This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Twenty minutes after John Gladstone left me standing beside a mossy tumbledown dyke, halfway up a snowy hillside, a jay in the woods, only 300 yards away, started squawking in alarm. It was the way John told me he always goes: “through the trees, up the wall, and back along the top”.
Progress was slow. The temperature, overnight, had fallen to minus-12 and every step he took crunched aloud in the frozen dawn.
There was little chance, he reckoned, that he would catch up with the deer but any roe that he did disturb would quite likely break away through the conifers and emerge into the clearing where I was waiting, with numb feet and hands colder still on the old rifle.
Time goes by more quickly than you might imagine when you’re standing still in the trees
Behind me, beyond the Scaur Water, the light of the sky was rising soft pink over the white moors, all of it part of the great estate around Drumlanrig castle, the Duke of Buccleuch’s red baronial mansion. It is said he lives there sometimes, but I’m yet to see him in the chip shop or the queue for the butcher’s.
Time goes by more quickly than you might imagine when you’re standing still in the trees. When you walk or run, birds and creatures flee ahead of you but when you stop for long enough, the chittering world of the wood starts to carry on as though you aren’t there.
There was nothing “charismatic”, as rare fauna is increasingly termed — no red squirrels or black grouse, but to see crows cronking low overhead and to hear a skein of greylag geese in the stillness is magic enough for me.
I was watching a magpie when the russet brown rump caught my eye, moving between the trees on the other side of the clearing. John’s footsteps, somewhere higher up, had pushed the doe down. Through the scope, I watched it, moving back and forth, feverishly, as it decided which way to go. I’m not sure just when, but at some point it must have seen the cold boy staring with the rifle on the sticks. Turning, it crashed away through the brash and ran towards the river.
Ten minutes later, John appeared through the same gap the deer had stood in. He was disappointed. In the past, the two-man manoeuvre has worked well, and ever since the Gladstones started planting trees in earnest, roe numbers have roofed, meaning stalking has become a necessity as much as a pleasure.
It had snowed in the night and flakes were lying thickly on top of icy tarmac, making the drive home for breakfast a steady one. As I rounded the final corner before turning onto the last lane, I had to swerve to avoid a heap in the road.
They stood and tutted — “probably a second-home owner from Edinburgh”
At first I thought it was a dead badger but in the rear view mirror with the sun glinting on the brown fur and thick breath rising from the little mouth, I realised it was a young roe buck, lying in a pool of blood. Someone had hit and gone.
As I waited on the bend, to stop any traffic, I called John. There was a knife in his glove compartment and he’d only just left. By the time he arrived a delivery driver and an elderly farmer’s wife had gathered. “Not very old,” she wondered, “and imagine that, a deer rolling across your bonnet and just heading off on your way.”
They stood and tutted — “probably a second-home owner from Edinburgh” — while John stuck the blade in, arterial blood running red through the snow.
Two days later he came by on his bicycle. Half of the deer that lay in the road was now stuffed into his basket: mince, a loin, and a haunch, vacuum-packed and ready for the freezer. That’s one fewer now but there are still far too many deer in Dumfriesshire. In some places their numbers are managed but all over the county they browse down young woodland and scrubby fringes, which are vital for our birds.
The answer, according to a growing number, lies in a creature that once roamed across south-west Scotland but is long gone. On some hillsides, there are stones that commemorate the places the last of them were slain.
The same part of me that sings when I come across sea trout flashing in the rivers or woodcock flying out at dusk, would love to see wolves return. There would be almost no better sound than lupine howling blowing over the moors above my farmhouse when the sun rises at dawn.
As is typical, in an age of polarisation, it feels as though you must either be for the wolves or against them
I know a good number of people with fine intentions whose prescription for John’s deer problem would be a hungry pack or two, imported from Europe and let loose, but there are very few ecologists among them.
As is typical, in an age of polarisation, it feels as though you must either be for the wolves or against them. In truth, though, I suspect there are far more of us who love the idea but accept that where habitat is scarce and the land is ravaged with roads, our wolves are better off in our place names, our folk songs, and fossilised in the ground.
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