Granta and Guardian Long Reads

granta cover

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 (£), or after the fold.

The Guardian also kindly reprinted an excerpt from the essay as their ‘long read’ on Tuesday. It can be found online here.

Winterkill

By Cal Flyn, published in Granta 142: Animalia

 

When we reach the bothy they are already there, watching us from high on the crags overlooking the water. When we crossed the loch, outboard motor thrumming, we crossed over into their domain, and now the hills are thick with their bodies.

We’ve barely arrived – still tasting the chill, stale air of the empty house, staking claims on stained mattresses – when Julien’s attention is caught by something seen through the backroom window, a warped pane rimed with dust and the breath of previous occupants. ‘They’re up there now,’ he says simply. ‘Let’s go.’

Outside is all sky: indigo ink seeping in from the east. There is just time. Within minutes we are out the door and shinning up the hillface without speaking, gaining height fast. The wind is whipping up, moving in great currents over the ridge. It comes in waves, smashing against us and then withdrawing, dragging the air from our lungs as it does. I open my collar and let cold air creep over hot flesh.

Julien and Storm are way out in front, goatfooted over tussocks and hags. I try to match their pace – copying how, each time they round a false summit, they drop low to the ground and creep through the heather on elbows, pressing their abdomens into the mud, all the time scanning the hillside for movement.

After a while they slow to a stop and we bunch up together. Storm catches my eye, and points hammily beyond the boulder he is using as a windbreak. I nod, coming to rest at his feet, sinking my hands into long dead grass as if it were hair. I wait a beat, then lift my head, bringing my eyes above the stone parapet.

We are close enough to see the face in detail: her domed, almost Roman, profile which she tosses about as dark eyes flash in every direction. Suspicious: not good. The breeze is turbulent, changeable. We’d tried to keep in our faces, but it’s begun to swing wildly around; perhaps she caught a noseful of us—just for one terrifying moment—and is now trying to figure out in which direction to run.

I try to drop my head imperceptibly back down behind the rock. When I muster the courage to look again, the face has gone.

Up ahead, Julien cranes forward from his fox hole then stands up, shaking his head, face distressed. Gone.

The light is thinning out. A violet wash over everything. There’s no time to look for others. We start picking our way east, towards the burn, so we can trace its downwards path back to the house. It bubbles and froths merrily, all the time slicing down into the hillside like a bandsaw: cutting a steep, narrow gorge of black wetspatter rock that tumbles down precipitously ahead of us.

And then, there they are. Two females and a juvenile on the opposite bank, standing like phantoms in the gloaming. They haven’t seen us.

I am struck silent. Julien twists around, pale face a ghostly glimmer, and gestures to Adrian: come. Adrian goes, army-crawling across wet earth. They disappear beneath a precipice leaving the three of us to wait in silence.

A minute passes, then another. I lie back against the heather, thinking no particular thoughts. A shot rings out, impossibly loud.

A moment of confusion. The gully is deserted. I sit up stupidly, feeling suddenly alone, and forlorn. Then Adrian and Julien appear suddenly again on the ledge below, waving us down. They got one: a crack shot, right through the spine. Dropped straight from the rockface into the water. She’s dead.

 

*

 

It is the thirteenth of February, and Julien and Storm have been doing this all winter long. This hind (an older specimen, unusually large, very lean and – as it transpires later, when we split her open and spill her guts on the ground – several months pregnant) is their twenty-first kill of the season.

But it’s not enough. Julien has a target he must hit: thirty animals, or ‘beasts’ as he calls them, a strange word in his French accent, and very little time left in which to meet it. In Scotland, the hind shooting season closes at dusk on the fifteenth. So until then, here we are, five of us – four men and one woman: me – spending our days stalking deer and our nights in an empty house, with a fireplace at each end and little else.

No electricity, no running water. We eat stew from a scorched iron pot over the fire, drink water from the peaty burn that runs by the gable end. Hanging from two nails by the door is a shovel that comprises the toilet.

