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.

Ermine portent?

January 25th, 2014

TWO REGULAR readers were walking Bella, their Jack Russell, along the bank of the River North Esk when a stoat popped out of the stonework of an old mill lade. Nothing unusual about that, you’ll find stoats up and down any riverbank, and weasels too and rats.

They are inherently inquisitive animals and will investigate any unfamiliar sound or sight.

A girl of some spirit, Bella gave chase. Despite their short, sawn-off legs stoats can show a surprising turn of speed. This one had no difficulty keeping teasingly ahead of Bella, making a game of the chase. But as soon as it got bored it disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving a frustrated small dog.

A stoat’s summer coat is ginger-brown with an ivory-white pinafore on the undercarriage, but Bella’s stoat was pure white. It was in its winter coat – in ermine, as it is called. The summer coat moults out with the onset of winter providing the stoat with ideal camouflage in snowy conditions.

The exception is the black tip to its tail which remains black all year round and is thought to be a predator distraction.

The question to me was does a stoat’s coat automatically change to white in winter? If it doesn’t, did Bella’s stoat know something we don’t? Had it an instinctive premonition of impending heavy snow?

I’ve always understood that the change is a seasonal metamorphosis which is triggered by a drop in temperature. If the temperature doesn’t fall low enough the change may not take place.

But nature doesn’t always stick by the rules. Round here we had a number of frosty nights in December on the low ground, but the winter so far has been characterised by wind and rain. Snow has only fallen on the high ground of the Grampian mountains.

So, stoats seem to have a propensity to change the colour of their coats in winter, but it doesn’t necessarily foretell a white Christmas.

As a historical aside, the black-tipped tails of stoats in ermine have traditionally been used to trim the ceremonial robes of their Lordships of the House of Lords. Abolition of the House of Lords has been threatened for years so stoats in ermine may be living on borrowed time for only a short time longer.

Two ancient lime trees sit at what I imagine may have been the march of the original Burn Estate, outside Edzell, with Fasque Estate. If General Lord Adam Gordon, who built The Burn House in 1796, planted them they will be over 200 years old.

They sit, isolated, in the corner of a field, the last remnants of a great plantation, for Lord Adam was a leading agricultural improver who planted acres and acres of trees.

Strange, perhaps, that he planted what were regarded as ornamental trees in such a remote spot. But lime wood is lightly grained and easily worked and was used for household items such as bowls, ladles and spurtles. So perhaps they were planted for purely utilitarian domestic purposes.

One has been heavily coppiced and I’ve counted seventeen trunks growing out of the main bole. The other lies prostrate, its roots ripped from the soil, recent victim of a winter gale howling out of the north.

It’s sad when an old soldier is laid low. I measured the height of its mosscovered trunk against my chest. Without a tape measure I reckon its girth is about twelve feet. If it was mine I’d cut it up and make it into commemorative tables or armchairs for each of the family.

Last week I bemoaned the loss of my stick. On Tuesday I got back from walking the dogs to find two blackthorn sticks, newly cut, standing against the front door.

I was sorry to miss my well-wisher. We had been neighbours for many years when we lived at Logie Pert. He had cut the sticks from a bush on his farm.

Blackthorn is a dense, hard wood – ideally the sticks will need to dry out for about a year and then I might try my hand at fixing an old sheep’s horn handle that I’ve kept onto one of them.

But wasn’t it just the nicest thought.

Written on Saturday, January 25th, 2014 at 10:20 am for Weekly.