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.

A retreat for contemplation

May 23rd, 2015

DSC02630TWO DIGNIFIED cast iron hounds guarding the front door and Isaac, the real-life whippet, welcome visitors to Hospitalfield House, on the outskirts of Arbroath. Hospitalfield was established in 1900 by the legacy of Patrick and Elizabeth Allan-Fraser as Scotland’s first art school and it continues today as a centre dedicated to contemporary art.

The gardens were an important element of Patrick and Elizabeth’s vision of a retreat for thought and the exchange of ideas. They are still a secluded and contemplative place to walk and I visited them earlier in the week with my own two hounds to enjoy the show of bluebells which are looking their best. The pink apple blossom is coming to an end but there are tulips and pheasant eye narcissi and patches of wild primroses scattered through the grass.

Under the guidance of garden designer Moira Coleman and gardener Kevin Whyte , assisted by the Hospitalfield Garden Club (always looking for new volunteers), the gardens have been rescued and are being restored. It is testament to the success of their efforts that Hospitalfield Gardens are open every Saturday between 2pm and 5pm until 19th September as part of Scotland’s Garden Scheme.

Coffee and cake is part of the experience and resident chef Rod Linton’s famous carrot cake is apparently to die for!

Watching parent birds hoovering up worms and other wriggly things to feed their chicks got me thinking which of their senses they relied upon. Birds’ hearing and eyesight are generally pretty acute but I wondered what part smell played in their search for food.

Birds have nostrils but they have only a limited sense of smell and they depend principally on sight and, in species like owls, on sound to find their prey. When the bird itself becomes the prey, sharp vision is essential to spot and evade predators. Various species have evolved to match their way of life.

Furtive whisper of worms
Owls, with forward-facing eyes can turn their heads almost full circle to maximise their field of vision. Watch garden song birds such as robins and thrushes and blackbirds hunting over lawns and cocking their heads as if listening for the furtive whisper of worms. Their forward field of vision is restricted by the position of their eyes in their heads and they have to tilt their heads to keep their eye on their victim.

Woodcock, with large eyes set high and quite far back on their heads, have highly developed all-round vision and can look forward while probing with their long beaks for food and keeping a lookout for predators.

Compare this with mammals whose survival is equally dependent on sight and sound to catch prey and evade predators, but have the additional advantage of a keen sense of smell. In the march of evolution could birds have lost their dependence on smell because they can rely on flight to escape danger while mammals are landbound? I don’t have an answer to that.

But I do know that to watch wildlife successfully depends on how much a bird or animal can see or hear and will allow us to invade its comfort zone.

Business as usual
The small hedgerow birds will generally allow us humans into their space more readily than, say, pheasants or partridge. Jays and magpies are wary birds but their cousins, the rooks, a hundred feet up in the beech tops, will carry on business as usual, secure from us humans below.

Rabbits and hares, in my experience, probably rely more on sight and sound to warn them of danger. Foxes and badgers, which have poor eyesight being nocturnal animals, rely heavily on their sense of smell.

Getting close to red deer on the open hill can be a challenge for they have a heightened sense of self preservation. They have excellent vision and hearing and their sense of smell is outstanding. Let them get so much as a whiff of the scent of a human and they’ll be out of sight before they stop.

Out with a fishing rod on a Highland burn I walked round a high rock and saw a roe deer ahead of me cropping on the grass. It was facing away from me and the noise of a wee waterfall masked any sound. I was downwind and it couldn’t smell me.

I crept up and gave it a whack on its rear end with the tip of the rod. It was comical to watch it careering off up the stream wondering what on earth had come out of nowhere to give it such a fright.

Rats are normally pretty canny but one never knew what happened to it when I had Inka out for the morning walk. Inka dived into a bank of purslane and came out with the rat in his mouth. He must have broken its back with a single snap for it was dead when he dropped it.

Inka was interpreting his world by smell and could isolate the rat’s scent from all the others on the wind. I was interpreting mine by sight which was why I couldn’t locate the rat hiding in the undergrowth.

Written on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015 at 9:03 pm for Weekly.