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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XX

The Sandhills of Morayshire: Description of; Origin of — Foxes: Destructiveness and Cunning of; Anecdote of — Roe-hunting in the Sandhills — Anecdotes.

Between the fertile plains of Moray and the shores of the Moray Firth there lies one of the most peculiarly barren and strange districts of country in Scotland, consisting of a stretch of sandhills, in most parts formed of pure and very fine yellowish sand, without a blade of vegetation of any description, and constantly shifting and changing their shape and appearance on the recurrence of continued dry winds. Looking from the hills more inland, this range of sand, in the evening sun, has the appearance of a golden boundary line to the beautiful picture of the firth. With the magnificent rocks of Cromarty, and the snow-capped mountains of Ross-shire and Sutherland in the distance, I know no more striking picture than the coup d'oeil of this landscape with the smiling plains and groves of Morayshire as a foreground.

In other parts of these sandhills are tracts covered with a dry and rough kind of bent; the long roots of which, stretching along the surface of the sand, and throwing out innumerable fibres and holders, serve in some measure to prevent the drifting of the sand. It is a matter of surprise how this bent can find enough sustenance and moisture in the sand, which is always moving and always dry. At the extremity, opposite Findhorn, is a peninsula, with a solitary farm-house, and a tolerably-sized arable farm, with tracts of broom and furze around it. The furze-bushes are all eaten by the rabbits into peculiar shapes, as the old yew and box trees in a Dutch garden are cut into figures to humour the quaint fancies of their heavy-sterned proprietors. The rabbits ought, by the by, to be well clothed, as they nibble the furze into regular cushions and ottomans, on which they sit and look out in the fine summer evenings, without fear or dread of the sharpness of the thorns, which in this arid district appear to me sharper and more penetrating than anywhere else.

Westwards, towards Nairn, the sandhills are interrupted by an extent of broken hillocks, covered with the deepest heather that I ever met with, which conceals innumerable pits and holes, many of the latter not above a foot in diameter, three or four feet deep, and so completely concealed by the growth of moss and heather as to form the most perfect traps for the unwary passerby. I never could find out what these holes were originally made for, as they evidently are not the work of nature. A large part of the ground is here well wooded; the trees do not, however, appear likely ever to come to a large size, well as they flourish when young. This district of wood and heath is here and there intersected by nearly impassable swamps, the abode of mallards and teal, and occasionally of geese. In the wooded parts are plenty of roe, who feed about the swamps, and in the warm weather lie like hares on the hillocks, covered with long heath, and under the stunted fir-trees in the midst of the wet places. Throughout the whole tract of this wild ground there are great numbers of foxes, who live undisturbed, and grow to a very great size, feeding during the season on young roe, wild ducks, and black game, and when these fail, they make great havoc amongst the game, poultry, and rabbits in the adjoining country. I have frequently started and shot a fox here out of the rough heather, when I have been looking for wild ducks, or passing through the place on my way to the sea-shore. Farther westward, the sandhills are bounded by a large extent of marsh and water, terminating at last in an extensive lake, dreary and cold-looking, the resort of wild fowl of every kind, from the swan to the teal, but said to contain no fish excepting eels.

I never yet could get a good account of the origin of these sandhills; I say origin, because they are evidently of a more recent formation than any of the surrounding land. In several places, where the sand is blown off, you see the remains of cultivated ground, the land below the sand being laid out in regular furrows and ridges, made by the plough; and, from the regularity and evenness, one would suppose that agriculture must have been well advanced when these lands were in cultivation. Did the covering that now conceals these fields consist wholly of sand, one would agree with the popular story of their having been overwhelmed with it by the wind; but in some parts the ground is covered to a good depth by shingle and water-worn stones of a size to preclude the possibility of their having been brought there by the action of the wind. In certain places, too, there are curious regularly formed pyramids of shingle, about sixteen feet high, and of the same diameter at the base. These, and long banks of shingle, having exactly the appearance of the sea-beach, make me suppose that the destruction of what was once a fertile country was brought about by some sudden and, unaccountable inroad of the sea. Indeed, the appearance of the whole of this barren district would lead one to the same conclusion. At any rate, amongst the numerous traditions regarding the origin of the sandhills, I never heard one that quite satisfied, my mind. Whatever it once was, it is now a mere barren waste, or, as a friend of mine named it, a kind of Arabia Infelix, inhabited only by wild animals; and it seems a wonder that even these have not long ago been starved out of it. Whatever the rabbits and hares feed on, they are larger there than in the more cultivated and fertile parts of the country; and the foxes are like wolves in size and strength. Owing to the solitude and quietness of the place, I have seen the foxes at all hours of the day prowling about, or basking in the sun, or sometimes coolly seated on the top of a sandhill watching my movements. I have occasionally fallen in with their earth or breeding-place. The quantity of remains of different animals which they have brought to these places to feed their young proves the fox to be a most universal depredator. Turkeys which have been caught at several miles' distance, tame geese from the farms, and wild geese from the sea-shore ; fowls, ducks, pheasants, and game of every kind, including old roe that have been wounded, and young roe too weak to resist their attacks, all appear to form part of this wily robber's larder. He also takes home to his young any fish that he finds on the shore, or that he can catch in the shallow pools of the streams during the night-time. No animal is cunning enough to escape the fox; wild duck or wood-pigeon (the most wary of all birds) fall to his share. Patient and cunning, the fox finds out the pool where the mallard and his mate resort to in the evenings, and lying in wait to the leeward of the place, in some tuft of rushes, catches the bird before it can take wing. One night, seven of my domesticated wild ducks were taken from the poultry-yard, close to the house. After some search, we found some of the birds concealed in different places in the adjoining fields, where the fox had buried them, not having time to carry them all to his earth that night. He fell a victim to his greediness, however, being caught in a trap a few nights afterwards.

