Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Horse sense

November 17th, 2007

STAIGER IS a Scots word and an occupation that I didn't think I had come across before. I was speaking to Colin Craigie of Brechin, retired estate joiner with The Dalhousie Estates, whose brother Norman still carries on this most traditional of Scottish occupations in Canada at the age of 76.

A staiger breaks in horses, mostly Clydesdales in Norman's case hailing as he does from Angus, for work on the land. A horse whisperer, I suggested, thinking of the book and the film. But no, his brother grew up in the true north east of Scotland tradition of the Horseman's Grip and Word, which was the freemasonry of ploughmen recounted in cornkisters and bothy ballads.

Norman left school aged fifteen at the time of the decline in the use of heavy horses on our farms following the end of the Second World War. Many who worked on the land before the war didn't have a job to return to afterwards, and some never had the choice to return home anyhow. Tractors and other new-fangled mechanisation did the farm work faster and consequently cheaper, and economics has a compelling momentum. It all persuaded Norman he must look overseas for the work he knew best.

I'm fascinated by the thought of an Angus loon, so far from home, still employing the skills that he learned here in Angus all those years ago.

I couldn't immediately identify the rather leisurely flight of the bird that flew out of woods near Kirriemuir, but as soon as I saw the old ivory colouring and the heart shaped face I recognised the barn owl. They're not common residents of the north east although recently I heard a screech when I was out last thing with the dogs that I thought might have been one. I logged onto www.rspb.org.uk and listened to a recording of their cry and I believe now that it was.  

Barn owls are mostly nocturnal feeders but occasionally they hunt by day, and there's plenty of cover in the woods and margins of the fields where I saw it to provide a ready supply of their regular diet of mice and shrews and voles. Which means there must be healthy populations of these small mammals too, to attract the owls in the first place.

Out walking the dogs in the woods near home I've seen lots of the spikey fruit cases of sweet chestnuts littering the ground beneath the trees. Pigeons and jays soon hoovered up the nuts which is why so many of the cases are empty. The horse chestnuts, or conkers, disappeared pretty quickly too. Roe deer eat them, but I've found a number nibbled and discarded half-eaten by squirrels. The pigeons and squirrels also eat the acorns, which just shows that there's nothing that nature produces that doesn't benefit some creature or other.

  

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