This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
Family obligations always sit lighter with me when they involve the outdoors, so a previously unexplored walk around Dunwich and Minsmere was undertaken with only minimal protest on Easter Sunday. I feel naked walking without a gun but carrying my DSLR camera at least preserves some modesty and purpose. As the route planning was left to me and we were taking dogs, I was able to organise a wide circumnavigation of the RSPB reserve that would bring us close to, but not within, it’s hound-forbidden boundaries. For our sins, however, we parked in the National Trust car park at Dunwich Heath. I was able to pay nearly half the price of two pints of Adnams bitter to stare across the legendary marshes at the blot on the landscape that is Sizewell B nuclear power station. Oh bliss.
The place was heaving. Occupied by a horde of Bill Oddie look-alikes (complete with scopes and tripods) ticking little paper lists. Blackbird, robin, blue tit … oh look! A magpie! As we gathered the tribe and made ready to walk I commented “Didn’t they film Springwatch here once?” It was an innocuous remark but my wife suddenly rounded up the troop and suggested I lead on, eyeing me suspiciously. She knows me too well. Just a few hundred yard across the heath towards Westleton that same wife announced “I feel like something is watching us?” Given that we were still in the open, surrounded by a flash-mob of gaudily dressed Southwold second-homers, up to play country folk for the weekend, I ignored the comment. Then she asked “What are they?”, pointing up into the heather. A small herd of red deer stood grazing and watching the human circus below. The deer were twitching the twitchers! They were probably ticking lists (blue coat, yellow coat, orange coat, pink coat). I applauded the irony and we moved on.
Within a mile we had left behind the Knightsbridge and Wimbledon broods with their kids called Tristan, Harry, Esmerelda or Beatrice. For the remainder of the walk we saw no more hooligan chocolate Labradors called ‘Henry’ or springer spaniels called ‘Oscar’ (“snort, snort … I’m sorry my Henry attacked your dog. He was only playing! What is that breed? Lurcher? Oh … I’ve never heard of it! Sorry again, snort, snort”). We trudged across the path to Hangmans Wood and on the way I was startled to see open rabbit warrens around us, complete with occupants frolicking in the spring sunshine. The lurcher (on his slip) threw me that ‘look’. I threw the ‘look’ back. The wife saw it and said “Don’t you dare!”. We didn’t.
At the Dam Bridge, over Minsmere New Cut, the father-in-law and I laughed at the sign warning anglers to hold their rods and poles low to avoid hazards. Good advice for any gentleman. ‘Left after the Eels Foot Inn’ said the plan. That was a hard pass. I could smell the log fire and imagined a pint of Adnams bitter. “Shall we … ?” was cut off by the mother-in-laws tongue. “No … you’re driving”. Oh well. I drew my revenge by stepping up the pace towards the Minsmere Sluice. Half way along that path to the sea, we decided to take lunch. Having found a suitable spot amongst the sheep droppings, everyone (except me) sat to dine. I stood, camera at the ready. We were looking over the Southern boundary of the Minsmere RSPB reserve and I didn’t want to miss Chris Packham walking past.
In the distance, I could see a twitchers ‘hide’ within the RSPB reserve. I wished the red deer could see it. I scored pink, orange and red straight away! Between me and the hide I saw a pair of marsh harriers courting, little egrets soaring and a small band of oystercatchers, with that distinctive plaintive cry, circling the splashes. Then I saw the geese rise. Half a dozen white-fronts, heading my way. I pulled the father-in-laws holly stick from the ground next to me and raised it to my shoulder. ‘Boom, boom!’ I swear I took the leading pair with ease. The whole family looked at me as though I was ‘gone out’. The lurcher had stood, looking to retrieve. Only the father-in-law knew what had just happened. “Did you get ‘em, boy?” I chuckled. “Got two of ‘em. I’m sure”. We moved on.
Arriving at the sluice, the family read the signs. If you have no dogs and it’s not Tuesday, you can walk through. It was Sunday and we had dogs. I was relieved (all I could see on the splashes were ducks). Then the inevitable question. By now, close to the car park again, we were surrounded by virgin Minsmere duck spotters with Argos scopes and bird books. I just couldn’t resist it. I got kicked by my lovely wife, but I couldn’t resist it. “They only shut on Tuesdays so that they can shoot the foxes, mink and red deer.”
At the top of the hill, near the car park, we waited for the ‘old folk’ to catch up. I swung my camera lens at a passing magpie. A lady nearby chortled “Did you just photograph a magpie!” I winked at her. “No Ma’am. I just shot it. But please don’t tell anyone, they might ban me from the reserve!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2015