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 hard winter? Who knows

November 7th, 2015

IMG_0077TUESDAY DAWNED foggy. Meteorologists describe fog as mist with visibility of less than 1000metres, whereas mist is still mist but with visibility greater than 1000metres. It was definitely foggy on Tuesday – not an out-and-out pea-souper, but pretty thick.

Out with Inka first thing, a greylag goose’s ghostly questing call trumpeted through the gloom. I couldn’t tell whether it was a single bird separated from its group or a small pack trying to make contact with birds on the ground. Either way the bird or birds were disorientated and confused.

Grey geese are birds of habit as we can see by their autumn migrations south from Greenland and Iceland to overwinter in the UK, and back north in the spring to breed, flying along generations-old traditional flight lines. Once settled into their winter quarters here they tend to follow established flight lines in and out of their roosts, frequenting the same fields to graze, using visual landmarks to assist navigation within their favoured locality.

As likely as not the calling bird I heard on Tuesday morning was trying to make contact with geese on the ground, because they are social birds and like to feed in the company of others.

Goose sentries
This preference to feed together is an instinctive response – a safety in numbers response – to dangers posed by natural predators. Take time to watch a feeding flock of geese in a grass field or on barley stubbles. There’s always a proportion of alert birds – sentry birds, you might say – especially round the fringes of the flock, ready to raise the alarm, while the birds in the centre safely feed.

Readers have asked if the arrival of increased numbers of geese this autumn is a sign of a hard winter to come. You have to be careful answering this. Yes, numbers are up significantly. Montrose Basin’s count of pink footed geese this year was in excess of 85,000 – a record. At West Water Reservoir, in the Borders, the count was nearly 83,000. Numbers at Lancashire sites exceeded 93,000 and the same picture is repeated at other well known goose destinations.

I am told that 2015 has been a particularly good breeding season for the grey geese, which seems to be borne out by the numbers which have arrived this year. The additional birds put pressure on the finite food resources at the breeding grounds and hunger drove more birds south earlier than usual. I don’t think the inevitable conclusion is that we’re in for a bad winter. I’ve looked at several long range weather websites and the predictions are mixed.

Musical dog
Animals, like us humans, sometimes reveal unexpected aspects of their character. I tuned into BBC Alba which plays Scottish music during the daytime and, as it happened, bagpipe music was being broadcast. It was a pibroch – one I didn’t know but a very pretty tune. Pibroch is, of course, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the pipe of war

Inka was lying flat out, apparently asleep. I was quite startled when he suddenly lifted his voice in a pleasing canine plainsong accompaniment, picking up the parts of the music that moved him most deeply, although I noticed that the grace notes proved too difficult for him.

I regularly listen to Pipeline, an hour of pipe music broadcast on a Saturday evening, and pibroch hasn’t affected Inka in this way before. Clearly something in the particular piece of music touched a chord deep within his unfathomable inner self which he was powerless to deny and which he had to respond to.

There is a traditional belief that an abundance of autumn fruits and berries is a prediction of a hard winter and is nature’s way of providing for the birds and wildlife when food becomes scarce.

Autumn feast
It’s been a good year for brambles and I could easily have picked double the 8lbs I brought home to the Doyenne for jelly. I wrote recently about jays feeding on the heavy crop of hawthorn haws.

The picture shows a cotoneaster tree in a Kirriemuir garden hanging with berries. What a feast for thrushes, blackbirds, fieldfares and other garden birds. But the profusion of all these fruits is dependent on the weather patterns earlier in the year and not on future conditions

So I repeat my earlier comment that it’s too early to say that we are in for a severe winter. Incidentally, I thought cotoneasters were a shrub – I’d no idea they could grow to tree size.

There’s more to the story about the fog and the geese on Tuesday.

Around 8pm we heard geese calling over the house and went into the garden to listen. The fog had started to clear as dusk fell but visibility was still poor. Geese were calling from every direction, all quite close at hand. I wondered if they were attracted by the village lights but were too wary to land on the neighbouring fields.

Right through the evening they must have circled the village for when I took Inka out at a quarter to midnight they were still calling to each other.

Written on Saturday, November 7th, 2015 at 6:54 pm for Weekly.