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
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
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
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