A doorless lean-to slouches heavily against the back wall, cave-black within and uninviting. It is here we take the dead deer for hanging. Julien throws a carabiner attached to a length of rope over a rafter and lowers it down, scattering bird droppings and cobwebs upon us as he does. Threading the cord through two slits cut in her hocks, he clips rope to rope and hoists her like a flag.

I watch her ascent with the same clouded mix of curiosity and disquiet as earlier I regarded that lifeless fawn lying limp in its amniotic shroud upon the heather. What was animal is now object; it is a truth both terrible and prosaic. I observe my reactions as if from above, lifting and weighing each thought as it comes to me, alert for squeamishness. There is some. But not as much, perhaps, as I expected.

Julien bends over her rent chest, headlamp illuminating the torso from within, and sets to work again with his knife and a surgeon’s manner. It is easy to trace the path of the bullet: its entry and exit, the single shattered vertebra between. A tragedy in one act. The rest is more complicated. When he’s done, he dashes a bucket of water into the space where her vital organs were. I watch, my face impassive, taking my cues from those who have done this before. Gore drips dilute upon the hardpacked floor.

Then we slide her down the length of the rafter, drawing her like a curtain, to make room for the rest.

 

*

 

No one owns the red deer. But if you own the land that they live on – graze from, shelter in, pass through – then you assume responsibility for their management. In Scotland, where their numbers have doubled in the last fifty years, such stewardship has come to mean one thing: the annual cull.

And it is in the Highlands where the country’s deer problem is clear to be seen they wander aimlessly through paddocks and parks; gorge themselves upon gardens and crops and vegetable patches; run blindly into the road as speeding cars approach. The biggest issue is that of overgrazing, which affects huge swathes of the country including a large number of sites recognised by the government to be of special scientific interest or ecological import.

The true scale of the problem is very hard to gauge, but our best guess is that there might now be as many as 1.5 million deer in the UK, at least half of them in Scotland: more than at any time since the last Ice Age. They roam bare hills in vast herds – in the Cairngorms they have been seen in herds a thousand animals-strong, steam rising from their massed ranks. They swarm over the fells like a plague in Moses’ Egypt – covering the land like a cloak, picking it clean, moving off as fast as they arrived.

And with the deer comes plague of another sort: cases of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that use the deer as hosts, have rocketed – in some areas reaching epidemic proportions. (Testing of donated blood has revealed that 8 per cent of those living in the north of Scotland are carrying the disease. In the Uists, a new case is diagnosed every week among their 1800 residents.) But perhaps the most pressing concerns are environmental ones. The red deer eat and eat, overwhelming a delicate moorland ecosystem, trampling the ground, shearing the hillside of vegetation and stripping the bark from the trees.

In Glen Affric, for example, volunteers from the charity Trees for Life once spent many weeks planting native trees in the stark western reaches of the glen. They hoped to build a forest corridor from east to west coasts, joining up the fragments of the remaining Caledonian Forest. But when the organisation’s founder Alan Featherstone returned to the site in 2015, he found their sturdy deer fences flattened by winter snowdrifts, and the saplings inside (downy birches, eared willows, rowans) bitten hard back. More than a decade’s growth had been undone in a matter of weeks.

Now, until the fences are rebuilt, the shorn stems will struggle to grow: new shoots and leaves nipped off as fast as they grow, their progress arrested indefinitely.

The ascendance of the deer is attributed in large part to the disappearance of the largest carnivores from the British Isles: wolves. The last grey wolf was killed in 1860, and since then cervids have roamed the country unfettered by predators. Undisturbed, a herd of 300 has the potential to grow to 3000 in the space of 13 years. So the role of the predator, the role of the wolf, is what the estate owners of Scotland now cast themselves in.

Around 100,000 deer are killed in Scotland every year, the vast majority of them red deer. Some are killed on traditional sporting estates, where for generations southerners and city types have flooded, keen to shoot a monarch of the glen. But fewer dream of shooting the hinds, the real way to impact upon population growth, and so the responsibility falls to the owners.

Perhaps perversely, it is the conservation lobby who are the most vociferous proponents of the culls. Those concerned with woodland and wildflowers argue for an all-out war, pointing to research from the University of East Anglia which mooted a mass cull of 50–60 per cent of all deer. Wildlife foundations find themselves calling for the deaths of tens of thousands of wild animals.

