Exploring the countryside alone can be a joy â€“ but going in the company of someone who knows the area intimately can be even more rewarding
Photography: All pictures by David Newland
Thatâ€™s what I found when I joined David Newland (pictured inset) on a wildlife safari in the Cairngorms. We spent a morning trundling in his Land Rover at little more than a brisk walking pace along winding, bumpy tracks through the sprawling Glenlivet estate, getting out frequently to examine plants or scan the horizon for animals and birds.
It was a chilly day in November, with sporadic fine rain. The colours were muted, the sky cloudy and, at first, signs of life were few. The experience was clearly going to be very different to the other kind of safari, featuring antelopes, giraffes, elephants, lions, baking sun and luxury lodges â€“ not that Iâ€™ve ever been on one of those.
But David was happy to point out things I would never have noticed, or thought about. I learned, for example, that many of the trees we were looking at were not native species. Larch was introduced in the late 1600s, Norway spruce, sitka spruce and lodgepole pine all more recently. He pointed out downy birch, distinguishable from its relative, the silver birch, by its darker bark and the fact that its branches do not hang down.
I had often wondered about dense clumps of shoots seen among the branches of trees, looking at first glance like birdsâ€™ nests. These, I discovered on my safari, are witchâ€™s broom and are caused by micro-organisms interfering with growth patterns.
David was strong on human stories, too. A nondescript track through the hills was once used to carry coffins and smuggle whisky. A whiteish building in the distance was the Scalan seminary, where Roman Catholic priests were trained in the 18th-century at a time when religious persecution was widespread. A lonely farmhouse was the home of Ghillie Basan, the successful cook and writer of several books including The Moonâ€™s Our Nearest Neighbour, which I remember enjoying more than a decade ago. A cairn showed the site of a fight between the men of Glenlivet and the men of Glen Nochty. Had I been alone Iâ€™d have been oblivious to all this.
But our conversation kept returning to nature. We looked at the attractive juniper scrub that once covered the area and was now reduced to isolated clumps. Beneath its branches were delicate wood sorrel plants, with their delicate, heart-shaped, edible leaves. We admired the brilliant red leaves of wild cherry trees, also known as gean.
David told me about some of the memorable wildlife sights he has seen on his safaris â€“ black grouse at the lek, the competitive mating display seen in spring; a sparrow hawk snatching a swallow on the wing; a golden eagle repeatedly dropping a hare from a height of 200 feet.
You are never going to see all that drama on a single trip, and I was feeling more than happy with sights such as a huge herd of red deer making their way down a hillside and a mixed flock of handsome mistle thrushes, fieldfare and other birds in a farmerâ€™s field.
Then there was a moment of real drama. We had been seeing red grouse in ones and twos all morning, as I expected. But then a small group flew over our shoulders travelling at great speed. We swivelled round to see what had alarmed them and were rewarded with a clear view of a golden eagle flying low in pursuit. I had previously only seen golden eagles as little more than dots soaring high above me, so to see one close enough to observe its outstretched feathers, colouring and sheer speed was an experience to remember.
Glenlivet Wildlife trips planned for 2014 include a Mountain Hare Safari, a Mad March Safari, a Black Grouse Watch and Red Deer Rut Safari. David Newland also offers self-catering holiday accommodation at his converted mill and steading at Easter Corrie, Tomnavoulin. Find out more on www.glenlivet-wildlife.co.uk or call 01807 590241.