Wild Life on the Hills.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London

Wild Life on the Hills

  TO the rambler upon these hills few things are so attractive, next to the hills themselves, as the glimpses which he gains into the ways of the non-human people that have their homes there. It thrills us to remember that the mountains, desolate though we call them, have for centuries on centuries had their own populous dramas of life and death, and that their rocky tenements were inhabited, in some cases down to comparatively modern times, by the bear, the wolf, the boar, the wild cat, the eagle, and other hardy outlaws that now exist but in a name or a tradition; but while we must lament the loss of such peaceful animals as the beaver, spoken of by Giraldus Cambrensis as still resident on one Welsh stream in the twelfth century,1 and the stag, now surviving only in a corner of the Lake District, we need not affect to regret the disappearance of the more savage beasts of prey, for banditti, whether human or non-human, must be subdued.

  And it is one of the compensating advantages of the destruction of the greater “game” that the mountains are no longer a hunting-place. You may walk where you will round Snowdon or round Scawfell without the fear of being turned back, as so often happens in the Scotch highlands, by the nuisance of game-preserving; nor will your own feelings be harassed by the spectacle of a troop of deer-stalkers, or other blood-sportsmen intent on “killing something.” There is, of course, fishing in plenty, but that, as far as I have watched it in these upland places, is an exercise rather of faith and imagination than of the red right hand; at any rate one seldom sees the fisherman catch anything, and the “fool with a gun” is now as rare a sight as the rare birds whom his forerunners have “dropped”—to use that telling expression of the gamekeepers. Fox-hunting on foot goes on to some extent in the winter months; but the need of killing these mischievous pilferers is here a reality, and not, as in fashionable hunting-counties, a sham, and we may rightly wish to see the fox exterminated as the wolf has been—a far humaner and more rational course than that of “preserving” him to be tortured by huntsmen. The otter-worry, that very mean form of cruelty, is carried on in the lower valleys of a few mountain districts, where the pools are large and deep, but climbers on the hills are in little danger of meeting with the motley rabble who partake in it.

  Here, then, is another goodly feature of mountaineering, that, as one of its accomplished masters, Mr. Owen Glynne Jones, observed, it “does not claim the sacrifice of beasts and fishes.” The craft of climbing is a fine physical training which, as a school of manliness and self-reliance, immeasurably transcends the wretched amateur butchery that masquerades as “sport.” “The mountaineer,” says Reclus, “experiences, like the huntsman, the delight of conquest after toil, yet he enjoys the pleasure all the more, in that he has risked none but his own life; he has kept his hands unstained.”

  In the absence of the larger kinds of wild animals that have gone down under the stress of what we call civilization, it is to the mountain birds that we first tum with interest. We think at once of the golden eagle, in regions where the names of so many cliffs recall his former sovereignty; and those who have seen the great bird, as I have, flying in freedom among the mountains of Skye, and, as happened on one occasion I recall, mobbed by dwarfish-looking ravens, as a kestrel is mobbed by sparrows, on the shores of Loch Coruisk, until he sailed off on wide wings across the corrie, cannot but feel· some passing regret that he is no longer known in his traditional haunts on Snowdon, or on his famous crag in Borrowdale. But when we read in old books of travel, such as West’s Guide to the Lakes in Cumberland (1781), that “the devastation made on the fold in the breeding-season, by one eyrie, was computed at a lamb a day,” we understand why the doom of the eagle was even then unavoidable, and why it became “a common species of traffic,” as another author described it, “ to supply the curious with young eagles, in the taking of which the inhabitants were very expert.”2

  I was told by a sheep-farmer in Scotland, who had trapped or shot over a score of these feathered freebooters, that for an eagle to carry off a plump lamb from the pastures there is need of a freshening breeze to lift the mighty wings; he had seen cases when, in dull listless weather, the bird was unable to rise with its quarry, and on the approach of the shepherd was obliged to abandon it and flap reluctantly away.

