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.

Heaven’s hounds music to my ears

December 15th, 2018

Dogs – as I’m sure other dog owners will confirm – have a canny habit of finding the most revolting things in smelly corners and either rolling in them and carrying the fragrance back to share with the family, or eating them and throwing the proceeds up on the drawing room carpet.

Walking with Inka down the bank of the River North Esk at Capo I saw him taking a less than decent interest in a carcase lying in stubbles.  I was quick off the mark this time and called him off it.  It was a very dead salmon kelt which had been heavily scavenged by the otter which probably killed it, but it may just as likely have been mink, crows or buzzards, even herons.

Adult salmon are referred to as cock and hen fish and it was clear from the heavily hooked lower jaw known as a kype, which occurs prior to spawning and develops as a sign of dominance amongst competing male fish, that this was a cock fish.

I called Tony Andrews, former Director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, for some information on the life cycle of salmon.  There’s a high mortality rate amongst cock fish that have spawned, most of them dying from exhaustion from the effort of reproduction, or from disease.  Over 80% of hen fish suffer a similar fate.

Add to that mortality at sea and it seems likely that the percentage of fish that get back to their home river to spawn a second time is less than 1%.  Despite this sombre outlook, scientific research suggests that in most of Scotland’s salmon rivers there are sufficient numbers of spawners to ensure the regeneration of stock.

Kelts, or spent fish which have spawned – usually between October and January – are washed downstream, easy prey for predators.  Their one mission in life is to spawn – an adult salmon will produce around 5000 eggs – and once they have achieved this just a handful will drop back through the river system to the sea to recover and return another season.

Heavenly choirs

Once in a while – and it’s usually a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time – nature and wildlife hand me a real treat.  Dusk was falling as Inka and I walked through the woods to the lochan at the foot of Glenesk.

I got my back comfortably against a straw bale and stood for a few minutes listening to the mallard chuckling amongst themselves on the water.  Pheasants had settled into their roosts in the trees and were ‘klok, klokking’ away, passing on the news that strangers were in the wood.

Soon I heard the “celestial, chiming voices” of the “hounds of heaven” carried on the still air, and I waited expectantly to see the geese.

It’s hardly possible not to be moved by the almost unearthly music of a large pack of wild geese on the wing.  A skein of some three hundred flew in on stiff, gliding wings as if preparing to land on the lochan.  They are the wariest of birds and, for whatever reason, after a couple of circuits of the pond they flew off eastwards towards the coast.

From what happened afterwards, I wonder if they were a scouting party for the main group.  Still their calls kept coming and, hopeful that more were on their way, I moved with Inka into the cover of a scrubby tree which broke up my outline.

It was now quite dark and I hadn’t long to wait before a huge pack of geese appeared from the north.  They flew straight in with a tremendous symphony of calls, some landing on the water, others on the stubbles surrounding it.  The poor light made it difficult to count but from past experience I am confident that there were at least 2000 birds.

Minutes later another large pack arrived, twisting and banking and whiffling the air from under their wings and touching down with noisy splashes.

The pond sits in a horseshoe of trees which amplified the sound of their chatter as more packs of geese flew in.  Finally another huge pack, numbering perhaps a thousand birds, loomed out of the dusk to drop in for a wash and brush up and get the day’s news about where the best feeding was to be found.

From my viewpoint I was almost on top of them and the clamour of their calls was deafening.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I saw four thousand birds that evening.  I can go to Montrose Basin and probably see that number any day but the experience was intensified in the confined space of the woodland pond.

Once darkness had fallen and the geese were settling Inka and I crept away without disturbing them.  It was the third time I’d been in the right place at the right time and moments such as these represent, for me, the very essence of the meaning of wild freedom.

Written on Saturday, December 15th, 2018 at 9:23 pm for Weekly.