The prospect of mass shooting is one that arouses a great passion; even if arguments come forth from unexpected quarters. If the environmentalists are mounting an all-out war, the shooting estates – those professional deer killers – call for peace, for the gentle approach. They fear the culls will go too far; that something special will be lost.

Twice yearly, land owners in each region meet in ‘deer management groups’ to discuss their dilemma and share their targets for the yearThe collective approach is necessary, as the deer drift back and forth across the heather moor, in tides aligned with the seasons. They cross boundaries between estates on open hillside, unmarked by fences or walls. In this way, each landowner’s actions impacts directly upon his neighbours: if one shirks his duty in the annual cull, numbers across the whole region rebound: the tragedy of the commons.

It is in their interests to cooperate, then, but with so many clashing views and beliefs, these so-called management groups often grow unmanageable.

Julien, my friend with the rifle, has been in charge of deer management on the East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool for the last three years. Having come as a backpacker, looking to work in exchange for accommodation and experience, he fell in love with Iona, the middle daughter of the owners, and together the young couple took over the running of the remote estate.

At first, a neighbour held the stalking rights – and cull responsibilities – but when the lease came up, it seemed natural that they should reclaim them. For Julien, who studied ecology at university, it seemed an interesting way of applying the theory. And it was all around them, here in the west Highlands, where the hinds and many-pointed stags roamed the hills in their bands; ghillies coming by on their quad bikes in bloodstained tweeds. This was part of the culture of his adopted home, and wasn’t it one reason he’d found this place so enchanting?

Inevitably, the reality turned out to be rather complicated; the responsibility of the cull onerous for an inexperienced Frenchman who had never before owned a gun. Highland ghillies are often born of stalking families, have spent their whole lives on the hill. They know the way of the deer, the way they move, the way they think. They have breathed in that musk, that thick throaty scent of the animal that never leaves you. They know how the weather affects their behaviour. Where they are to be found come sunrise, come sunset, come noon.

But as hard as all of this was to learn, negotiating the politics of deer was harder. Twice a year, the couple are now expected to attend the meetings of their local deer management group – sprawling, hours-long meetings in dreary hotel conference rooms, which never seem to come to consensus

Last time, she tells me, there was more than an hour of fractious back-and-forth before they even got onto the subject of deer. Then, their nearest neighbour stood up to read aloud a long list of complaints she had about them, before departing abruptly to go to church. Iona was embarrassed. “It’s the only time we ever meet some of the other owners. Although some of them send gamekeepers in their place.” The main takeaway from the meeting was that they must now contribute more money for helicopter surveys. The sheer expense of it all has been another nasty revelation. Thousands just for the basic equipment: a £600 rifle, £1500 scope. A moderator to muffle the gunshot. The full outfit in heathery tones: smock, trousers, heavy duty boots, balaclava. Training courses. And the days and days that might be spent working the sheep instead now passed in wolves’ clothing on the mountain.

To begin with, he couldn’t get it right, ruining his chances a different way every time. Walking upwind of the deer. Revealing himself on the skyline. Missing his chance as his fingers quivered on the trigger. Often he returned at dusk, empty handed and so exhausted that at 4 p.m. he would topple into bed and and stay there until the rise of the low winter sun at 10 p.m., when he would head out all over again.

Then, on one of the coldest days of the year, his efforts were rewarded. Heading out alone, camouflaged in a snow-white bodysuit, he finally attained invisibility. In a land of whiteness and silence, he became white, he became silent.

A group of seventy deer moved across the hillside and, eyes sliding past his motionless body in the snow, came to surround him. ‘They were everywhere,’ he recalls. ‘Playing and fighting. They had no idea I was there.’ He lay like a rock in their midst, sizing them up. He spotted an elderly underweight hind, a prime target, and steeled himself for action.

Seconds passed. If I shoot, he remembers thinking, this beautiful moment will be over forever. Then he pulled the trigger.

