A golden eagle sat in the cage. In half an hour it had killed, plucked and devoured the crows, leaving only feathers and seven pairs of feet
Saturday 30 September 1995
Back on the spot 40 minutes later, he again looked at the crow trap and was surprised to see no movement. His first thought was that some officious hiker had opened the door and released the captives; but when he went closer he discerned a single golden eagle, sitting half-stupefied on the ground.
Somehow the huge bird, with its eight-foot wingspan, had slid down the narrow funnel in the roof of the cage. In little over half an hour it had killed, plucked and devoured all the crows, leaving nothing but a mass of feathers and seven pairs of feet. By the time Alan let it out, it was, as he put it, "stuffed to the beak", and could scarcely take off, but away it lumbered, leaving him amazed at the eating power of one large raptor.
Such are the stories one hears during a deer-stalking holiday; and although the prime object of the enterprise is to cull stags, the peripheral observation of nature is always one of the chief delights. Once you have laboured up to the high ridges and corries which the deer frequent, you are in a different world.
This year we were haunted by ravens - although whether they were a sign of good luck or bad, nobody could agree. To the Romans it would have mattered greatly if they had appeared flying from left (sinister) to right (dexter), a bad omen: with us, they were often circling high overhead, and their abrupt, guttural cries seemed to be urging us to hurry up and produce a gralloch - the intestines of a deer - for them to feast on. As I ground up steep faces, I sought to ease my passage by mentally reciting lines from Edgar Allen Poe and frequently returned to the hypnotic refrain: "Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'."
Otters also entertained us. One stalking party, looking down from the heights above Loch Shiel, spotted some creature crossing the half-mile- wide sheet of water and sending out a wide, V-shaped wake. Excitable observers might have leapt to the conclusion that this was Shiela, the local monster; but in fact our people, watching through binoculars and telescopes, could see that it was an otter, which in due course came ashore and, after an exploratory lollop along a forestry track, swam back the way it had come.
Another evening as we drove home along a river-bank, we noticed movement in a grassy ditch beside the track on our right. Inadvertently we had cut off two teenaged otter cubs from the water: charming creatures, furry and almost black, the size of magnum ferrets, they scampered up and down, chippering furiously, until they got their bearings and made a dash for home.
By no means all the wildlife was so attractive. The grass and heather were alive with ticks, and bath-time every evening revealed several embedded like nasty little black scabs in legs or body. Opinions varied about how best to dislodge them. "Salt," said some people. "Disinfectant or insect repellent," said others - but all agreed that if you pull off the body, leaving the jaws embedded in your skin, the place is liable to fester.
Less injurious, but almost more irritating, were the insects known as keds, which land on face or hands and sidle crab-like into the nearest recess they can find, mercifully without biting. Davy, another stalker, recalled how one evening in the pub a ked crawled out of his hair and advanced across his forehead - whereupon all the other customers fled in disorder, supposing this wild man of the woods to be alive with vermin.
On a loftier plane, every day we saw golden eagles, and none more majestic than the one that launched off from a crag below us. Out it went over the glen, gliding arrow-straight like a Stealth fighter, with never the slightest movement of its wings. For at least two minutes we watched it through binoculars: in that time it must have flown a mile out over the abyss - and still its wings were motionless. In its power and menace, its range and grace, it seemed the very spirit of that high and rock-bound wilderness.
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