The land of the wolf

Crow and raven fly to roost in conifer woods above Pitlochry. The hill fades to darkness as the Corvids sit on the upper branches of the trees, silhouetted against the grey clouds. They call across the glen, croaks and caws mixing in a conversation that I cannot understand. From nearby undergrowth a bark like that of a large hound echoes through the gloom. I hear branches snap as an animal pushes through fallen trees. Instinctively I pause to look for the beast but it has fled. What would my reaction be if wolves still lived here?
At Braemar a shard of original woodland survives. Looking from the village, the whole of this birch wood can be seen dressing the nearby hillside like a well-tailored suit, a delicate purple haze drifting over the moor. The balance between ground, animals and sky determines the distribution of the trees, the density of which waxes and wanes in response. Dense stands of interwoven branches alternate with open areas flooded with light where the ground is smothered in heather, juniper and grass. There is no abrupt ending to the wood it simply thins to isolated trees. Near the village a group of 14 birds flies over with a direct flight and occasional folding of the triangular wings that at a glance could be mistaken for starlings. The call could not – a soft, high-pitched trill that is as much felt by my ears as heard.
I splutter a name – ‘waxwing!’
After tantalising views they settle amongst juniper, clambering over the bushes calling constantly. They cling to the ends of branches, dive into the depths of the bushes and hang upside down flapping wings. For quarter of an hour they ransack the vegetation like starlings attacking a bird table. The juniper remains green, yet all I can see is a mass of spine covered branches. Although soft to touch, they are not waxwing food. I imitate the waxwing by lifting branches up to look beneath. There were the wrinkled, blue berries about the size of petit pois nestled at the heart of the bush. This is waxwing food.
These birds breed in birch forest in Scandinavia. They have learned the intricacies of this habitat through the pressures of survival. The wolf still roams amongst their extensive Northern woodland. Here in Scotland the waxwing have been drawn to a mere fragment of a habitat edge. It should dominate the glen. Next to the village, a deer fence crosses the forest. On the outside of the fence there are old trees with gnarled trunks and dying branches scattered amongst dense heather. Inside the fence there is a dense mass of saplings smothering the ground, regenerating the forest. This is a habitat out of balance. The deer are magnificent, great rough-necked beasts with head-dresses of pointed antlers appearing to reign over the glen, but it should be the wolf which reigns. Deer are everywhere – I see them outside the cottage where we are staying, in the woods and on the moors where a single stag still roars. In tangled vegetation, a pair of bright, sparkling branches catches the eye before I realise they are antlers and notice the grey face looking straight at me. The large, dark eyes do not blink and the erect ears are fixed. The pale rear defines the extent of the body that is motionless. The deer should be nervous of a canine pack, not the hunter’s gun. The carnivore is attracted to the weakest leaving the strong to thrive. The carnivore is ever present; the deer cannot stand and decimate a patch of ground before wandering on. The deer and habitat both become stronger when wolves are present.
Back at our cottage an unseen pack of foxhound howl across the glen in an echo of history. My pulse quickens, I look around nervously and feel a few degrees warmer.

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