  A lady who had been pained to see an advertisement of “a golden eagle for sale,” once asked me whether, in the event of her ransoming the captive, it would be possible to set him at liberty on some mountain height, and for a time I was rather dazzled by the idea of releasing the imperial bird from the top of Snowdon or Scawfell, or, if the companionship of other eagles was desired, from some far northern peak; but on my consulting a well-known ornithologist he assured me that the eagle, cramped by long imprisonment, would probably be unable to fly, and that if he did fly he would almost certainly fall a victim to some local “sportsman,” or be pecked to death by his wild congeners, if there were any in the neighbourhood; so in the face of these discouraging predictions the project was given up.

  Eagles, then, we have none in our Welsh and English mountains, and the kite having now been reduced to so poor a remnant as to be numbered with the lost British birds, we tum perforce to the buzzard and the peregrine as the two most noteworthy representatives of the family of the Falcons. The fiery-hearted peregrine, or “falcon-hawk,” as the dalesmen call him, still breeds on certain rocky ramparts, whence he can overlook the valleys and dart forth unerringly on any passing prey. An eye-witness once described to me how a falcon, having struck down one of two pigeons in a field at the head of Langdale, and being scared from his victim by some harvesters who saw the chase, rose instantly and was off at lightning speed after the other pigeon over the ridge of Bowfell! We look in vain to the buzzard for such indomitable energies; yet it is a grand sight to watch him sailing aloft in leisurely circles, or hanging poised, as he sometimes does, off the edge of some broken escarpment, so near that you can see his barred feathers and quickly glancing eye. On a misty day, in rounding a sharp headland, I have sometimes come suddenly upon a perched buzzard at only a few yards’ distance, and have seen him flutter up in a panic, to lose himself in the clouds; in the nesting-season the bird will occasionally “shadow” an intruding climber almost as the curlew does, and follow him at close distance along the ridge of the mountain until he has conducted him off his estate. I have frequently seen buzzards and ravens sparring at each other in the sky, in that desultory and ineffective manner of warfare which many birds seem to adopt.

  The raven, who, in default of the eagle, divides with the buzzard the empire of the crags, is, perhaps, the most interesting bird that now claims our attention; and robber though he is, we are always glad to hear his deep “kronk,” or his wild dog-like bark, before the black form is seen skirting the edge of the precipice or winging straight across the glen. It is somewhat strange that in spite of the persecution of shepherds, the cupidity of collectors, and the inroads of rock-climbers, so large a bird can still find undisturbed breeding-places, and maintain his numbers as well as he does among our British hills; but I think the case of the raven, as far as these districts are concerned, is hardly so desperate as ornithologists give us to understand, as, for example, when Mr. W. H. Hudson tells us in his British Birds that the raven “now exists in its last strongholds, the rugged iron-bound sea-coast on the northern coasts of Scotland and the neighbouring islands.” To walk for several hours among the Carnarvonshire or the Cumberland mountains without evidence of ravens, is in my experience rather unusual, and at times one may see them there in great strength; a few years ago, for example, I watched nine birds one August afternoon soaring and skimming with playful antics along the edge of Grasmoor, and so intent on their game that they allowed me to come within quite close range; on another occasion I saw more than a score of them rise together from the side of Skiddaw, doubtless from a carrion feast.

  It is astonishing how near this wary outlaw will approach to dwelling-houses in the early summer mornings before mankind is on the stir. It so happened that from the cottage at Capel Curig where I used to stay, I could see a section of the hillside above as I lay in bed, and on two successive mornings I was puzzled by what seemed to be a concourse of large fowls hopping and squabbling, a few hundred yards from my window, round some object on the bank. On further investigation I found this object to be the carcase of a sheep, and the combatants to be hungry ravens “on the grab.”

  But there are other and more cheery singers in the mountain choir. In the early summer, when the bird-life of these upland valleys is at its prime, two voices above all others are resonant along the Welsh hillsides, those of the cuckoo and the curlew, who fill the clear air with their clear melody the whole of the long June day, and not a little of the night. There are, perhaps, few sounds in wild nature more fascinating than the curlew’s call, starting, as it does, with its strange single note, and gradually rising and breaking into what seems like rings and bubbles of exquisitely liquid song, which fall here and there on the grey moorland while the singer is often unseen. As for the cuckoo, that improbus anser of the hills, there are seasons when he seems to be ubiquitous; you pass him shouting in the valley as you start out; you meet him again and again about the middle region of heathery boulders and grass slopes; and when you emerge on the sky-line and think you have left him far below, his voice comes after you, as jubilant as ever, and pursues you to the very cairn on the top.

