nice mixed bag of pheasant, red-legged partridge and one or two duck. I mention the day because of an interesting sighting in the late afternoon.

We had finished for the day and were having a cup of tea in the shooting lodge when I was asked to come out and have a look at some birds in the distant sky. It was about an hour before dark, with the sun sinking low in the sky and the light just beginning to fade. The birds of interest, which were thankfully to the east rather than us having to look into a big ball of reddening sun, were wheeling about in a large group probably three quarters of a mile away. I suspected them to be red kites but ran to my car for the binoculars.  Indeed they were mostly kites; nine of them plus one buzzard.  They wheeled about in the same area for a good half hour and I was sure they were about to roost. I have seen kites several times now gathering in the last hour of daylight above a roost not too far from where I stay. On the evenings I watched numbers gradually built up until there were between 30 and 40 in the air. After their social interaction (which I’m sure it was), they gradually started to land for the night in the oak wood over which they were circling. I was sure with these nine kites that this was another communal roost, and I was pleased it seemed close by. The estate owner passed the information to the red kite monitoring officer from the RSPB but the really odd thing is that they were never seen there again. Might it have been a one-off roost? That’s a mystery which may not be solved.

I was pleased that the first bird I saw this morning as I got out of the car was a male kestrel. It was perched on the top of an ash tree at the edge of the farm buildings and not 50 yards from me. I had only seen a female kestrel on the estate so far so it’s good she now has the chance of a mate.  They’ll need to produce a decent brood this coming spring to make up for losses of kestrels (and owls) the previous winter due to the deep and prolonged snow. The kestrel eyed me up for a few minutes then flew off to prospect elsewhere. Though kestrels are not rare birds, their numbers have been falling steadily in the last few years. Consider how common it used to be seeing a kestrel hovering at the side of a motorway, then try to think when you last saw one.  It was a really nice start to the day.

I headed up the hill towards the cottage at the top of the brae above the steading, which is really the ‘gateway’ to the hill. I could see that the duck ponds were frozen, and in the sheep field there was not a lapwing (or even their pals, starlings) to be seen. Starlings are a bit more omnivorous in their diet but lapwings need invertebrates and can’t survive on frozen ground. I’m really looking forward to their return in the spring, not just to see their aerial acrobatics as they attract or impress a mate and lay claim to a nesting site, but because the weather will be a damn sight warmer than it is now!  A buzzard lazily flapped over the frozen ponds and made me think that seeing pairs of buzzards in springtime on different parts of the estate will give me a better idea of how many breeding pairs there are. It will be interesting to try to identify nest sites as well. I’ve never had time to do that since I was at school in the 1950s (though not in relation to buzzards as they were as scarce as hen’s teeth at that time due to the unchecked poisoning campaign by the majority of gamekeepers).

As I passed the cottage, a dunnock hopped about among the hens and cockerels. I’ve seen very few dunnocks on this estate, though as it turned out I probably saw more today than I’ve seen since I began this survey: four in all.  I could probably see four most days in my garden, but they have an easier life there than on hill ground.  As I rounded the corner past Fank Wood and the hill proper came into view, I could see that the bracken had completely died down. It had a good covering of snow the previous week and nothing puts bracken down quicker (or better, depending on your like or dislike of bracken) than wearing a heavy snow overcoat.  Remnants of the snow remained, as I had found to my cost trying to walk up the track thus far, but as I got on to the hill it was really tricky. Trying to walk on a slope with snow that had been tracked by vehicles, frozen, partially thawed, frozen again and had a shower or rain (which I had just missed) on top of that was not pleasant. I found that I was looking down more than looking up, which is not conducive to seeing what was going on around me.

I continued out the hill road, not looking forward to the downhill journey as I’d already slipped several times, though still managed to remain upright. Weather-wise the day was a complete contrast to what we’d recently been having. It was just above freezing but the sun was out and the wind was completely gone. A red kite was flying above the far horizon, nearly a mile away to the north, but dipped down out of sight before I could see if it had any identifying marks. Cock pheasants and red-legged partridges were calling all round the hill. Their three-pronged tracks were frozen into the ice on the hill road like fossilised dinosaur footprints on sandstone. I looked closely at the ice and the snow for evidence of any mammal I knew lived on the hill but which I’d yet to confirm – stoat, weasel, field vole, shrew, probably pine marten – but the closest I came was the dainty cloven hoof footprint of a roe deer. I’m always amazed at forest-dwelling animals like roe deer living and breeding successfully in an almost treeless landscape, but they seem to survive well, and may only make their way to arable or forested land in the worst of the weather. As I studied the roe deer marks I heard the loud cucking sounds of cock pheasants further up the hill and looked up quickly to see what had alarmed them, hoping to see a fox. I was disappointed (though the keeper won’t be) as there was no fox: it had simply been rivalry between two males, and one seeing off the other. They flew towards me in tandem, only seeing me at the last minute and when less than 20 yards away, veering off with tail feathers spread wide to accomplish a sharp left turn, their competitiveness temporarily abandoned.

About a mile and a half out the hill the track was getting decidedly worse, and a view ahead with the binoculars assured no improvement. I’d no wish to limp (or be carried) off the hill so decided against continuing. There being no dry places to sit, I stood for a while arguing with myself against the decision, and at the same time ate the first course of my ‘piece’.  I watched a carrion crow sitting on a corner of one of the partridge feeding stations, possibly wondering if it was safe to pass through one of the gaps meant to limit entry to partridge and pheasants rather than deer.  The crow was still contemplating when I heard, then saw, a single raven soar high over the hill, its bulk and wedge-shaped tail along with the prukk, prukk calls the clear identification signs. It was a lovely silhouette against the cloudless blue sky. It knew where it was going and did not deviate. My decision was finalised over a drink of red grape juice and I turned and headed back to continue my walk on lower ground.

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