Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Watching

by Heather Beaton

An essential part of any new construction is to make sure that the work isn’t harming any of the local wildlife, particularly protected species. This was Canna’s job today: to sit and watch an historical golden eagle nest, two hundred metres across the glen from the work site. There had been vigorous pre-construction surveys completed in advance of the works starting and there had been no signs of any eagles using the area. However, the fact it was there and had the potential to be used by eagles again meant she had to do these watches, a minimum of once a week and with a constant presence during any explosive works. So far, the only eagle she’d seen had been lazily riding the thermals about a kilometre away, in the wrong direction. Still, she watched.

It was March, the air was cold and there had been a yellow warning for snow on the radio that morning. Spring still seemed a very long way off. It was cold work, sitting, watching, trying to keep the blood flowing and the cold-ache had started to get into her bones. There was nothing happening, though the sun was spearing the hill yonder with shards of light and the pale blue sky shone in patches through tall clouds heavy with anticipation.

Canna stood and stamped, trying to get the blood flowing back into her feet and shaking her arms at the same time to shift the deadening cold. Movement may not be ideal, but the worst threat to surveying was inattention and here she was on the brink of falling asleep. A raven overhead croaked once, twice, and flew on to the north. She sat and followed it with her binoculars, revelling in the surety of flight. Ravens were just so joyful. Despised and reviled by people that had no reason to feel that way, Canna always tried to show them extra respect to make up for the bad attitude they received elsewhere.

It was while watching the raven that she first saw activity. Not like shy-quick-bird movement, but a slower, steadier flicker of shadows and life on the ground between the rock fall and crevice, on the other side of the corrie to the cliff she’d been watching. Abandoning the raven, Canna focussed her telescope instead on the hillside as the quick glimpse reminded her of something that it most certainly could not be.

She was in the depths of Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, an area popular with walkers and designated for the wonderful geology as well as the native woodland that adorned Loch Maree to the north. The site was a hydro-scheme. These near-ubiquitous renewable energy schemes were popping up left, right and centre, even where the land was wild and the water clean. It was a beautiful place to get to work, and despite mixed feelings about the construction, Canna delighted in spending time in such a place.

There had been many visits in the past. Although her company had not carried out the pre-construction surveys, she’d been visiting on a weekly basis since the project had started, four months previously. It was far from home and necessitated an overnight stay each week, but the area was lovely and the watch usually passed quickly. Now, however, her attention was drawn sharply forwards.

It was a while before she saw anything again. It was different and yet the same, and heading to the south now where it was lost behind other rocks before she even really knew it was happening. With that second, brief sighting also came reassurance: there was an animal moving over there. She felt her gut feeling about what it was, but her logical brain knew it couldn’t be that. It was only when the animal reappeared for the third time that both parts of her agreed and she finally breathed the word that had been forming in her sub-conscious: wolf.

Canna knew immediately that it was no feral dog: the languid, stretched limbs and weightless stride could only be wolf. The shaggy grey coat and the low, swinging head only served to confirm her thoughts. It carried a dead grouse in its mouth, and wove along a path between boulders. Canna followed it with her telescope, six hundred metres away, hardly daring to breathe. The wolf moved quickly and was so camouflaged that she thought she’d lost it several times but it always reappeared. She was still watching as the wolf dropped its prey and disappeared into nothing. What looking like an overlap in the rocks swallowed the wolf without even a change in its pace: it must have been a hidden cave inside, for when the wolf reappeared, there were more. Another adult and two, three cubs, tumbling and playing in the shadow of the rocks.

They were wolves. On the hills of Beinn Eighe was a species that had been extinct in Scotland for over 250 years. Wolf.

A sudden noise disturbed them and made Canna jump. As she watched, the wolves disappeared like they were mere shadows and the hillside was still as though they’d never even existed. Canna answered her phone reluctantly: it was her boss in Edinburgh.

“Are you nearly done? Any eagles? How’s the weather?” The signal wasn’t great, but Julia’s voice came through clearly enough.

“No eagles or snow, and yes, I only have a half hour left.”

“Nothing else of interest?”

Here, Canna paused. Should she say? Would she be believed if she told? And if she did, what impact on the wolves? The animals that looked as though their birth right was wildness, as though the mountains were an internal part of them. What about them? Would the family be caught, caged and made to disappear? Ending up as a footnote to the story of wolves in Scotland, before the species reverted again to nothingness.

“No, nothing else of interest.”

Phone call over, Canna settled back down and lifted her binoculars to see if the wolves reappeared. The more she thought, the more she realised the consequences of the decision she’d made. She would be secret keeper and defender of these wolves. She would give them a chance to right an ancient wrong and allow them to re-establish in Scotland. She knew that nothing would be truly simple again for she’d have an ear constantly to the ground, listening for word of the wolves, and speaking up, trying to adjust the human perspective. Changing the big-bad-wolf of the fairy tales to revive the fortunes of a species. So that after their eventual discovery maybe, just maybe, they’d be allowed to stay.