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The Moor and the Loch
Ptarmigan Shooting


IT is worth while to make an excursion to the rocky haunts of the ptarmigan, if only for the splendid views they command, and the strange novelty of the scene. Ben-Lomond, Ben-Vein, Ben-Voirla, and indeed all that lofty range in the west, are inhabited by these solitary denizens of the mountain-top. Except for this additional motive, however, not many sportsmen would be tempted to ascend them for the chance of the few shots they would be likely to obtain. Some of the mountains of Ross-shire and Inverness-shire are far easier of access, and the birds much more numerous: as many as ten or twelve brace may there be bagged in a day. Not having had the good fortune to shoot upon them, I can only speak from my experience in the West Highlands. The sportsman who climbs any of the mountains I have named, and falls in with the ptarmigan, cannot fail to observe how well it harmonizes with the scene. Perched upon a ledge of the shelving rock, which it nearly resembles in colour, its wild look seems in contrast with the little dread it shows at the sight of man, who so seldom disturbs its craggy abode. They are even so stupid, that if stones are thrown over the pack, they will sometimes crouch down, in dread of their more common enemy, the hawk; and, bewildered at the sound of the gun, suffer themselves to be massacred one by one. This experiment, however, more often fails, when they all take wing together at the first stone; and, far from being so slow as many suppose, they are quite as rapid in the air, or even more so, than grouse : they will also sometimes take as long flights, although their more common way is to fly round the angle of a rock or precipice, and immediately drop down.

I cannot better describe ptarmigan-shooting than by giving an account of the first day I ever enjoyed this sport, of which I have a most perfect recollection, and also of my last expedition, in company with an English friend, a short time ago.

When fresh from school, the first year I took out a licence I went on a grouse-shooting excursion soon after the 12th of August. Having slept at the nearest farmhouse to the ground, I started at daybreak for the base of " the mighty" Ben-Voirla, where, I had been told, grouse were plentiful that year. My guide was the game-preserver, a reclaimed poacher, who had as quick an eye for a hare sitting, or a ptarmigan among the rocks as ever peered from under a shaggy brow. After about three miles' very rough walking, we reached our destination. With eager hope I uncoupled my dogs, who soon came to a dead point; off went both barrels - it certainly was missing in good style!-not even a feather dropped to hang a peg upon for the exercise of my companion's ingenuity. All the excuse that his wit or wisdom could frame was - "You've made them leave that, at ony rate !" After two or three equally successful points, I began to wish myself well out of it; and, looking up to the stupendous mountain, asked if there was any chance of finding ptarmigan should we climb it. Having small hopes of my performance on wing, and knowing, from experience, that a sitting shot might thus be obtained, he caught at the plan, and we commenced our steep and toilsome ascent. An hour and a half brought us to the first shoulder of the hill, when all of a sudden he stopped, eagerness in every feature, and, pointing in the direction of a large rock, said - "If it was na that I thocht it too low, I would tak my oath that thing on the tap o' the rock is a ptarmigan." I now walked first, and, ducking down into a ravine, came out about sixty yards from our object. Immediately it took wing, and my gun was at the same moment discharged, with, I must confess, scarcely an attempt at aim. To my inexpressible delight, the bird dropped. Heedless of spoiling my dogs, I rushed up, and seized my prize. After carefully wrapping its broken wing in tow, to prevent the blood from soiling the feathers and giving it in charge to my sharp-sighted friend, l proceeded for a fresh search.

My utmost hope now was to make out the brace, but we toiled to the top of the mountain without seeing another bird. I had sufficient opportunity to admire the care and skill with which my guide scrutinized every likely spot ; passing over the hanging cliffs by which we were surrounded with a very superficial glance, he directed his chief attention to the cairns, or heaps of rock and stone scattered jaggedly about. All at once I felt his vice-like grasp upon my shoulder, the other hand pointing to one of these cairns, not twenty yards off. I strained my eyes to the utmost, but could see nothing, save the dull gray rock. His impatience grew extreme, and vented itself in loud whispers-" Shoot him sitting!" At last I caught sight of the bird, its head and tail carried low, and colour so like the jutting rock, that it might well have been taken for one of the points -none but a practised eye could possibly have discovered it. With eagerness and trepidation my gun was raised -off went the shot-up went the ptarmigan with a hoarse croak-a fine cock ! My second barrel followed the example of the first. The bird flew rapidly round the precipice, and with it my last lingering hope! I saw the difficulty of finding them, and despaired of hitting even when found. So we retraced our steps with my solitary bird, which happily served to stop minute inquiries about the day's sport.

