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.

Signs of spring

February 8th, 2014

AT LUNCH last Sunday I sat beside a girl from Streatham, in London. I thought I must be losing my fatal attraction when I found she was staring out of the window, paying no attention whatever to me. “What’s that?” she asked.

I was on safer ground, thankfully. It was one of our hostess’s guinea fowl.

She has a flock of eight of the comical-looking birds with their small heads and dumpy bodies. They originate from Africa but adapted long ago to our Scottish climate and are easily domesticated.

Like geese, they can be excellent watchdogs, for not much escapes their attention. They get tremendously excited and vocal when disturbed by strangers and their strident call is a very effective back yard alarm system.

My first introduction to them was around the late 1950s when they were put down as game birds for shooting in the Kinnell Woods, between Montrose and Forfar.

I remember being told how territorial they are and that they won’t fly beyond defined territorial limits. Unlike pheasants, for instance, they will stop at the end of their beat and fly back to where they came from. It must have been a fairly short-lived experiment because I’ve not heard of them being bred locally as game birds since.

The ones we saw on Sunday are ornamental and stick within the garden. They used to roost overnight in an outhouse but now they roost in the bare branches of a sycamore tree – so they‘ve definitely acclimatised well.

A fortnight ago I wrote about stoats in ermine, when the stoats’ fur turns pure white in response to winter conditions. I was asked why ermine fur, as opposed to any other, should be used to trim peers’ ceremonial robes worn at the State Opening of Parliament and coronations.

The answer seems to be that the flawless white of the stoat’s fur represents purity which is a presumption of nobility. Not that everyone has always thought so. Gilbert and Sullivan mocked the House of Lords in their operetta Iolanthe – “We are peers of highest station, / Paragons of legislation, / Pillars of the British Nation, / Tarantara …..”

Anyhow, it looks as though stoats are having an easier time of it. In response to concerns about animal welfare and conservation, their Lordships robes are now being trimmed with rabbit fur. And it’s going further – there are moves to introduce synthetic, or faux, fur trimmings.

The signs of spring are accelerating. The mornings are lengthening, the bugling of the grey geese getting fainter as the early birds begin the long migration north to their breeding sites.

Eventually a mistle thrush took up station on the topmost branch of a Wellingtonia the dogs and I pass most mornings and greeted us with his loud ringing song. But soon these earliest of nesters will be too preoccupied with nest building to bother about us.

Snowdrops and the yellow aconites are bringing welcome touches of colour into the gardens. The catkins have been on the hazel bushes since the turn of the year.

I started to commiserate with a farmer about the effects of the constant rain we’ve endured. His reply was that if it had been snow instead, nobody and nothing in the countryside would have moved for weeks – remember the winter of 2010-11. “Perpetual autumn has its advantages” was his comment. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

As a youngster out with my father we sometimes passed what was called a gamekeeper’s larder. Anything that was regarded as vermin, and a threat to game birds, was shot and hung on a fence as proof to his employer that the gamekeeper was carrying out his duties of predator control.

Stoats were certainly amongst the victims, along with weasels and rats. Red squirrels, jays, moles, a fox’s brush could all be seen.

But keepers’ larders have long been a thing of the past – I don’t suppose I’ve seen one for over fifty years. Professional keepering today is concerned with best practice habitat and game management for the benefit of wildlife and the countryside generally, reflecting modern farming practice and government legislation.

Which doesn’t mean that there’s no longer predator control but it’s no longer the blunt instrument it was historically.

Written on Saturday, February 8th, 2014 at 12:28 pm for Weekly.