 

*

 

As a teenager growing up in genteel St Andrews, Mike Daniels dreamed of saving the world. He was ‘hippyish,’ he says. Vegetarian. Keen to make his mark. When he was sixteen he organised a period of work experience at Creag Meagaidh, a nature reserve in the Cairngorms where woolly willow and saxifrage grow on a gilded mountain plateau; an enclave of dotterel and snow bunting and mountain hare.

On his first day, nervous and excited, he was picked up from the nearest station and driven to where he’d be staying, and as they got out the car, they spotted a deer wandering in the woods nearby. Things moved quickly. The man who was driving leapt out of the car, grabbing his rifle from the back. He shot the deer, gutted it on the side of the road, then lifted it onto the roof.

‘Blood was dripping down the windscreen,’ he says. ‘That was my introduction.’

Though shocking for an idealistic teen, it was a fitting start for a career that has come to be defined by the difficult relationship between conservation and wild deer. He sees a similar emotional journey in many of those who have since come to work with him in the field. ‘They think the deer are lovely, that Scotland is beautiful . . . and then they learn more about it.’ Dull culls, he now believes – having seen the devastation they can wreak first hand – are a necessary evil. A way of reestablishing the natural order.

Back in 2004, Mike was working for what was then called the Deer Commission when he and his colleagues were called in to conduct an emergency cull at Glenfeshie, an estate owned by a Danish billionaire in the Cairngorms National Park, where deer numbers had been allowed to grow to remarkable levels, an estimated 95 per square kilometre. Sharpshooters were flown in by helicopter to the estate’s remotest corners; dozens of contract stalkers were bussed in for an intensive effort. Mike was in the larder, processing the bodies. Altogether, more than 500 deer were slaughtered that season.

The cull, the first state intervention on a private estate, created an enormous fuss. Animal rights campaigners accused the commission of acting illegaly. Local gamekeepers staged a mass protest against the ‘carnage,’ which, they said, went against ‘our way of life, our morals, our beliefs . . . and above all our respect for the deer.’ Neighbouring landowners and local residents took to the airwaves to voice their disapproval.

Now, as the head of land management of the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to the preservation of Scotland’s wild places, Mike sees those same arguments play out time and again. As the owner of several sizeable landholdings across the country, the conservation group has been using its power to manage the land in a way that prioritises the environment, specifically by preserving and regenerating fragments of the once-great Caledonian Forest. To do so, they say, they must significantly increase the number of deer culled on their properties.

The alternative – fencing off the vulnerable woodlands – is not an option. Mike sighs when I bring it up: ‘the F word.’ He and the Trust both see fencing as treating ‘the symptoms not the cause,’ and keeps the deer from seeking shelter in the harsh weather of the Scottish winter. They would rather reduce numbers so significantly as to render fences unnecessary.

However sound their reasoning, it does nothing to endear them to the owners of neighbouring sporting estates. Such an estate’s value is partly based on the number of stags available to shoot each year – a good rule of thumb being around one in every sixteen stags on the hill. And those who pay for the pleasure of shooting a stag (or far more, for the pleasure of owning a private deer forest) don’t wish to spend too long fruitlessly roaming the glens without a sighting. But though some estates do make significant income from slaughter tourism, they are in the minority. ‘It’s a bit like owning a football club. A small few – the Chelseas, the Man Uniteds – are big moneyspinners. But generally, they run at a loss.’

A Highland truism: you don’t get rich from owning a deer forest; you own a deer forest because you are rich. Either way, the John Muir Trust’s no-holds-barred tactics have made them plenty of enemies. Sporadically a new skirmish breaks out: in Knoydart, a wild western peninsula accessed only by boat, an argument flared in 2015 when the Trust’s stalkers shots dozens of stags more than their stated target. Some, felled in the most inaccessible places, were left to rot where they fell and be picked over by the eagles.

The language employed by protestors in these cases is emotive: those who conducted the cull are accused of ‘senseless slaughter,’ of creating a ‘bloodbath,’ or a ‘massacre.’ To Mike, these slurs are hurtful and hypocritical: numbers shot by the John Muir Trust are a fraction of the total culled each year across the country. And many of those levelling the charges are shooting deer themselves.

