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Wild Winter: In search of nature in Scotland’s mountain landscape

PART OF THE Force of Nature ISSUE

‘Out of the gloom swaggers a powerful creature, the master of this glen. He is so close that I feel the sound of his call vibrating the air as much as I hear it. He shakes his antlers, his breath clouding in the morning air. Seconds later, his challenge is answered by another male anxious to stake his claim. The stag turns his great antlered head and trots away towards his challenger.’

In Wild Winter, John D. Burns sets out to rediscover Scotland’s mountains, remote places and wildlife in the darkest and stormiest months. In this extract, he encounters deer in the glen of Strathconon.

 

Extract taken from Wild Winter: in search of nature in Scotland’s mountain landscape
John D Burns
Published by Vertebrate Publishing

 

Below, the Highland glen of Strathconon weaves its way into the horizon. To the east, the mouth of the glen opens out towards the market town of Dingwall. To the west, the fingers of the glen reach out to the outlying hills. Beyond the ridge lies Achnasheen, from where this chain of mountains rolls out to the sea loch at Lochcarron, and further still into the wild Atlantic. I know this place well. In my imagination I take an eagle’s ride over the sweeping ridges, across the dark lochs and down the wide glen to where the lights of houses twinkle at the roadside. The journey is filled with memories of days spent wandering in the rain, days on sunlit rock climbs, days on snow-crusted hills – some with friends and others alone with the landscape. These valleys and hills keep drawing me back. Here I am once more in this familiar glen, waiting for another day.

A glow begins to form in the V of the mouth of Strathconon. The light of the new day is creeping across the horizon and the features of the glen are slowly emerging. In the pale dawn, I struggle to make sense of light and shadow as colour gradually seeps out of the darkness, like a photograph developing. Soon I see a rocky crag above me; below, the dark wound of a stream bed winds across the floor of the shallow corrie. The shape of the landscape is no longer obscured as the reluctant night leaves the valley.

I miss too many dawns. I spend them idly in bed, or waste them buttering toast and bumbling about the internet. I am too concerned with the gibbering press or reading my mail, bleary-eyed. I never notice that outside a miracle is occurring. A new day is slowly coalescing into life. Every time I see a dawn, I vow that I will watch more of them, and yet somehow life distracts me and I forget to make space to wonder. At least I am here for this dawn. Now it will not tiptoe past unseen. The darkness is yielding, letting the burning colours of autumn slip through its fingers. Still I wait, listening to the forest breathing in the early morning breeze. I have been sitting amongst the trees for over an hour and it is difficult to keep warm. I  shiver as icy fingers find their way inside my jacket. I try to ignore the cold, forcing myself to remain motionless, knowing that the slightest movement could mean that my nocturnal vigil has been wasted.

At last it comes, drifting through the trees: a deep, guttural, primeval roar. A grunting yell that has echoed through these trees and across these hills since the ice retreated thousands of years ago. A shape moves in the semi-dark, only to shift back into blackness as my brain tries to make sense of the gloom. Again the roar sounds across the glen, closer this time. After the echoes die, silence returns and the valley falls into a soft stillness. Minutes pass, until I think I may have given away my presence. The roar comes again, but still I see nothing. This time, the sound is followed by the rasping of great lungs filling with air. I can hear hooves picking their way through the  boggy grass.

Out of the gloom swaggers a powerful creature, the master of this glen. He is so close that I feel the sound of his call vibrating the air as much as I hear it. He shakes his antlers, his breath clouding in the morning air. Seconds later, his challenge is answered by another male anxious to stake his claim. The stag turns his great antlered head and trots away towards his challenger. Now stags come from all directions, bellowing and roaring, each staking his claim on the rutting ground. As the morning grows brighter, the shape of the landscape reveals itself. Below me, the ground slopes away to a small ravine; beyond that, closed in by the hills above, there is a level area the size of half a dozen football pitches. This is where the drama I have come to see will unfold, where the battle of the rut is to take place. Now more and more stags are coming into view. Some beasts are huge and powerful, twice the weight of a man or more. Others are less impressive and will take another year to reach their full strength. These younger animals have no chance of winning the competition to mate with the females. Though they cannot win, the surge of hormones released as the autumn rut arrives compels them to be there.

Soon the amphitheatre echoes with challenges and answering calls from over thirty stags. Many are alone, but others have miniature harems of four or five hinds. The stags that have managed to collect a bevy of admirers have to fight off constant challenges from other males. The rut is an exhausting process for them, and by the end of the season, lasting from the end of September to the third week of October, many stags will have lost a fifth of their body weight.

Deer have acutely sensitive hearing and will flee if I so much as zip up a jacket. From the years of hunting by early man, they have learnt to detect humans by their outline. By staying close to the trees, I disguise the outline of my shape so they cannot see me. The stag that was close to me is challenging an older stag with four or five hinds in tow. He is roaring and shaking his antlers to show how big and strong he is. The old stag turns and faces him, responding to the challenge; if anything, he is larger than the animal I first saw. The pair walk parallel to each other for about ten minutes, each hoping that this display of bravado will intimidate the other into backing down and avoid a fight which could injure or even kill one of them. Although fights are common, stags try to avoid physical confrontations. Such battles are dangerous. A stag that gets an antler in his eye or whose internal organs are pierced will have a long, lingering death. Both the animals I am watching refuse to give way. On some secret cue, they turn and lock antlers. The sound of clashing bone echoes across the hillside. The stags grunt and snort with the effort of combat, their hooves sending grass and sods of earth into the air as they both struggle to keep their footing. They wrestle for almost ten minutes. At first the larger stag pushes the challenger back, his extra weight giving him the advantage. Then he stumbles on the broken ground and almost falls. The smaller animal chooses his moment and hurls himself forward, driving his antlers into his opponent’s side. The larger beast staggers back, blood dripping. He tries to mount another attack but his strength has left him, and he turns slowly and walks away. Perhaps his age was against him. It may be that he will never again hold sway over his own family of hinds. Defeat on the rutting ground has left him with a solitary life; he has lost his harem. The smaller stag strolls casually across to the hinds to make their acquaintance.

There are fights and roaring contests breaking out all over the rutting ground as males battle for dominance. Oddly, those not involved in the duels graze peacefully as if all this mayhem has nothing to do with them and they are just enjoying a light breakfast. This spectacle is being repeated all across the Highlands, in remote corries and glens, as it has been for thousands of years. I am watching an ancient ritual.

 

Wild Winter: in search of nature in Scotland’s mountain landscape by John D Burns is published by Vertebrate Publishing, priced £9.99.

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