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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
From Weasel to Ptarmigan


THE sun beat down pitilessly. The heat was dry and blistering. The air shimmered up from the hot earth. The hills rose around like the sides of a great oven, roofed in with a cloudless hard blue. The stream was visibly shrinking with a margin of damp, which the water had just left behind.

From its fleshy leaves rose the bold flower of the orpine. The great willow herb hung out its disc-like blossoms. So bright shone the investing heather that the patches of rose appearence among the purple. The environment was charm ing, save for the exhaustion of the water, the thirst of the dry channel, and the shadowlessness of the self-shadowing hills.

I turned aside into a piece of rough meadow; the grass was brown, the soil cracked. I lay down with my face from the sun. Save for the blistering about the neck, a siesta would have been delightful. I was just dropping over, when my ear caught a sharp scream. Strange how significant are these elementary sounds-how close wedded to their cause. The emotions themselves seem to cry out. I knew that something was in fear. The wish to help would have brought me to my feet, when the cry sounded nearer. The yellow blades stirred.

A dark form scurried past. I could see the blunt nose and short tail of a field vole. I might have touched, almost breathed upon it. So completely did some greater fear swallow the less, that I must have appeared as a protector. I watched for the enemy. The sinuous motion of the grass had all the significance of a shadow. I waited. With nose down, the weasel came in sight. We surveyed each other. The weasel asked me what I was doing there. So keen was he that he took a step or two forward. The trail lay past my head, much too near for his liking. He was disposed to be vicious at first, and retired reluctantly.

It is a human impulse, of late growth, to protect the fearful and the weak; but how far a healthy one is not so very clear. Plainly I was an intruder on the meadow. I came between Nature and her work. The weasel was right. In so far as in me lay, I put the machinery out of gear. I did my little all to disturb the balance. But for me the weasel would have had the vole. The vole is a grass feeder. Moreover, it is a great breeder. Its many young would grow up to feed on grass. The weasels on the meadow are no more than enough to keep them in check. To stop one weasel from his prey is to give the vole an advantage, which Nature does not think it wise to give.

A passing keeper would have shot it, because it destroys game. Nature does not pay his wages. There is much of this lob-sided work going on. I was on the side of the gamekeeper. I knew better; only the judgment was blinded by the emotions. Probably no harm was done. The weasel would circle round, and when he had got beyond me, would cross and recross to pick up the scent, with more than the skill of a trained pointer.

As I lay, my eye wandered on and up to the slow powerful flight of a bird on the wing. Nature has no surprises. Whatever comes into the scene takes its rightful place there. It is another touch to the picture. There are subtle links of connexion. It is there, because it has something to do. The bird was circling over the rough stretch, between me and the base of the hill. The circle seems characteristic of the eagles and the hawks. It was one of them. In the distance I knew it for a buzzard.

Lost against the slope, I could not follow its doings. Near by, where it vanished, was a riven pine. Doubtless it was foraging. It is now so rare that I, who am so much abroad, had not seen one for long. It may have lighted on some bare limb of the pine to watch. It has the flight of an eagle and the hunting habits of an owl.

I walked across that way. On a tumbled heap something was moving. The creature was too busy to notice me. If the buzzard, then it had got prey. If the rascal, then he was caught red-billed. The catch was very innocent; much the same as that of the weasel. No one would have cared to take it away. Need it be told over that no creature exists more fitted to keep in check the smaller rodents, so that they may not become a plague? A servant he, who works while man sleeps. Had the buzzard been killed while he was a-hunting, there would have been one pest the more. As it was, there was one the less.

After a climb I rested, where the moraine stones are piled up and half hidden in hill ferns. I looked down on the glen, to where the stream wound along its course; as from the glen I had looked up on the hills. The air was fresher. A light breeze played fitfully. The rose-bay willow herb lifted itself high from the stones, as its sister beside the water. Golden rod bravely bore its golden spike. All around spread the bracken.

