A winter walk. Part 1 – rabbits,deer and a red kite

Rabbits munching unappetising frosted grass on a winter morning

Rabbits munching unappetising frosted grass on a winter morning


The hill track, with Grey Craigs on the left

The hill track, with Grey Craigs on the left

I continue my 2011/2012 estate wildlife survey on a cold winter morning. There is always something different to be seen on these walks, which vary between four and ten miles, and of three to six hours duration. This walk was no exception:

Monday 16 January 2012.  Weather: Sunny with some blue sky and some cloud. Temperature varied between -7 and -2 degrees centigrade. Thankfully no wind!

I had no great hopes of seeing much due to the very low temperature, but I was keen for a walk anyway. I set off out to the hill, surrounded by white hoar frost, yet not feeling cold. The whole countryside was sparkling in the morning sun, and I watched a rabbit munching the frozen grass in the sheep field (minus any sheep now of course). This seemed the same rabbit as I saw there on the last visit. I had looked at it through the binoculars that time thinking it might have myxy, but its eyes were clear. I checked again as the rabbit just didn’t look right.  Its eyes were still clear, so no myxy, but as it hopped away towards a fence-side burrow its back was hunched more than usual and I could see its coat was duller than it should have been.   It was suffering from some disease – possibly coccidiosis or enteritis – which are very often fatal.

About half a mile out the hill road the frosted remains of a duck was lying on the track. The head end and the tail end were missing but the centre chunk, still with plenty meat and with the wings attached, remained.  The wings initially looked a bit short for a mallard but wiping the frost off them with my glove exposed the vivid blue wing bar and confirmed identification.  Some mammalian predator had filled its belly on the duck, most likely a fox. In mid-January foxes are mating and will have more on their minds than a good feed, possibly the reason the carcass was abandoned rather than buried. Red-legged partridges rose in front of me from time to time, and I had never seen so many cock pheasants on the hill. One rose from the highest part of the hill on my right and flew over the hill road at an amazing height; far out of range of a shotgun.  It had maybe learned from experience. On two or three occasions cock pheasants at different parts of the hill voiced their loud kor-ok  ok-ok-ok in synchrony. This is usually done when they hear a loud noise such as blasting or thunder. Their hearing must be better than mine as I heard nothing. (This was repeated several times when I came down to the lower ground later on, though with many more cock pheasants participating in the chorus because of the higher numbers there).

Fallow deer seemed scarce on the hill, probably because the bracken had died down and with it, their cover. Three roe deer, probably mother and twin offspring from last year, ran along a ridge on my right, running in the direction of a wood over the march fence with the neighbouringestate. Before they disappeared over the ridge they all stopped to look back at me.  I’m always amazed at how they know exactly where to stop before they lose sight of the cause of their flight. After studying me for a couple of minutes, two more bounds and they were behind the ridge.

I continued on past Mid Hill and turned right at the fork, taking me up Grey Craigs. A dozen or so small birds flew from a stunted larch tree ahead of me and on my left and landed in the heather. I suspected they were the bullfinches I saw near there on the last visit, but I never managed to confirm this as they had disappeared before I came abreast of the last sighting. Birds seemed scarce on the hill, and apart from these, a pair of buzzards and some carrion crows, every other avian resident seemed still to be in bed.

At the top of Grey Craigs I crossed the ridge and cut straight down the hill towards the march fence with the neighbouring estate to the north-west. I wanted to walk almost parallel with this boundary and down towards the neighbouring estate to the north-east, where I would meet the hill track that runs along the march dyke and bring me back in a complete clockwise loop. I knew there was a narrow track where the heather had been swiped and that’s where I made for as it would make the going, even downhill, a bit easier.  I found the swiped track and followed it to its end, which neatly brought me on to a part of the hill where the heather had been burned in the runaway 2011 fire. I had come up this route on earlier visit and it was an absolute bugger, not just walking up the steep hill, but walking against the lie of the burnt heather stems.  Going downhill was a dawdle and I’ll not be doing this route again anti-clockwise!

I heard voices coming from the neighbour’s side of the fence (on a still, frosty day sound carries for miles) and saw a man, woman and a dog coming down the hill about half a mile away. They disturbed three roe deer, which jumped the fence onto ‘my’ estate and ran along the hill below me. I had crossed the Allt Coire a Chaibeil burn and was gradually moving right in any case. As I came to the top of a ridge the deer were running past on the other side.  It was a doe with its 2011 fawns again, and in true tradition, having seen me, stopped to look back before they disappeared over the next ridge. I was still gradually sweeping right-handed and when I stopped to sit on a large rock to have my piece (and to take off my outer jacket, bonnet and gloves as despite the below-zero temperature I was hot) the three deer appeared above me, slowly making their way back towards the area where their rest had been disturbed. They were an interest to observe while I had my sandwich.

The remainder of my circuit, passing a line of old stone grouse butts that ran almost from the march fence well up towards the top of Conlan Hill, was without incident and I left the hill in the direction of the High Larches. I was still avoiding going into any of the woods until the end of the shooting season (1 February) but could see sufficient for now to keep me going from the outsides. A buzzard and a red kite were flying through the trees heading into the High Larches, with the kite landing on a tree and the buzzard disappearing further into the depths of the wood. I looked for a second red kite but there was no sign today. It would be great if two pairs breed on the estate this year.

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