Words and pictures: Ben Myers
For the past five years I’ve been coming to the Lammermuir Hills, the vast rolling stretch of heathered uplands between Berwick and Edinburgh. Often at autumn, when the leaves turn and fall and the clock is wound back an hour. In winter it becomes a different place.
Here is hunting country. Working land. A place of grouse and rabbits and salmon. Hares the size of dogs lurk in remote pine plantations so densely grown their carpets rarely see rain. Raptors circle over the lonely burns that carve a notch through the open plains. Buzzards, kestrels. Kites. Merlins.
Gamekeepers police the moors and estates for the landowners who make good money off grouse shoots. Though Scotland has the ‘right to roam’ law, it is different to my home in the Pennines, where wanderers are invited onto the best marked routes. There are no walkers here, just miles of emptiness and the occasional flash of sunlight on the binoculars of a far-distant watching gamekeeper, the growl of his quad bike engine.
There are traps on the moors. Some like those designed to snap the necks of any predators who might impact on the grouse population are legal, others less so. Beneath a decommissioned one I find a half-buried egg, in another the skeletal remains of a corvid. At dusk the dry-honk of pheasants can be heard and death is everywhere – in roadkill, in shredded mammals and the matted remains of a lame sheep caught in a storm.
Out driving, I see a diabolical hybrid creature shoot across the road. A misshapen bulk of fur and bone angles. Only when it disappears in the grass back do I realise it is a small stoat carrying a large rabbit in its jaw.
Rumours of poachers and hare coursing and cruelty abound, though they often involve people not from this area – men up from Newcastle or down from Edinburgh perhaps.
Valuable conservation work happens here too. The moors are maintained, life encouraged. Grazing lands are rotated, populations controlled for balance, key species legally protected. These lands once governed by tribal factions and fought over for centuries, with the England-Scotland Border a nebulous, shifting entity, are a place of raw beauty. And the light is beautiful.
I stay for weeks.