In such a scene, so remote, one has only to be quiet, and the wild creatures will come out of their hiding, go through part of the daily round, tell some of the secrets of their life. In course of time, one gets into the habit of being quiet and waiting. It is the first simple equipment of a student of nature, who would no more think of talking, or being restless, than if he were in a church. If in an empty church, he would be quiet, so that the church mouse might play about his feet.

One may escape many things in the wilds, but not the world’s cry of pain and fear. The same drama was to repeat itself. Pursued and pursuer were a little larger, but that was the main difference. In a sense, a big vole was being tracked by a big weasel.

A rabbit came from under the fern leaves. Though fearful of an enemy behind, he was not going fast. A paralysis lay on limb and spirit alike. He too, who at another time would have run from me, passed close by and dragged himself out of sight. From beneath the same frond the stoat appeared. The same little by-play went on; the daring, questioning look.

Again I was in the way, alike of the stoat and of nature; for there is no distinguishing between them. Rabbits, too, eat grass, and are prolific breeders. Were there no check, they would soon need the country to themselves. Nor could all the stoats do more than keep them in their place. That man finds some use for rabbits has no significance. The original plan simply provided for the due control of one wild species by another, and the survival of that best able to look after itself. Nor does the blindness of man render the adjustments of nature less necessary, nor the turning of the gun against the stoat less barbarous.

The larger weasel alters his hue. That means that he is a more northerly species, or as far as our own country is concerned, that he dwells in ruder places and a little further up the slope. A white coat—against the rain-darkened soil of an open winter on the plain—would be a danger to the dwellers there, and an indictment against Nature. Very rarely, from causes that are obscure, the lesser weasel is found white. The albino is known in many other species whose habitual coat is of sober hue. It seems to point to some common source, it may be a very distant reversion. In the case of the weasel, it may arise from a cross. These are exceptional. The change that makes the summer stoat into the winter ermine may have one of two meanings.

The primal use is to make the wearer invisible, or hard to detect on a sheet of snow. This explains why the change occurs in winter, and fixes the haunt where snow habitually lies. Against so pure and uniform a background, a differently toned object must be easily seen, and would find no place of concealment. Much more readily would it be seen than on the snowless hillside, amid whose varied toning, hues might be found in accord with its own.

Were the hues to remain dark, the pursuer would be seen by the pursued at a longer distance away, and the chances of capture be much lessened. The struggle for a living would become harder, it may be beyond the line of hunger to starvation. When by a process of selection the coat becomes white, the balance is restored. Once more has the pursuer a fair chance of capture.

Where snow lies, pursuer and pursued became white; that is only fair. It is not so with the rabbit; which seems to show that the ermine has come beyond his natural limits and is an interloper, or that living forms are very much mixed in this land of ours.

The winter white may be meant to conceal from enemies and give a fair chance of escape. Easily seen, a dark object is easily captured. In its turn pursuer is in the place of pursued. There is something pathetic in this change of coat. It shows what care Nature has of her own, how catholic she is. With an infinite fair play she colours alike; both are her children. She is the mother of sportsmen; her training is robust. Not that the stoat has many enemies, no weasel has. It is powerful and dangerous out of all proportion to its size. No enemy save man, who will break in on the arrangement in his heedless way; or women and lords, who have a use for the fur.

Still further up the hill, and the drama is gone over for a third time. The actors are only larger, as the stoat was larger. The mountain hare, in a sense, is only a bigger rabbit. If not a weasel, the hill fox is still a carnivore, and therefore not very far away.

In this case the pursued puts on winter wear when the hills do, or ought to do; seeks safety in sympathy with the background. A semi-Arctic variety of the common hare, it differs in range, and therefore in its change of coat. It is at home in the snow. Unlike the rabbit on the lower slopes, it turns white. Unlike the stoat, the pursuer is of darker winter hue.