Many years elapsed before I again visited Ben-Voirla, but in that time I had taken a leaf out of my instructor's book, and could also trust myself not to throw a chance away when the birds were discovered. I was now accompanied by a friend from the South, a very good shot, and particularly anxious to see and bring down a ptarmigan.

When we got to the foot of Ben-Voirla, we found that there were two packs on what is called the second top, and were thus saved the trouble of scaling the highest. So, taking two young farmers as guides, we reached the ground after a stiff climb. On ranging one side of the mountain, just as we were turning round to the other, the dogs ran into a small pack, which jerked round an angle, and were out of sight in a moment. I knew their flight would probably be a short one, so began to look about with the utmost caution : my friend, quite a novice in this sport, had no idea of finding the game himself, and continued to hunt the dogs with great assiduity. We happened to be pretty near together when they again "poked up" a ptarmigan. Neither of us thought of each other, or the ordinary rules of shooting, but fired at once, and down came the bird. This was rather unsatisfactory, as the "honour and glory" belonged to neither; however, we determined it should not happen again. I described what places the birds were most likely to haunt, and cautioned against trusting to the dogs, which were quite unaccustomed to such ground ; but finding my companion preferred his own plan, I left him, and commenced my slow and wary search. At last I caught sight of a ptarmigan upon the very ridge of the hill, about thirty yards above me. It was in the same crouching attitude before described, and, had I attempted to put it up, would have dipped out of sight in an instant. I was therefore obliged to shoot it sitting; but the moment I fired, another flew straight over my head, his hoarse croak proclaiming the cock of the pack! I had a fair shot, and down he dropped. The first I killed being a hen, they made a capital pair for my collection.

I was now very anxious my brother-sportsman should have a good chance; so, joining company, we scrutinized the ground on every side without success; only one bird was put up out of all distance, which my friend determined to follow. So, agreeing to meet at the foot of the hill, we took different ranges. Fortune again declared in my favour; for, just as I was scrambling with hand and knee up a steep precipice, a pack of four rose upon the very top, and flew into mid air, just giving me time to steady myself, cock my gun, and get a distant shot, when one of them dropped into the gulf below. I sent my guide to fetch it, which he accomplished with some difficulty; and then despatched him in quest of my less successful companion, with the injunction that, if he joined in pursuit of my game, the odds would be three to one in his favour.

I had scarcely got to the peak, where I thought it most probable my three fugitives would again take refuge, when I was overtaken by one of those bitter hail-showers which often fall on the mountains in early autumn; so, placing my gun in its waterproof cover, and my back, Fitz-James-like, against a rock, I impatiently hoped for the cessation of the storm. Scarcely had it begun to abate, when an alpine hare came curtsying past about eighty yards from my shelter, and then seated herself with equal grace, as tempting a mark for a rifle as could possibly be placed. It was not to De resisted even with my small shot. So, slowly uncasing my gun, and taking deadly aim, I fired. Puss gave an active bound at this unlooked-for attack, and took her leave with far less ceremony than she made her entree.

I had just reloaded, when my guide appeared with a breathless malediction on my gun. He had seen my friend going down the mountain, but quite beyond recall, and, when returning to me, had stumbled on the ptarmigan, most conspicuously perched on the top of a rock. He was in the act of taking his marks to know the place again, in the hope of finding me, when my shot abruptly put an end to his schemes. The birds were equally dissatisfied with the sound as their four-footed ally of the crags, and made the same use of their wings that she did of her legs. It was now late, but as the man had some idea of where they might be, I could not resist the temptation of giving them one more trial. We had almost given up hope, when they a third time rose, very wild, fully a hundred yards off, from a knoll of moss where they were at feed. My time was now "up," so I descended the mountain well pleased with my day's sport, notwithstanding the mishap at the end.

The ptarmigan, I believe, has never been tamed. It subsists on the rock-plants, mosses, and berries, upon which it is curious to see a pack feeding like grouse on young heather. The plumage begins to change colour in October, when the bird gains a double set of feathers for winter. In spring all these drop off, and it again assumes the colour of the rocks.

The woodcut represents a ptarmigan in its common attitude, cowering under shelter of a stone ; the other is perched upon the top of a rock, an equally characteristic situation.


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