A fox, after he has lost one of his feet in a trap, is still able to get his own living, and to keep himself in as good plight as if he had his whole complement of legs effective. One, which had left a foot in a trap, and escaped on the other three, lived for two years afterwards about the same ground. We knew his track in the sand by impression of his stump. This winter, while shooting in the sandhills, we saw a fox sneak quietly into a small thicket of trees. I immediately placed the two sportsmen who were with me at different points of the thicket, and then took my retriever on the track. The dog, who from his former battles with fox and otter, is very eager in his enmity against all animals of the kind, almost immediately started the fox, and, after a short chase, turned him out within shot of a very sure gun. The consequence was the instant death of Mr. Reynard. On examining, he turned out to be the very fox whose foot had been nailed up two years before. He was an immense old dog-fox, in perfect condition, although he had only three legs to hunt on. The fox is a constant attendant on the rabbit-trapper, robbing him of most of the rabbits that are caught in his traps or snares. He sometimes, however, pays dearly, by getting caught in the wires; and although he generally breaks the snare and escapes, does not do so without most severe punishment. I shot a fox this season who had the remains of a rabbit-wire round his hind leg, which was cut to the bone by his struggles to escape.

When living in Ross-shire, I went one morning in July before daybreak to endeavour to shoot a stag, who had been complained of very much by an adjoining farmer as having done great damage to his crops. Just after it was daylight I saw a large fox come very quietly along the edge of the plantation in which I was concealed; he looked with great care over the turf-wall into the field, and seemed to long very much to get hold of some hares that were feeding in it—but apparently knew that he had no chance of catching one by dint of running; after considering a short time he seemed to have formed his plans, and having examined the different gaps in the wall by which the hares might be supposed to go in and out, he fixed upon the one that seemed the most frequented and laid himself down close to it in an attitude like a cat watching a mouse-hole. Cunning as he was, he was too intent on his own hunting to be aware that I was within twenty yards of him with a loaded rifle, and able to watch every movement he made; I was much amazed to see the fellow so completely outwitted, and kept my rifle ready to shoot him if he found me out and attempted to escape. In the meantime I watched all his plans : he first with great silence and care scraped a small hollow in the ground, throwing up the sand as a kind of screen between his hiding-place and the hares' meuse; every now and then, however, he stopped to listen, and sometimes to take a most cautious peep into the field; when he had done this, he laid himself down in a convenient posture for springing upon his prey, and remained perfectly motionless, with the exception of an occasional reconnoitre of the feeding hares. When the sun began to rise, they came one by one from the field to the cover of the plantation ; three had already come in without passing by his ambush, one of them came within twenty yards of him, but he made no movement beyond crouching still more flatly to the ground—presently two came directly dowards him ; though he did not venture to look up, I saw by an involuntary motion of his ears that those quick organs had already warned him of their approach; the two hares came through the gap together, and the fox springing with the quickness of lightning, caught one and killed her immediately; he then lifted up his booty and was carrying it off like a retriever, when my rifle-ball stopped his course by passing through his backbone, and I went up and despatched him. After seeing this I never wondered again as to how a fox could make prey of animals much quicker than himself, and apparently quite as cunning.

