Being eyeballed by dragonflies patrolling tree-lined rivers and watching hen harriers hunting over heather moorland, brought small joys on my recent field intel trip north.
North by north west
My reason for heading north from the hills of Wales was an invitation to fish a river in Sutherland. But what a distance! But what an opportunity en route, to doorstep people and places to glean, to blag, to learn stuff on the ground.
Heads up harriers
After a call, I heard there was a recent hen harrier nest on moorland in northern England…and four young immatures might still hanging around. The public roadside layby, partly occupied by blackface sheep, proved to deliver a magnificent quiet hour or two of harrier watching. There’s a great human-wildlife story – perhaps radically contra to some narratives – to tell here involving a local voice. I’m working on it.
Having asked on social media what new forests to go and visit, I ended up at Jerah forest near Stirling. A swath of ex-sheep grazed grassland prone to flash flooding above a town now ‘cropped’ differently to grass with a mix of 16 tree species. Yes, there’s lots of sitka spruce but the years of research and wide consultation behind the scheme is remarkable. And there’s more research coming through with plenty of roe deer and black grouse returning to these hills.
One of my planned night stopovers blew me out so I found myself subject to wonderful ‘highland hospitality’ (i.e. ‘we’ve a bed you can doss down in’). They also have a slow wide river with beavers who’ve been living quietly there for 10 years or so. Amongst the midges, I managed my first glimpses of wild beavers swimming in the gloaming and later over a dram, we discussed issues around this aquatic ‘ecosystem engineering’ rodent.
Next up, it was my turn to go aquatic. Standing next to deep dark peaty rushing waters, the nerve tingling shock of a salmon moving close by is hard to describe. Trout never rise near you but mighty sea-tempered silver-muscled salmon are on a mission. I heard them, I saw them, I sensed them, I failed to hook one. That’s fine, because every time being a hunter in the wilds, alone, brings new sensory experiences. The daily diving dipper made it for me, alongside unknown piercing screams from the forest and the midge-hunting dragonfly beside a rocky pool.
Physically and mentally the north of Scotland has something more in common with Scandinavian countries than with the rest of Scotland, let alone the UK. Cut off from others, long distance council tax services, wildlife crossed dark roads – self-reliance a watchword.
The Lairg Crofters show was in full swing: ladies under bagpiper’s competition rules, men displaying tractors, kids fertiliser bag racing, and firemen chatting about fires (“if only crofters wouldn’t assume we’ll put them out” and “if those rewilding estates would better manage their areas near car parks”)
As I headed south I had time for a few insightful hours with Peter Cairns (leading light in a Scottish rewilding charity), a handful of wild brown trout from a tiny stream below Hadrian’s Wall and a cup of tea with a grouse moor gamekeeper and his wife, both wanting to talk about the hen harriers they were proudly looking after.
At Tebay Services, after pitching a tent in the caravan park (lady in the farmshop “I’m sure it’s fine”), I bought the book (‘Westmorland: The Changing Hills’) written on the service station’s 50th anniversary by the owner, John Dunning. It’s a surprisingly robust read – no trite daffodil wafting coffee table book but a well-travelled hard forged journey in rural progression, and regeneration against expectations.
Perhaps just like some of the stuff in this blog
A handful quotes heading up chapters in The Changing Hills
“Imagination is the uniquely human capacity to envisage that which is not and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation” J K Rowling
“There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come” Victor Hugo
“The recognition of reality is the beginning of wisdom” Urho Kekkonen
“Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently” Henry Ford
“The best investments do not anticipate the future: rather, they help to shape it” Anon
This blog is dedicated to my father who died in November 2021 and who loved some of these places and who taught me to think.