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Winter has failed to turn up

The three roe deer Jim saw when he was out and about on the Insh Marshes in the Cairngorms.
The three roe deer Jim saw when he was out and about on the Insh Marshes in the Cairngorms.

The Insh Marshes, a little after dawn. Freezing fog, the back road in the lee of the northern corries of the Cairngorms tending towards skittishness.

Five greylag geese in a roadside field stand at the edge of the visible world, edge towards the invisible world at the sight of the car, ghost birds at 50 yards.

The drive is mercifully short this morning. At the RSPB car park, add over-jacket to two layers of fleece and scarf; sling pack with notebook, pens, banana, chocolate; binoculars; lock the car; put on gloves.

I expect to be very cold very soon.

It’s a short walk along a marked trail, then divert steeply downhill through a tumbling birchwood bank to a wooden hide down at the level of the marshes. Here the frost is frostier, the air is passably Arctic.

Inside the hide, open one of the window flaps; shiver in the face of what eddies into the already cold room. Sit. Look out on the marshes. OK, look out on where the marshes should be.

An hour later, the visibility has increased to 100 yards. Roughly. In these conditions, measuring distance is an imprecise art. I can see three mallards. I was hoping for something more…wintry; something more marshy – whooper swans, lapwings, otters, goldeneye, hen harriers…

Beavers would be good. They’re not here yet but someday soon.

I am writing a book about winter.

Winter in the Cairngorms has been good to me for 40 years. I tumble memories of old ones while I wait for sunlight to turn up.

I arrived last night at sunset, aghast at the almost total absence of snow on the snowiest of all Scotland’s mountains.

I renewed old acquaintance with the marshes in all their spreadeagled, chaotic glory. I love this place. I retreated to a hotel in the last of the light.

So I’m writing a book about winter and such is the way of these things sometimes, I have chosen the winter when winter has failed to show up. Whatever happens now, the book I am writing will not be the book I thought I was going to write.

Behind my back, above the hide, above the wooded bank, the sun has begun punching holes in the fog.

Down in this blue-grey shadowland there is still ice on the nearest pool but a mountaintop has begun to appear beyond the far side of the marshes. It too is snowless.

The reedbeds off to my right come alive with sunlight. A roe deer is standing there, perhaps 200 yards away. In the glasses, I can see it is staring intently left, ears forward. I follow the line and there is a second one.

Another pool loses its scarf of fog. There are seven mallards there and suddenly they are sunbathing. I can hear the geese up in the field. A lapwing sighs, remains out of sight.

This slow yard-by-yard revelation of the Insh Marshes is like the beginning of life, an opening chrysalis or a chipping egg.

It takes two hours before I realise that a small patch of head-high scrubby birch right in front of the hide has been concealing another roe deer. When it peers round the edge of the birch it is about 50 yards away and sunlit.

Then I realise there is a second roe deer in there. Then I realise there is a third. I start to write them down. Two are dark grey-ish brown, the thick winter coat. The third is a different shade, slightly more olive. Altogether now, “Olive, the other roe deer…”

They are feeding but on what? The marsh grass is paler than straw. The birches are leafless. I watch hard, close enough to see every detail.

There is a lot of digging with forefeet, followed by tugging and wrenching with muddy muzzles. Roots – roots are what they are feeding on.

A squall of mallard noise, a throb of sudden wingbeats; I glanced at the pool and where they had been moments before is the head of a swimming otter.

Was it stalking them underwater, like a pike, trying to grab a duck from below? It dives again, the tail a final glistening sunlit flourish, vanishes. Ten seconds of otter from start to finish.

The sun has banished the fog. Only the birchwood bank behind me and the shadow it casts on the edge of the marshes still wear their shroud of frost.

Enough. It’s been almost four hours. Climbing back up the bank, the predominant sound is of dripping water – melting frost.

At the top, I step back into the overworld and find it sun-drenched and absurdly warm. The five geese are where I left them. But they have tucked their feet beneath them and opted for a spot of sunbathing.

I am writing a book about winter that is slowly but surely evolving into a book about climate change.

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