  Familiar friends, also, are the ring-ousel, or, as some call him, the rock-ousel, or crag-starling, and the wheatear; the one as fussy and loquacious as his lowland cousin, the blackbird (thanks to his outcry, I have sometimes found his nest on a ledge of steep heather-covered rock, as under the northern front of Tryfan); the other flitting silent and watchful, with quick jerky movements, from stone to stone, or along the grey wall on the mountain. Of the river birds there is none who has so strong a hold on the affections of the mountaineer as the water-ousel, that delightful little sprite of the tumbling becks and eddies, from which his very being seems inseparable. No writer with whom I am acquainted has paid a juster tribute to the many charms of the water-ousel than the author of The Mountains of California, whose chapter on the American variety of the bird (Cinclus Mexicanus) recalls many of the traits of our English “dipper” as we have known him, none too plentifully, beside his native streams and pools.

  The beasts of the mountain, as viewed by the passing observer, are, with one exception, less interesting, because less wild, than the birds; for the fox and the “mart” are seldom seen by the climber, who, in his eagerness to reach his goal, has no time to devote, as the naturalist would do, to a patient watching of their haunts. The exception is the wild goat, which, strange to say, is not known as a British species at all by the majority of naturalists, though it has much more right to that distinction than the “wild” Chillingham cattle; for it is a fact that on some of the Welsh mountains, as on some Scottish islands, there are still herds of goats which, if not indigenous (that claim, it seems, is disproved by their mixed colours and the shape of their horns), are yet living in a state of absolute freedom and wildness, full of courage and resource, and able to hold their own under hardships of climate which no domestic animal could endure, and there is little doubt that these herds, though descended from escaped animals, and reinforced from time to time by “strays” that have taken to the hills, are of very great antiquity. They used to be common, a century or less ago, in a number of craggy spots, such as the Pass of Aberglaslyn, from which they have now been driven; but a remnant may still be seen on the Rhinog Fawr, and a few other lonely ranges, by those who approach them with due care.3 It was lately stated in a London paper that “wild goat stalking among the Hebrides can fairly stand comparison with ibex shooting”; and I can remember, some thirty-five years ago, hearing some talk at Pen-y-Gwryd about an expedition to Snowdon to shoot goats. There are as few goats as eagles on Snowdon now; but I can testify that the sport is an excellent one when the field-glass is substituted for the rifle, for in this way I have quite lately stalked some fine goats on the Rhinog and elsewhere, and have rejoiced to see them go bounding across the cliffs in style that would do credit to the Swiss chamois or the white goat of the Rockies. I am told that there is a similar herd on the Yewdale Fells, near Coniston; but the only wild goat that I have seen in the Lake District was a solitary one whom I surprised, in a steep and secluded hollow, on the rocky side of Glaramara.

  These wild Welsh goats must not be confused with the half-domesticated herds which it was the custom until about fifty years ago to keep on the hills as sheep are now kept. We are told by Cliffe in his Book of North Wales (1851) that “but few of the national animal, the goat, are now kept, in consequence of the injury which they have done to the young plantations”; and the same writer gives a vivid account of a goat-hunt-apparently of the wild animal-which he witnessed on the Rhinog.

  While ascending we heard much shouting, and barking of dogs, intermingled with piercing shrieks. Then we passed a gigantic snow-white billy-goat, with his legs tied, struggling at intervals convulsively, and uttering very shrill cries. Presently we came in sight of several men in a narrower part of the Pass, striving to capture another white billy-goat of greater size and even longer horns. The animal had taken refuge, after a long chase, on a very narrow ledge in a precipice, and apparently bid defiance to his pursuers. At last he bounded suddenly from a great height, and ran rapidly over broken rocks and heath for about six hundred yards, with the pack of dogs close at his heels, who ultimately brought him up, but were kept at bay by his horns.