But the controversy speaks of a deep unease about mass killing among many of those who earn their livelihoods on the hill. The gamekeepers protesting at Glenfeshie were not parading their ‘respect’ for their quarry for effect. A specialist strand of folk ethics has grown up among stalkers: the rules are based on perceived sportsmanship, on fairness, others on tradition. To them, flying in on helicopters simply feels wrong, like cheating. So does leaving carcasses to rot. So does taking too many in one go.

What marks a cull? What marks a massacre? Big questions, these, to ponder as you stare down the barrel of a rifle.

 

*

 

My first kill comes in the early afternoon, after a long scramble down a rocky channel in silence, ankle deep in water. I’m a good shot – but the trick is getting close enough to try. One-hundred metres is ideal, but on this bare, coverless expanse it seems an impossible feat.

Now though, the little gully has led us like a secret passageway to the heart of the glen, where around a dozen deer are grazing. It’s the best chance we’ve had all day. Breathing heavily, I set up the rifle and lie down with the butt pressed flush to my shoulder.

On Julien’s orders, taking the drift of wind and gravity into account, I float the crosshairs somewhere just over the shoulder of a hind who stands perfectly still, side on, like a target in a shooting gallery. I let the breath leave my body. I fire.

The gun recoils heavily into my shoulder, and I lose sight of her. The boom of gunshot ricochets off the sound of the glen, but when I turn the scope back on the hind, she remains as she was, though her jaw has stilled. Adrenaline pounds my system– did I miss her? – and my hands are shaking as I draw away from the gun, but Julien waves me back – wait – and I see the deer take a few tentative steps away from the herd before quietly she folds her legs underneath herself and lies down. She sounds no alarm. The deer around her continue to graze, undisturbed.

I was prepared for mass panic, a thunderous retreat. Not this. This dumb acceptance, a total lack of comprehension. My heart burns for them. We could take them all now if we wanted. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

We won’t. But we must take one more. Storm points to the bandy-legged calf that has followed my quarry to where she has fallen. We have to shoot it now too. More gamekeeper’s ethics: it is kinder to shoot than to leave it to starve.

Julien is watching me carefully. ‘Do you want me to do it?’ I shake my head, take aim.

Later, blood glugs from an incision cut in the hind’s throat, like wine from a bottle. It pours away into the peat, soaked up by the spaghnum like a sponge. When I stand, my knees are patched with claret.

Once, years ago, I watched as a cat was being speyed: the vet opening its torso like a cabinet, gloved hands dipping into negative space. It comes to mind as I kneel over the hind’s body for the gutting, the ‘gralloching’. There’s more blood this time certainly, with no nurse to suction it away. It fills the cavity between diaphragm and pelvis, uncomfortably hot, like a sink full of dishes. I’m in it up to my elbows.

The membranes of the organs are thin and delicate, silken. Their edges are fluid, shapeshifting in my hands. But still I recognise each form as I pull them out: stomach, liver, kidneys.

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. Of how, having separated rectum from anus, one might tie off the tube and hold its contents safe in a purse made of muscle.

It is late by the time we finish, our new additions now hanging in the outhouse in the dark. I take the empty bucket down to the burn to clean, and while I’m there I wash the blood from my hands, from my arms, from my face. The water is biting cold, crystal clear. It tastes better than anything I’ve ever drunk before.

When I return, the others have gone in to get a fire going. I step into the room to set the bucket on the floor, and as I bend down I can sense them behind me, feet to the sky, shifting with slight pendulum motions. The effect is unnerving. As if I’m standing in a crowded room, and no one is speaking.

 

*

 

In a grassy hollow behind the white-sand beach at Achmelvich, the crofter Ray Mackay lives in a wooden house overlooking a small green lochan dappled with water lilies.

I sit at the table, admiring the view, and momentarily he arrives bearing tea and an A4 folder of grievances. He, and the Assynt Crofters Trust, of which he is vice chair, have been fighting a bitter battle of increasingly high stakes with the government over the fate of the red deer on their land.

Their land. That’s the operative term. Back in the early nineties, the Assynt crofters fought a different battle – a long one and a hard one – when they became the first community buyout of a private estate, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy the land they lived on and worked from an absentee landlord they had wrestled with for years.

