Tracking badgers with Nan Shepard

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I wrote a short postcard from the snowy Cairngorms for The Guardian’s gorgeous country diary feature. It can be found on the Guardian site here, or after the fold.  Continue reading

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Granta and Guardian Long Reads

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I’m very excited to have had an essay appear in the print edition of Granta (issue #142: Animalia). It is about the impact of red deer in the Highlands of Scotland, and the annual cull which takes place in estates across the country. It’s a complex issue, and one that causes a lot of discussion and disagreement in the Highlands. Thanks especially to my friends Julien Legrand and Iona Scobie of the East Rhiddoroch Estate, who helped me understand the issues at stake. Julien took me shooting during the hind season, where I learned the realities of stalking and gralloching.

I think of every time I’ve ever used the word ‘visceral’ and resolve never again to take it in vain. What did I know of viscera until I felt the chainlink of intestine running through my fingers? How dare I allude to this most intimate of acts: the touch of another creature’s innards, of following the transfiguration of grass to fumet as one traces digestive tract from throat to tail.

It was a primal experience, and immersing myself in the subject has totally changed the way that I look at the landscape around me. Read the full essay here. (£)

The Guardian also kindly reprinted an excerpt from the essay as their ‘long read’ on Tuesday. It can be read online here, or full text (of the edited extract, which is less gory) after the fold. Continue reading

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Appearance in The Sunday Times Magazine

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I wrote a short-ish article about our adventures along the Colorado Trail for The Sunday Times Magazine last week, which alas I missed seeing in hard copy because I was doing a mini-residency at a cabin in Inshriach Forest, on the edge of the Cairngorms, for The Bothy Project. (It was a joy. Look into it, if you are a writer or artist and enjoy solitude / chopping wood / working by lamplight / cold water washing.)

But here’s a PDF – and I’ve gathered together all my posts about our Rocky Mountain summer here. So far I’ve transcribed 4 of 6 weeks’ worth of trail diaries (1/2/3/4) – I’ll get the final two up shortly – and also published some tips for packhorse use.

Full text of the article after the fold Continue reading

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Four

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

At the close of week three we’d crossed the halfway mark, both in terms of the distance we had to cover and the time we had budgeted to do it in. But some tragic news from home, and a nasty bout of heat exhaustion on Rich’s part, had dimmed our sense of celebration. Week four was a late honeymoon in comparison, as we upped our mileage (covering up to 23 miles per day) and found peace and contentment in our long summer evenings in the wild. Continue reading

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Three

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

By the end of the second week we had adjusted to the rhythms of life on the trail, and felt our relationships with the horses – and our collective relationship, as a herd – solidify. By now we didn’t like to be out of sight of one another for more than a few minutes, a psychological quirk which worked to our advantage: no need to lead the packhorse, unless dealing with rare road crossings, as he or she would simply run loose beside us like a dog. (More here on the use of packhorses.)

Week three would be a section marked by steep gains and losses in elevation as we passed through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness – skirting a prominent group of ’14-ers’ (mountains of >14,000ft), and enjoying some of the most beautiful vistas we’d yet seen. As we reached our half-way point, I also received some bad news from home, which shook me deeply.

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week Two

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All my previous entries on this subject can be found here.

Our second week in the Rockies saw us hitting some serious elevation for the first time, reaching 11,874ft at Georgia Pass, and later 12,495ft at the crest of the Tenmile Range (for context, Ben Nevis stands at 4,411 ft). We also reached our first rest stop, the mountain town and ski resort Breckenridge, where we gave the horses a well-earned day off. I’d felt pushed to my limits during week one, so it was a welcome surprise to find it becoming easier in our second week as our sore muscles eased and we all – humans and horses both – began to hit our stride.

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week One

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve posted logistical information about the trip online for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

Just before my partner Rich and I set off on our 500-mile adventure, a problem with transport left us scrabbling to find a new arrangement at short notice. We were overwhelmed by how the trail community rallied round to find us a friendly local with a horsebox (especially Bill Manning, chief executive of the Colorado Trail Foundation, who made a lot of calls on our behalf). In the end, we received two offers of help – from Richard Johnson, an excellent horseman who came to pick all five of us (two nervous people, three unknown horses) up the following morning and dropped us at the trailhead, and from Pam Doverspike, a true trail angel who we would finally meet a month later at Spring Creek Pass. (Hikers call this ‘trail magic’. this generosity from strangers one meets along the way.)

Both were proven CT experts, Richard having thru-ridden the trail twice and Pam, a trail sponsor, having also completed the trail (on horseback) in sections multiple times. They passed on a huge amount of hard-won advice, which was much appreciated – setting off for a six-week expedition, unsupported, was a daunting prospect for both myself and Rich. I’d love to pay that favour forward, so have typed up extracts from the diary I kept throughout our journey in case it might assist anyone planning the same or a similar long-distance journey by horse. Entries from our first week on the trail can be found below. It was our wettest and perhaps our most challenging week, as we grappled with the basics of backcountry horsemanship and life in the outdoors.
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Non-fiction masterclass at Gladstone’s Library

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I’m really looking forward to my month-long residency at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire: the UK’s only prime ministerial library. It describes itself as

…a residential library and meeting place which is dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions… It was founded by the great Victorian statesman himself and, following his death in 1898, became the national memorial to his life and work.

I’ll be there throughout the month of May, drifting in and out of the library and grounds, with my nose in a book. Come and join me!

I’m running two public events during my time there: an evening session on the 8 May during which I’ll discuss ‘making the personal political’ (£15, which also includes a copy of Thicker Than Water), and a day-long masterclass in the techniques of creative non-fiction on 26 May (£35, including lunch). There are rooms available on a B&B basis and a bistro on site.

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What makes good nature writing?

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I continue to edit and conduct interviews for the literary website Five Books. I was particularly pleased with this recent interview with polymath barrister, vet, academic and author Charles Foster, about the best nature writing of 2017, and what it means to be a good nature writer. I was delighted too to see it picked up by The Browser, which called it “a rather wonderful conversation”.

As you may or may not know, I write quite a lot about the landscape and natural world (for example: this Granta essay on plantation forestry and the Flow Country, an upcoming piece I have written for the same publication about red deer in the Highlands, and a series of entries for the Guardian’s Country Diary slot) so it’s a subject close to my heart, and it was a pleasure to speak to Charles, whose writing (and clarity of thought and purpose) I admire greatly.

Full text can be found on the Five Books website here, or after the fold.

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Pack horses and box hitches: a how to

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

I was warned before we set off that the majority of long distance journeys by horse fail due to problems with the pack horse. Certainly it’s true that this is an aspect of horsemanship that is rarely explored and mastered, at least in the UK, and I found  relatively little information about it readily accessible. So here is a brief explainer for anyone who might be interested.

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