I love nothing more than a day in the hills but have to confess to being absolutely clueless about the wildlife I often encounter while tramping across burns, along valleys and up mountains. But not any more!
After spending a day in stunning Glenesk with gamekeeper and wildlife expert Andy Malcolm, I can now point out green plovers, willow warblers and black grouse; dissect an owl’s pellet and tell you what it had for tea (on this occasion, a vole!); and spot an adder basking in the sunshine. I can even listen out for the distinctive scrabbling noise made by red squirrels as they dash about in the trees and spot red deer grazing 20 miles away – as long as Andy’s on hand to instruct me which direction to point my binoculars in!
Dalhousie Estate, owners of the 55,000 acres that make up Invermark Estate in Glenesk, one of the most isolated of the Angus Glens, is running Glenesk Wildlife Tours from now until July. The tours start at the Glenesk Retreat, about halfway up the glen, with transport provided by Andy’s trusty Land Rover, which scrambles up steep rocky tracks I would need crampons to tackle.
Right on cue, a tiny stipe swoops into sight
Our first stopping place is alongside the River Tarf. Our group of three follows Andy to the riverbank, where he identifies the birds flying overhead and darting between nearby bushes and trees, as well as drawing our attention to a drumming sound. “That’s the noise a snipe’s feathers make as it dives into its display flight,” explains Andy – and, right on cue, a tiny snipe swoops into sight.
After a short stroll back to the Landie, we head along a dirt track towards a farmhouse, as Andy reveals that the grassy stretches of land filled with sheep, grass and heather in the lower, flat reaches of the glen were once cultivated fields. “Basic crops were grown by the crofters who lived here,” says Andy, who adds that the glen was once a thriving community.
“You can still see signs of the many families who lived here, with the remains of cottage walls, evidence of rigs, rhubarb growing where once there was a walled garden or, going back even further in time, the outlines of Pictish roundhouses.” At that, Andy brings the Land Rover to a halt beside a cottage and points to a circle of small standing stones which is widely believed to have been created by druids.
Next stop – Invermark Castle, built as a refuge for 16th century residents of Glenesk, when the glen’s fertile land and well-fed beasts made the area a target for cattle thieves. The castle is now a ruin and the bridge that once led up to the doorway is long-gone, leaving visitors without Andy and his extensive knowledge of the history of the glen to wonder how anyone seeking safety from marauding cattle thieves could possibly scale thirty feet of stone wall to get in the door!
A sunbathing adder, several black grouse and a ring ouzel
Throughout our tour, Andy identifies the wildlife we spot, including a sunbathing adder, several black grouse and a ring ouzel, which has travelled to Glenesk from the Atlas Mountains in Morrocco. “This is one of the few areas in the UK where numbers of ring ouzels are increasing,” says Andy, who adds that, although birds of prey are proving elusive today, he regularly sees peregrin, golden eagles and other raptors.
Next stop, a high ledge overlooking Loch Lee, where we tuck into homemade scones and coffee in one of the most breathtaking cuppie spots I’ve ever experienced.
And then it’s time for the 2,000 feet climb to the top of Glenesk – and we just have to sit there as Andy drives up the steep track, avoiding boulders, pointing out old fox dens, slowing down as we drive by climbers slogging upwards on foot and telling us about his role as a gamekeeper, stalking deer, burning heather, caring for the estate’s grouse and managing the glen’s wildlife population.
‘This is proper wild country’
The view from the top is outstanding and stretches at least 20 miles in every direction. “This is proper wild country,” says Andy – and just at that, a mountain hare emerges from the heather and dashes off. By which point, I’m beginning to wonder if Andy has trained all these birds, reptiles and animals to pop up on cue and entertain his lucky visitors!
Secrets of the Glen tours cost from £45 per person. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01356 624 566. To find out about places to stay in or near Glenesk, visit www.visitangus.com.
To find out more about Scotland’s wildlife and where to see it, pick up a copy of this month’s Scots Magazine. In the shops now or order online by clicking here.