The case of the Assynt crofters came to symbolise the many inequities of land ownership in Scotland – where only 500 individuals own more than half the land, and where the pain of mass dispossession during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still echoes loudly in the culture and the politics. The crofters’ case went right to the heart of the question of what it really means to own a place; as the poet Norman McCaig wrote, in his paeon to the region A Man In Assynt:

‘Who possesses this landscape?

The man who bought it or

I who am possessed by it?’

When finally the crofters prevailed, McCaig’s question lost its bite – the land was theirs, whatever way you looked at it. Yet, more than two decades on, the question of who has ultimate control simmers once more.

The problem, says Ray, revolves around a remnant of old-growth woodland situated partly on their land. A governmental body, Scottish Natural Heritage, believe it to be at risk from overgrazing and have ordered them to undertake an emergency cull; the crofters’ trust disagrees, questioning the population estimates, pointing to abnormalities in the surveys. It is not just the principle of the matter, says Ray. They shoot deer for management reasons every year. For them the issue is a matter of scale. If they accept the mass cull, they believe they could send the deer on their estate into a precipitous decline.

The crofters have worked hard to escape their debts, to make the community sustainable. ‘We survived,’ he says, ‘That was not a given.’ Assynt is not a wealthy area. Small crofting townships of modest, whitewashed cottages and modern bungalows cling to the rugged coastline, linked by winding, single-track roads. The peninsula’s interior is an undulating blanket of peatbog: sodden, stony, ill-suited to agriculture. There are more deer here than people.

He shows me the latest accounts: less costs, income from stalking and venison sales amounts to nearly a sixth of total profits. Here the deer are an asset, not a hobby – no football team vanity project – and they do not intend to risk the depletion of this natural resource.

But now – having declined a voluntary cull – the trust faces becoming another test case. If nothing changes, it will be the first usage of a section 8 order: a forced cull. They will be fined £40,000 and have to pay the costs of the operation – which will be sizeable. For the government it could be embarrassing: to use these legal powers for the first time against a community group once a cause celebre and darling of the devolved parliament.

The threats are a particularly bitter pill to swallow because Scottish Natural Heritage itself donated money towards the crofters’ buyout in 1993: ‘Not a day passes when we don’t regret taking that money.’

There is a certain class of conservationist, continues Ray, who came of age post- Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring, and trained in this new and passionate field. When they graduated, they sought jobs where they could make use of their knowledge. But most of the country is dominated by farming and industry – ‘so they end up here. On the fringes.’

They are very keen, and their hearts are in the right place, he says, but at a basic, inarguable level, they are usually incomers. When they drive in, making demands, it immediately sets up a tension. ‘The undercurrent is that they seem to be saying that we are not managing our environment as well as we could. But this is the place you find the wild cats. The white throated divers.’

He tells me about a map drawn up recently by the government that identified the trust’s North Assynt estate as one of the country’s most extensive areas of wilderness. I nod unthinkingly in approval, thinking of the grand curving aspect of the Assynt landscape, where solitary pillars of gneiss stand sentry long after their sandstone neighbours were scoured away by glaciers, themselves now long melted away. It is a stark, treeless place where golden eagles flash over a gilded, wind-scoured moonscape of moor and blanket bog.

‘But these are our common grazings!’ cries Ray. ‘One day they decide it to be ‘wild land’ but for us it’s where we work.’

His words recall the work of William Cronon, the environmental historian who wrote in 1995 that ‘far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, wilderness is quite profoundly a human creation.’ Cronon, an American, was addressing the cult of wilderness that had grown up in his country, thanks in no small part to the work of John Muir, the Scotsman Mike’s charity was named for, whose solitary writing and wandering in the Sierra Nevada inspired generations, not least those responsible for the institution of the national park system and the Wilderness Act of 1964, which sought to protect ‘those places still untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. Such a definition must have surprised those who, like the Ahwahneechees of Yosemite, had lived in these beauty spots for many centuries. The last of the Ahwahneechees were evicted from the national park, their homes razed, in 1969.

