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.

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

Hunter becomes hunted

May 2nd, 2015

INKA WAS guddling about in a dirty corner of an old walled garden we sometimes walk through. He was on the scent of something intoxicating and wasn’t for coming to heel.

It could have been worse, but he came back bearing a dead stoat. It had met a violent death. On its back were three deep puncture marks which I have no doubt were inflicted by a bird of prey.

Stoats’ reputation as ferocious killers is well-deserved. They will readily take on prey bigger than themselves, such as adult rabbits. It’s no myth that they mesmerise their prey with a dance of death, hypnotising them into submission until they are ready to apply the coup de grace – usually a fatal bite to the back of the neck.

It’s less well known that they are a prey species themselves of equally effective hunters such as foxes and buzzards and goshawks and, of course, man. The old walled garden is surrounded by woodlands where, over the years, I have watched stoats and weasels and plenty of buzzards too.

My guess is that this stoat was most likely targeted by a buzzard. The stoat fought back and in the fracas the buzzard dropped him, but he was badly wounded by the bird’s powerful talons and crawled into a corner to die. A case of the hunter hunted.

When predatory animals like stoats get too old to protect their territory they are chased off by younger, stronger ones. Eventually, too weak to hunt for themselves, they starve to death. Nature has no time for sentiment and the law of survival of the fittest prevails.

Camouflage metamorphosis
I shan’t repeat the corny old saying that weasels are weaselly recognised and stoats are stoatally different. Both species share the same fierce nature but the stoat is markedly bigger than the weasel. Their colouring is similar but what removes any doubts of identification is the black tip to the stoat’s tail which the weasel hasn’t got.

In winter, especially during periods of prolonged snow, the stoat’s fur changes to white except for that constant black tail tip. This camouflage metamorphosis is known as being in ermine. The tail tip is a defence mechanism – the tail is held high and waved in the air to distract pursuing predators from attacking its more vulnerable body. It didn’t help my stoat in the old walled garden.

There’s been correspondence in Craigie Column about soorocks and I thought I’d throw in my own tuppence-worth.

Sookie soorocks I remember they were called when I was a youngster and they were a free meal from the hedgerows for hungry country loons who couldn’t wait until they got home for their tea. My father gave me a couple of the leaves to eat and they had a pretty astringent taste. I decided that I preferred chocolate Digestives and I’ve never bothered with soorocks since.

Soorocks are common sorrel, a member of the docken family and includes sheep’s sorrel which looks similar but I don’t think is edible.

This is a good time to forage for young soorock leaves to put in spring salads. Lucy Arnotts, another of nature’s bounty, are pignuts or ground nuts and they ripen about the end of May and can be dug up for soup or to put in salads too. They are about the size of a hazelnut and have a spicy aftertaste which I do enjoy. I have never discovered a satisfactory explanation for the name.

Shady woodland places
Now it gets confusing, for at this time of year you’ll find shady woodland places carpeted with wood sorrel which is one of the oxalidaceae family. The attractive little flowers will carry on flowering for another month.

They are not to be confused with wood anemones which flower a month earlier and are beginning to die back now. The wind flower, country folk called them in the old days, because they turn their flowers away from the direction of the wind.

At a glance the two flowers might seem similar but they are from different families – wood anemones being the same family as buttercups. They have six petals and serrated leaves while wood sorrel has five petals and leaves resembling clover leaves, often folded back against each other.

Look out in the hedgerows for blackthorn blossom which is at its best right now. It’s soon followed by hawthorn blossom but it’s easy to identify the two trees. Blackthorn flowers before its leaves have opened but the hawthorn blossom and leaves appear together.

Officers of the Royal Dragoon Guards, a Yorkshire/Irish regiment, use blackthorn for their officer sticks which is called a blackthorn. As a historical aside, shillelaghs also are traditionally carved from blackthorn wood. And, of course, sloes, the small, black plum-like fruit of blackthorn are the essential ingredient of that most delicious of hedgerow cordials, sloe gin.

As an afterthought I should mention that the stoat’s black tipped tail is prized by fishermen. They use just the black hairs to tie into trout and seatrout flies regarded by fishers as deadly and called, naturally, stoat’s tail!

Written on Saturday, May 2nd, 2015 at 10:08 pm for Weekly.