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Upland keeper

Over the years most gamekeepers will see the odd bird or animal which is out of its home range, as it were ? and, true to form, we had another one on the hill the other day.

The wind was gusting to around 60mph and, in keeping with the season, we were trying to drive grouse in it. All in all it was about as foul a day as you could wish for, with the moorland grass hanging on for dear life as it was swept flat across the exposed ridges. I was wandering around at the
end of the drive, feeling rather lost as I had no dogs with me. They were all at home as there was a bug doing the rounds in the kennels, and it?s bad enough having it in your own dogs without running the risk of spreading it to the rest of the team?s animals. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a flash of white out behind the butts ? and there, twisting and turning in the rather leaden sky, was a seabird, the likes of which I had never set eyes on: brilliant white breast and long sickle-shaped wings, quite dark in colour.

Later I asked the others if they had seen it; surprisingly, only one of the loaders, Stuart, had. We discussed size, shape and colour, as he had seen it much closer up than I had, but we could come to no conclusion as to what it was.

A rare sighting

When we came to the day?s end (all 170 brace of it) I called a taxidermist friend who is good at recognising such things. A couple of suggestions later and I was on the Internet looking at some rather good images of my mystery bird ? an Arctic skua. Common enough for some of you, but here in the central Pennines they are like hen?s teeth. I have since found out that sightings, though rare, have occurred on a number of occasions inland between the two large estuaries, the Tees and the Solway, as birds track their way across country switching coasts.

My skua, though, was nothing compared with my black stork, which ? many years ago now ? flapped slowly out of a burn as we came down the moor one evening having been mending butts all day. It was no more than 10 yards from the Land Rover as it made its way downstream, only to be mobbed by numerous lapwings, oystercatchers and curlews.

It did an about-turn and headed back past us. I still have a perfectly passable transparency of the black stork, which I snapped with my little Pentax.

Even though I had only seen one on the television, there was no mistaking this black version of the one on the Stork margarine packaging, with its bright orange legs and beak. It was quite a sight, viewed as close as it was.

Craig, the beatkeeper who was with me, was sworn to silence as I had a feeling that knowledge of its whereabouts would have attracted a few hundred keen birders. A few weeks later, and with no further sign of the stork, I mentioned it to a member of the Durham Bird Club. The sighting is now recorded for posterity. I think it was only the third ever seen here; but interestingly they only believed me when they saw the image of the bird flying over a bracken bed with a stone wall underneath it. Apparently, there are those who have reported fictitious sightings simply to get their name in the record book. My guess is that the vast majority of gamekeepers would not even want their name there in the first place, regardless of what they had seen.

Unforgettable moments

There will be moments in most country dwellers? lives that they will never forget: the first otter glimpsed, or the first kingfisher. Whatever the memory, it will live with them.

Staying with the bird theme, in the late 1970s, high on the moor one crisp December day, I was aware of the sound of wings beating above me. Looking up I saw hundreds of grouse, a good 100 yards up, heading from west to east across the Pennine Hills. The mass stretched back for a long, long way, and to this day I have no idea just how many birds were there. I watched them until they disappeared from view, by which time they would be almost clear of any moorland; but, given the height they were at, I often wondered if they ever stopped before they reached the east coast, or if they turned down towards the North York Moors?

I shall never know, but I had the satisfaction of one of the beatkeepers, Charlie Alderson, confirming that I had not been imagining things, as he had seen them come from west to east some 10 miles from where I had seen them. It brought to mind the mass movements of grouse in the Western Isles in the late 1800s that I had read about. Huge packs of birds moved from island to island until they were exhausted and drowned in the sea, where they were sometimes netted by fishermen.