The concept of ‘wilderness’ then is a nebulous one; one based on aesthetics as much as on human geography. The wide open spaces of Assynt is a case in point; to the untrained eye, it appears an untamed, untameable land. To its occupants, it is laced with human history.

Seen through this prism, the question of what is natural and what is unnatural is a tangled one. Is the proliferation of deer the result of human meddling? In all likelihood, yes. Do we then take the responsibility of removing the excess, of returning the land to an equilibrium more in line with what went before? What point do we take as this ‘before’; what came after?

What is the better course of action? What is more moral? What is more natural?

 

*

 

Forty miles to the south, on February 15th, I am high on Cnoc Damph, the hill of the stag.

And well it might be, for we’ve been on the trail all day. Every time we lose sight of one band of deer, another comes along. The predator slink through the shadows is becoming second nature. I feel something has shifted in me, in my relationship to the deer and the land.

I woke in the loft of the empty house, listening to the wind scuffing over loose roof tiles. Then I had felt full, sated almost. I was taking my place at the top of the food chain.

So clumsy, now, to put into words. It was a primal experience, a visceral one, in the true sense of the word. Up here on the hill, with mud on my face and blood under my nails, I am far removed from reasoned debate. Questions of ownership, of quotas, seem impossibly distant: an abstraction in a solid world of cold water, of wet rock, of hunting on instinct.

As the others patiently scan the hillside for movement, I sit with my back against a rock mapped with lichen and look out across the glen. It is a huge empty space, through which air moves and bands of deer roam, herds that drift and shift in size and shape, like shoals of fish, or clouds.

It’s surface is tufted with gold-stranded grass like a hand-tied rug, ornamented in the dim colours of peat moss and bell heather. Far off through a bluefish haze, the lone stone sentinels of Assynt stand in wait below an unhurried sky.

From high up, I can see how the face of the hillside is veined with striations worn by wandering ruminants, treading and retreading the paths of least resistance. Everywhere there is evidence of the perpetual pull of entropy, as the earth – loosely tethered – slips willingly from the rock as slow-cooked flesh from the bone. Here and there peat hags rise from their beds, heads hairy with dead vegetation, their soupy black undersides dissolved and dissolving by the low and constant rain.

For all its scale, this is a subdued, sleeping landscape, its most visible signs of life long drained away over long winter months. Very occasionally the silence is interrupted by red grouse, who fly up gabbling at close range, scarlet brows the only flash of colour in a muted hillscape. That, and the ever-retreating backs of the red deer.

No people. No trees, either, of course.

This is the evidence: of the removal of predators, of the overgrazing of livestock, of the winter feeding of wild deer by gamekeepers seeking to keep their quarry alive for the season. This is the hand of man, writ large across the land. But who is to say that it is not beautiful?

I imagine the valley filling with trees: a treeline rising up the sides as if it were a bath filling. Sproutlings coming up in a thick fur, searching the curves of the earth. Soon metamorphosing into an endless forest of native woodland: Scots pine and silver birch and hazel and juniper. Wildflowers freed from their rocky ledges could grow wild in meadows and sunlit clearings – globe flowers, sow milk whistle, yellow birds nest, toothwort. The strains of songbirds on the air. What ecologists call ‘structural diversity’. It is a good thing. I know.

But what of the austere eroticism of the disrobed hillside? The smooth sculptural curves of the mountains, of the bell-bottomed glens. The tributaries clefting rock like breasts. The soft puckering of the skin of the earth, the folds and wrinkles. I see golden limbs, sprawled in slumber. I see trickling meltwater falling as rivulets of sweat from the brow; pooling in the navel of the land.

So many people, drawn to these places by the peculiarly raw aspect of their splendour, lose the ability to look at them through uncritical eyes. They become property in need of repair; habitats degraded by overgrazing, or compaction, of spoilt opportunity. They see only the goodness that has been leached from them.

One can know too much, I think.

Far below a speckling of silver lochans are strung together in a rosary by a single serpentine stream. Dim flat light radiates from surfaces of brushed steel. I feel doors opening within me. Lights flicker on in the dark.

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