  From the mountain goats we pass naturally to the mountain sheep, who, though nominally domesticated, are so little subject to human interference and live so great a portion of their lives at large upon the hills, that as compared with our dull southern breeds they may almost be regarded as wild animals.

  Very familiar to every one who has spent much time on the mountains is the sharp “sneeze” of the sheep as he gives warning to his fellows that a stranger is approaching. Writing of the Welsh sheep, half a century ago, Cliffe tells us that they differed entirely in their habits from those of an enclosed country.

  “Roaming wherever inclination leads them. confined by few or no fences, they are obliged for mutual defence against foxes, ravens, and other birds of prey, to form parties of ten or twelve, of which number, if one perceives anything advancing towards the little flock, he turns and faces the object, when, if its appearance be hostile, he warns his companions by a shrill whistling noise, and the whole scamper off to the more inaccessible wilds.”

  Since this was written, the extent of many pasture-lands has been lessened; but there are still places where the sheep have a whole mountain, or several mountains, to roam over, and live in a state of considerable freedom and liveliness. An old man who used to spend the summer months at the top of a high pass in the Lake District, where he sold refreshments to tourists, and slept in a little hut built right into the steep hillside, told me that his only discomfort arose from the noisy gambols of the sheep, who kept him awake by disporting themselves on his grassy roof after nightfall. Thus, like the lady in Locksley Hall, he must lie and ponder—

In the dead unhappy night, and when the ram is on the roof.

Imagine any one suffering in this manner from the frolics of our south-country muttons!

  The mountain lambs, especially, have a rare sprightliness and beauty, and there is scarcely a more lovely picture to be seen among the hills than one of these superb little creatures poised intrepid on a high rock or wall as the traveller passes below, and looking down on him with an innocent and wistful curiosity. Such a sight makes it pitiful to remember to what base uses man has turned the sheep, and how degraded is the domestic breed, as we commonly see it, from the glorious wild animals described in the Mountains of California. “The domestic sheep,” says Muir, “is expressionless, like a dull bundle of something only half alive, while the wild is as elegant and graceful as a deer, every movement manifesting admirable strength and character. The tame is timid; the wild is bold. The tame is always more or less ruffled and dirty; while the wild is as smooth and clean as flowers of his mountain pastures.”

  The sheep of the Welsh hills and the Cumbrian fells is a sort of connecting-link between Muir’s ovis montana and the silly creature of our meadows; but it must be admitted that he sadly lacks the marvellous climbing powers of his wilder relative, for when he ventures on the tempting ledges of turf that intersect the sheer precipices he sometimes shares the fate of the “meek mountain lamb” in Scott’s “Helvellyn.”

  I once saw an unfortunate “cragbound” sheep on a narrow and very dangerous terrace, that overhangs the great eastern verge of Tryfan, where, having eaten all the grass on the ledge, it was peering nervously about, trying to summon up the courage to make a backward leap to safety. After descending from the mountain, I called at the farm below, and got a promise that the sheep should somehow be saved from its plight; but on the following day I found the same tragedy proceeding. Again I sought and received assurances from the shepherds that they would go with ropes to the rescue, but as I had to leave Wales the next morning I never learnt the sequel, which I fear may have yielded more satisfaction to the ravens than to the sheep.

  If the mountain sheep must be deemed half wild, can less be said of that lean, gaunt, hungry, savage, but highly intelligent animal, the sheepdog of Cumberland or Wales? It is one thing to see these “friends of man” in their educated capacity, collecting or dispersing the sheep under their owner’s vociferous bidding; it is quite another thing to see them gorging ravenously on a carrion sheep, and slinking off with wolfish demeanour when disturbed. Historians may tell us that “the last wolf” was killed among these mountains some centuries back; but we make bold to doubt that assertion when surrounded by half a dozen bristling “Gelerts” in the wilds of Wales, for it would then seem that not a little of the character of canis lupus has survived in domestication. For my part, I would rather meet a Welsh bull on an open grass-slope than a pack of these snarling sheep-dogs when their master is out of call, for I can bear witness that at such a moment Mr. Jack London’s choicest wolf-stories are brought too forcibly to mind, and that “the call of the wild” has an unpleasant reality of its own. The traveller who has been followed halfway up Carnedd Llewelyn by a troop of these “white-fangs,” in an interval of their duties at the sheep-washing in Llyn Llugwy, will be able to form at least an “intelligent anticipation” of how it feels to be pursued by real wolves in the forests of the north-west. The mountain sheep-dog is still half a wolf, and not without reason has Mr. Thompson Seton made sheepdogs the heroes of two of the chapters of his Wild Animals I have Known.

