Ptarmigan - masters of camouflage
Robin Rolfe contemplates a half century of ptarmigan shooting.
A knowing scribe once predicted that when the sun burns low and the ice creeps further across the earth the ptarmigan will be the last bird alive. How true. In the 50 or so years that I have spent in ptarmigan country I have come to respect this delightful little game bird more so than any other.
Not only do they survive, and indeed thrive, in the most hostile climate in the British Isles but they do so with virtually no assistance from man other than the occasional hill shepherd doing his round of fox dens in the spring. Their main predator is the golden eagle, along with the odd opportunist peregrine falcon. High country stoats can present quite a problem in some districts and no self-respecting fox would pass up a meal of eggs not to say a sitting bird. Nevertheless, their domain is suffering more and more human intrusion by quad, trail and mountain bikes. However this undesirable faction can be controlled, alas, such control would meet considerable opposition. I fear though it may be global warming that is going to affect Lagopus mutus in the years to come.
The ptarmigan, to a large degree, owes its survival to its quite remarkable camouflage, which in turn is dependent on the turn of the seasons and the ensuing 'traditional' weather. And 'in particular', the good snow covering of the higher ground in early November when they were getting their almost pure white plumage. Lack of snow makes them very vulnerable to attack from predators, especially the golden eagle as the little grouse will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. For a bird living in the extremes of weather it is odd to consider its dislike of strong winds. Look for a ptarmigan on a windy day and they will always be found in the lee of the hill or the ridge in a sheltering corrie.
Quite what bearing the spread of wind farms will have on ptarmigan is not yet apparent; I suspect they are built lower down than the birds' range. Nevertheless, if we did get heavy snow the birds could be forced down to the level of the windmills and then it might be a different story. Notwithstanding it must be said where windmills invade red grouse territory the birds are known to take up residence within the ?farmed' area and live quite successfully, free from the torment of avian predators at least.
Shooting pressure has no effect on ptarmigan numbers. Without doubt this is due mainly to the sheer inaccessibility of the bird to all but the most dedicated and fit of sportsmen. A brace or two for a Gun is a good day. Even to the super fit. I reckon that hunting Lagopus mutus could be regarded as the most dangerous fieldsport in Britain, for not only does one have the most sudden and dramatic change in weather to contend with, walking on wet and betimes unstable rock can cause unexpected falls and the resulting sprained or broken limbs. I record this with a degree of experience! Nevertheless the most dangerous time to be out is when a mist swirls down. When this happens shooting is immediately aborted and the hill descended, unless an improvement in the weather is thought likely by the guide. The inference is obvious when moving in jumbled rocks and crags. I would only hunt with a maximum of four Guns, yet even they can disappear into the murk so quickly that firing a shot into the grey blanket is courting disaster.
Thankfully the modern Gun is usually content with his brace or two, and does not try to emulate the Hon Geoffrey Hill who, to his own gun one day in Ross-shire killed 122 ptarmigan. Mind you this was in 1866 when the countryside was crawling with gamekeepers and any bird with a hooked bill was vermin.
Unlike its red cousin who follows the contours of the hill on being flushed, Lagopus mutus will take over the void flying out into space to return to the same hill behind the walking guns, quite often allowing another shot at the covey.
On occasion I have heard scorn directed at ptarmigan shooters as the quarry being half tame and an easy target. May I respectfully suggest these persons have yet to head for the high ground. In my experience I have seen more of the little white grouse missed than any other bird.
Most of the shooting is done after the stag season, for obvious reasons, so in reality the season is short - i.e. October 21 to December 10. This is purely arbitral of course. Nevertheless, by then both sexes are in their pristine winter plumage of almost pure white.
Ptarmigan will rarely descend to lower than 2,500ft, except in quite exceptional falls of snow - even then they would rather rely on their ability to make a snow hole and weather out the storm. Although one winter, quite a while ago, I did come across a covey well below the 1,000ft contour on Ben Wyvis.
Over the years, I've had my time on the high tops and I consider myself to be lucky to have been one of the select band to have tramped the rocky tops of Ross-shire and Inverness-shire, with many memories and a couple of scars, in pursuit of ptarmigan.