The red mountain fox leaves the white ermine below. The would-be stealthy approach is betrayed by a tell-tale purity. In so far it is handicapped in the game of lose or win, placed at a disadvantage in the struggle for existence. Our winters are not always Arctic. Where fox and hare dwell is not always white. Storm lashes across, and they are dark. When dark, the hare is left naked to its enemies. So the balance is kept shifting. Perhaps the fox is shrewd enough to have no quarrel with his red coat, and the hare might, on the whole, be safer without his white One.

On the rough pasture, down by the glen stream, the red weasel pursues the dark vole. When the snow comes, the pursuer changes not his coat. No weasel does. Not the marten nor the polecat; save one. The stoat is the upland and Arctic form. In summer of a weasel hue; in winter it puts on the lordly ermine, and so moves like a sinuous ghost among the sandy-coloured rabbits. The Lowland fox climbs up the mountain side and remains red. And finding the land good for food, stays in the selfsame belt with the variable hare, which changes to white in the winter, and lopes away over the snow. All this is very interesting when it becomes clear.

In much the same belt as the hare and the fox is the grouse. Neither a Lowland form which has crept up there, nor a hill form which takes on the winter white, it comes midway between. It is a sub-Arctic; it once turned white. It settled on the Scottish hills, and found it good not to turn white. How that came about we may learn elsewhere. So, season in, season out, it became the red grouse. In the selfsame belt, therefore, are the unchanging fox, the variable hare, and the grouse, which varied once, but has ceased to vary.

Above this belt — beyond the heather and where the Alpines thin out to their rarest—dwells, in somewhat solitary state, the ptarmigan. It is Scotland’s Arctic bird, passing in charming detail through the fascinating changes of protective shading. Of all our birds ptarmigan is the most strangely lovely, and of all sports ptarmigan shooting has the greatest spell—especially ptarmigan-shooting in winter.

It is our snow bird. Perhaps the only form where the change is vital and likely to be lasting. The variable hare may cease to vary; the stoat come to wear its weasel red all the year round. Where conditions are milder both are reluctant to lay aside their common wear. Ptarmigan will scarcely change. It dwells on the summits. It chooses the highest hills. Not far from the snow-line these summits wear a cap of white, when the grouse-belt is bare and the glen dark. And somewhere in that cap of snow the ptarmigan winters.

Thus a thin white line runs up the hill fauna, from base to summit. From the stoat, through the variable hare, to the ptarmigan. These three are children of the north, wear the livery of the snow. They represent our waning Arctic life. In two it is only a survival. No climate of ours at their altitude would ever have exacted a winter white. When they have followed in the wake of the grouse, the ptarmigan alone will be left.

On the summit is often a cairn or pile of loose stones. Not as the moraine, dropped by the old-time glacier, nor shed by the natural disintegration of the rocks. They are brought together and heaped up by the labour of man. Often they are meant as guides for those who are abroad on the hills.

Still as is the cairn-topped mountain summit, charming in its weathering to the lichen hues of the ptarmigan’s summer plumage, it is capable of bringing forth something larger than a mouse. It has often an interesting fauna of its own. Dramatic incidents happen, with or without witness, at some of which I have been present. The fox is found there, the badger beside him, in a strange but picturesque partnership. From the opening of the lair, a pair of eyes are fixed on a bird, which, to dull human sense, is but a part of that on which it rests.

From its poise the eagle looks down with a glance keen enough to separate bird from stone. Rivals they: the situation intense. The fox in the cairn, the eagle aloft, and the lichen-tinted bird against the lichen-tinted stone, with its silent appeal to nature. And what an arena! Cloud and sky: mountain beyond the shadows, dwarfed glen, and distant gleam of water.

Surely artists do not know where to go for stirring events or noble scenes. Nor naturalists for those psychological moments when wild life is greatest and most itself; they dabble about hedge sides with cameras and snap at sparrows. Nor sportsmen, to learn what pictures they blot out in their lowlier sphere of influence, by the vivid interest and silent grandeur of scenes and forms beyond their everyday reach.


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