  I have incidentally mentioned the bull; and who that has walked much in Carnarvonshire or Merioneth will be so pedantic as to deny the bull his place among the fauna of these districts? Theoretically, no doubt, he must be classed with the domestic; but in practice there are times when his domesticity is apt to be doubted by the wayfarer, and when even the cheery assurances of the Welsh herdsman (if within hail) that “she will do nothing to you,” leave much to be desired. Turned out in early summer on the roadways and hill-slopes, with that national disregard for Saxon weaknesses which has characterized the Cymry from of old, the black bulls of these hilly regions are an element that has to be taken into account, together with winds and waters, in the traveller’s plan of campaign. I have known a party of tourists compelled to elect between meeting the angry animal or relinquishing the direct ascent—a choice between bull and “bwlch”—and unanimously agreed in favour of a rearward move. I once camped with a friend for a fortnight in an artist’s van, pitched on an open plot in an upland valley where a big bull was pastured; and when we heard him in the darkness playfully scratching back or sharpening horns on our door-step, we bethought us of those weird stories of wild life in the backwoods, where the dwellers in the lonely log-hut hear the long-drawn sniff of the strolling bear, as he “samples” them under their bolted door at night.

  In some of the valleys round Snowdon there is a strange-looking breed of black and white Scandinavian cattle, whose appearance at close quarters on a dark night is rather eerie, because only the white part of each animal is easily visible, and the traveller has the spectacle of a detached head, or shoulder, or hind-quarter, as the case may be, confronting him through the gloom.

  As a rule, it is only in spells of great heat, such as occasionally descend upon the mountains, that the bulls are really dangerous, and then they are seldom approached, even by the herdsmen, without the aid bf dogs. It is said that the most ominous symptom on the bull’s part is when, instead of the usual shrill bellow, he gives vent to a low querulous grumbling sound, which seems to imply a deeply felt long-cherished grievance; at such times it is wise to give him a wide berth. After all, can we men complain, if the bull sometimes shows himself dissatisfied with our treatment of his fellows? Who knows but that his splenetic outbursts have some reference to the massacre of his kith and kin at the hands of the “family butcher,” or to the savage dietetic habits of the very people who denounce him as “the savage brute”? What I have thought a little hard, however, is that no discrimination is made by the bull between beefeater and vegetarian, and that the peaceful pilgrim who has not tasted sirloin for over twenty-five years is compelled to skulk up the hill under cover of a stone wall as guiltily as the shameless intruder who has a beef sandwich in his pocket. Some vegetarians, I believe, advocate the wearing of a badge; there would be more to be said in favour of the distinction, if the black bulls of Snowdonia would consent to recognize such flag of truce.

  We see, then, that the Cambrian and Cumbrian hills, though far less richly populated than they were some centuries back, have yet no little interest to offer us in the races of non-human peoples, wild or half-wild, that inhabit them—races whose life is much more closely intertwined with the life of the mountain itself, and more responsive to its varying moods and seasons, than that of the shepherd born and bred on its slopes, not to speak of the summer visitor who comes there for mere pastime or recreation.

1 Cf. the name of the well-known Nant Ffrancon, meaning “the Valley of the Beavers.”
2 W. Gilpin’s Observations on the Mountains of Cumberland, 1786.
3 See an interesting article on “Wild Goats in Wales,” in Country Life Illustrated, March 2, 1901. Also Mr. J. G. Millais’ British Mammals, iii. 213.

All Sub-Works of On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.