Seeing the Countryside Thru the Eyes of a Naturalist
1. Seeing the countryside thru the eyes of a naturalist and with a good memory and imagination is one of the pleasantest ways of enjoying the Christmas break without heroic excursions into the bleak winter. If it’s a man-dog association it takes on an extra fascination in noting how such unnatural bonding can evolve. As the old year receded the Guardian’s Country Diary, which is always worth a read, went to Strathnairn, near Inverness. The narrator introduced one of his 5 dachshunds for their daily walk. She is named Sgeir, and is sharp on picking up scents. She picks up many all along the road to the river Nairn and her owner, Ray Collier, wonders what has made them. “In the last few weeks I have had the advantage of tracks in the snow that reveal what she finds so fascinating.” (30/12/10), he says.
2. “For the past week the snow was just too deep and frozen for this daily walk but at least we were able to set out again on what can only be described in such conditions as an adventure. There were more pheasant tracks than usual and in some places you could see by the impressions of their wings in the snow that they had taken off” noted Ray Collier, wondering if a vehicle had come along the road, “although sometimes with fatal results, depending on the driver’s attitude. Then halfway to the river bridge I knew by Sgeir’s behaviour that there was something different. I still expected a hare when, about 3 feet off the road, she began to dig at a mound of snow. The first sign of coloured fur gave it away as a cat and I immediately thought of a domestic cat from the village half a mile away. Then, total surprise, it looked like a wildcat,“ which it was.
3. “At this time of year it is mainly pheasants with numerous small birds and even mice tracks if the snow is not too deep. Stoat tracks are rare, but when they are there Sgeir finds them almost irresistible. The occasional single line of fox tracks also gets special attention, and she has to be kept to heel lest she follows them. The scent of brown hares attracts her most and she smells this even before we have reached them.” It’s an umami-attraction that pet-food manufacturers must surely have tried to capture in a bottle or even exploit in subtleties that attract other omnivores in the scents, essences and flavours market. We just admire the self-discipline guide dogs must display when they must forgo the pleasures of sniffing for both pleasure and treasure.
4. These days the main cause for concern over true wildcats is the widespread hybridization among domestic or feral cats. Telltale markings can give the game away, so Ray collier took “it” home for further examination. “It was big, with a total length of around 30 inches, of which the tail was 12 inches. The stripes were correct on the head, nape and flanks. There were separate bands on the tail that with the wet snow look almost clubbed at the tip. The signs of a true wildcat were there, so it will be sent to the National Museum of Scotland for formal identification and I will await the results with more than eager anticipation.” And perhaps a little more information on the conditions for the sheep struggling to survive in the bleak winds and snow in the NE of the British Isles. Not much talk of global warming just now. Nor of the 13,500 lost or unwanted pets being looked after at Battersea Dogs and Cats home, which last year they found new owners for.