One day this winter, we attempted to beat the thickets and rough ground in the sandhill district for foxes. Having appointed a place of meeting, I went with a friend and four couple of beagles well entered to fox and roe, to meet the owner of part of the ground and an adjoining proprietor. We were only four guns. Having placed the other three in passes along the edge of the swamps, through which the roe and foxes would have to make their way on going from one wood to the other, I went into the thickets with the keepers and hounds. We had hardly entered when up got a fine buck, and the beagles were immediately laid on, and away they went; I ran to a small height, from which I had a good view of the country—away went the buck at a rattling pace, and the gallant little pack hard on his track, making the woods echo with their enlivening cry. The buck first took a line into the roughest part of the ground, expecting no doubt to throw off the dogs at once, as he probably had often done with sheep-dogs or curs that had chased him; but finding that his persevering little enemies were not to be so outwitted, after standing still for a short time to deliberate, he turned back and went straight for the swamp where the guns were, but seeing the hat of one of the gentlemen posted there, and not liking to cross the water directly in his face, he turned along the edge of it, half inclined to go back. But just at this instant the little pack came full cry out of the wood—their deep notes sounding in full chorus as they came upon the open ground; they were rather at a loss for a moment or two, and I ran up to put them on the scent. The buck, who had been watching us as he went quietly along, was decided as to his course by seeing this, and the moment the dogs' cry gave notice that they had found the scent again, he dashed into the water at a place where there was no pass—it was not above a hundred yards in width, and excepting two or three yards in the middle where he had to swim, not deeper than a few inches. The beagles came full cry on his track, and just viewed him as he was cantering up a steep ascent on the other side of the water; they at once dashed in, and, encouraged by a view holloa, swam through the water and took up the scent immediately—away they went, till we lost all sound of them; presently we heard their notes borne down on the wind from a great distance—the sound came nearer and nearer and soon the buck appeared on the top of the brae, near the water's edge, directly above two of the guns, who had got together tired of waiting, and were discussing the price of railway-sleepers, etc. The deer stood watching them for some minutes, till the hounds came within fifty yards of him in the thicket behind him; the gentlemen, hearing the dogs, ran to their respective posts, and the roe came down the brae, passed between them unobserved, and crossed the water again; the dogs full cry and all together immediately behind them. Hark away ! Hark away ! was the cry, and away they did go, in a straight line towards the sea-shore. The buck (whom I constantly saw) appeared quite bewildered, and was evidently getting distressed; after a twenty minutes' burst along the shore and the open part of the cover, he turned back and passed me within a hundred yards at a slow canter ; the hounds had got well warmed to their work, and never lost the scent for a moment. The buck, after a great many turns and windings, was fairly driven to the swamp again, which he crossed this time quite slowly, stopping in the water every now and then, as if to cool himself; but the dogs did not leave him much time, and were soon at the edge of the water. The buck crouched down in the middle of a small heath-covered island in the water, which was here of a considerable width : the hounds, however, went right across the water, and began trying for the scent along the opposite edge. I had seen the roe stop where he was, and ran down to call the hounds back, but before I could do so, one of the pack, a very excellent young bitch, whom I had got from the New Forest in Hampshire, gave a cast and got the wind of the roe, giving a quiet cheep, sufficient, however, to warn the rest of the pack, who all joined her : she trotted through the water straight up to the island, and very soon the whole of them in full cry were at the roe's heels, and driving him directly in the face of one of the guns, who finished the hunt with a cartridge, killing him not twenty yards ahead of the dogs. When the roe was opened afterwards, the whole cartridge, wire and all, was found embedded in his heart, a proof of the great efficacy of this kind of charge, and the superiority of its strength over that of loose shot.

After resting the dogs and talking over the chase, I left my friends at their passes again, and went back to draw the cover for another roe. The dogs were very soon in full cry again, and as luck would have it, out of four roe that had started they had got on the track of a fine buck; this roe was run for some time in as good style as the last, and after he had narrowly escaped being shot two or three times, I shot him dead about fifty yards before the hounds. During the run I saw two foxes start; one of them waded quietly through the swamp towards my English friend, who however, did not shoot at him, because he was afraid, he said, of losing a chance at the roe; but I rather suspect, that having been bred a fox-hunter in his own country, he had a kind of holy horror against killing a fox in any but the orthodox manner which he had been accustomed to.

After having opened one of the bucks and rewarded the beagles with the entrails, liver, etc., we repaired to a cottage at hand, where our host for the day had provided a capital luncheon.

Frequently when passing these swamps and rugged ground, I have seen roe start up from the rough heather, or feeding knee deep in the water, on the rank weeds and herbage. The best part of this ground for wild-fowl is gradually getting drained, and what was (a few years since) a dreary waste of marsh and swamp has now become a range of smiling corn-land. I shall not easily forget my old keeper's explanation on his first seeing one of his favourite spots for stalking wild-fowl turned into an oat-field. We had walked far, with little success, but he had depended on our finding the ducks in a particular spot, not being aware that it had been drained since his last visit to it. Having taken a long and sonorous pinch of snuff, according to his usual custom when in any dilemma, he turned to me, muttering, " Well, well, the whole country is spoilt with their improvements, as they ca' them. It will no be fit for a Christian man to live in much longer." He thought that oats and wheat were a bad exchange for his favourite ducks and geese.

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