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.

Keeping warm in winter is a full time job

December 16th, 2017

Old boat St Cyrus beach 004THE WINTER morning sun colours the landscape an atmospheric buttery golden yellow. There’s less strength in the sun at this time and it sits low in the sky. Its trajectory from east to west never reaches summertime’s midday zenith.

Each morning, out with Inka, I look beyond the fields of barley stubble to the crotal brown brae faces of the Grampian foothills with blocks of timber plantation starkly delineated in the snow. Cock pheasants are clearing their throats and I hear them klok-klokking away to their neighbours.

For the woodland birds the daytime is one long meal to maintain body heat, especially through the night. The competition for food grows fiercer as the available stock of food becomes scarcer.

My secret ponds have been frozen for days and are deserted. The ground is iron hard and I hardly see or hear any geese passing over the house in their search for stubbles to graze on. Waders with probing beaks, like curlews and oyster catchers, have long departed for the coast where the mud flats and shore have not frozen and they can hunt for food. Even the ducks have gone.

It’s especially hard on small mammals like voles and shrews which don’t build up reserves of fat for the winter. Consequently they don’t hibernate and must eat almost their body weight each day to maintain body heat. They are an important food source for animals further up the food chain. If their numbers collapse because of food loss it has a knock-on effect on predators such as owls, buzzards, foxes, kestrels, stoats.

Deep freeze
Even the humble earthworm is affected. As soon as frost comes the worms burrow deeper and deeper as they cannot move through frozen soil – pursued by hungry moles which need to eat more than half their bodyweight of worms each day. That’s a lot of worms and the moles build larders in their tunnel systems to store them against such a wintry eventuality. They bite off their heads which immobilises them but doesn’t kill them and they stay fresh for several months.

More often than not the early mornings are cloud free and the sun breaks out of a corn-flower blue horizon. They are not mornings for hanging about admiring the view – Inka wants to get going and my hands and the tips of my nose and ears are soon nipping with the chill.

Monday, you may remember, was just such a morning and I bundled Inka into the car and drove over the hill to St Cyrus beach for a change of scene and mood. Despite what the weather forecasters say you can never be absolutely sure when you’ll get as good a morning again – so enjoy them when you can.

The wind had dropped away and there was warmth in the sun. The tide was out and we had the place to ourselves. The ceaseless metronome of the waves breaking on the shore kept me company, reminding me that however troubled the rest of the world may be the tides are an enduring constant.

There was little activity along the shoreline so I headed for the mouth of the River North Esk following the siren calls of curlew, and the geese which graze in numbers on neighbouring Waterside Farm. Broken sheets of ice which must have come down from the upper reaches littered the riverbank – it must be frosty up the glen.

Pigeon air-sea rescue
Pulled up above the high tide mark is an abandoned boat which seems to have been there for as long as I can remember. Its paint has mostly been stripped off by the ravages of the weather, its planks are splitting and it looks a sad memory of what was once a seaworthy craft.

I’ve been told it was used as a creel boat by a lobster fisherman. But what stuck in my memory was that he always went out alone to lift his creels. Not having a radio on board he took a homing pigeon with him so that he could send for help if his engine broke down – an echo of Winkie, the Broughty Ferry pigeon that saved a WW11 bomber crew who ditched into the North Sea returning from a bombing raid.

On February 23, 1942 a Beaufort bomber returning from a mission over Norway was attacked by enemy fighters and forced to ditch in the freezing waters. The crew were unable to transmit their position back to their squadron and faced a lonely, cold death. They managed to release messenger pigeon Winkie who flew 120 miles back to her home loft in Broughty Ferry.

Her owner, George Ross, immediately alerted RAF Leuchars, who were able to locate her release point and the crew were successfully recovered.

In the days before GPS and satellite locator beacons, homing pigeons were regularly carried on RAF bombers for just this sort of emergency.

Winkie was the first recipient of the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) Dickin Medal – the animals’ VC – for ‘delivering a message under exceptional difficulties’.

Written on Saturday, December 16th, 2017 at 10:50 am for Weekly.