Durisdeer and the wildlife exclusion zone

Saturday was to be our first walk for a long time. In fact, writesofway had hardly left the house at all for the previous five weeks – having had a guidebook manuscript to finish. Where to go, what to do? I fancied a walk somewhere in Dumfriesshire – there’s masses of excellent walking country and it’s just over an hour’s drive from Glasgow. Friday night, I rootled through James’s back catalogue and decided to hijack a route he’d walked from Durisdeer in the southern Lowther Hills last winter. I fancied tackling the route in the opposite direction to James, primarily to enjoy the descent towards Durisdeer from Wether Hill at the end. I checked the weather, employing the trusty blueskyscotland TM system of looking for the sun symbol the night before then checking that it was still there the next morning before setting off. It was. Game on!

Myself and the lovely Fiona started out from the very pictureque village of Durisdeer at about 10.30, heading south-east along a track leading into Glenaggart. It was a sunny, but blowy old morning and a thin blanket of cloud was scudding across the hilltops at speed. We soon overtook a large posse of third-age ramblers progressing in a stately fashion up the glen as the track began to climb quite steeply. A short while later there was the unmistakable noise of a quadbike haring up the track behind us. I know you need to keep your momentum on steep inclines, but you could tell this chap wouldn’t have slowed down for us even on the flat. I imagined the fate of the aged ramblers further down the track who might not have got out of his way quick enough… He flew past without acknowledging us, sporting a shiny new barbour, flat cap and shotgun. Not the gamekeeper though, I’ll wager. He had the never-had-to-do-a-day’s-work look of the landed classes, so I imagine that this was a little Buccleuch.

A few minutes later, the booming report of his shotgun came echoing down the glen. Remarkably, given the zero-tolerance approach to wildlife on this estate (of which more later), he’d found some unfortunate critter to blast into extinction. Anyway, we continued up the glen until we arrived at the Kettleton Byre bothy. Maintenance of the bothy is now looked after by the MBA, and it has been extensively refurbished. It’ a lovely wee billet.

We continued into the stiff breeze on our way across Blackhill Moss, pausing to admire the view down along the Kettleton Burn.

We passed by an abandoned cottage and sheep fanks, before crossing over the Glenleith Burn. The burns descending either side of Berry Rig soon came into view.

Arriving by the first of these, Tansley Burn, we started following its course upstream, hoping to pick up the path marked on the map, which follows the burn up to a saddle south of the summit of Wedder Law. Fairly soon we encountered a number of stoat traps on poles and planks across the burn.

They were nasty looking contraptions, which would have had the Grand Inquisitor rubbing his hands with glee. The idea is that your stoat finds this convenient stoat-bridge over the burn, unsuspectingly trots across and… snap!

This was one freshly-exterminated stoat. Why take such measures? Because stoat are ‘vermin’ and eat, among other things, grouse eggs. Now this just isn’t on, d’you hear, because then there’ll be a few less grouse for the shooting classes to blast to smithereens. As well as dozens of stoat traps, we encountered a number of large crow traps, rat traps and other traps we weren’t sure about, as well as something that looked like it might be poisoned bait, but being  ignorant city-dwellers, we couldn’t be sure. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a few man traps aimed at controlling the numbers of the great unwashed out on the hills. I understand the impetus to eradicate rats in areas where they might devastate ground-nesting bird populations, but I’m not sure I go along with the need to annihilate inconvenient wildlife because they might detract from the ‘sporting’ opportunities of a few… You get my point.

The landed classes seem to work on the assumption that British wildlife is theirs to do with as they wish. In most cases they’re within the law when they’re out hunting, or their gamekeepers are trapping stoats, crows etc but often they’re not. I used to go hunt saboteuring in my youth, down in Sussex and Kent. I’ve seen a pack of hounds tear a badger to bits and they’re protected; the police weren’t interested. I also once found a badger caught in an (illegal) gin trap on grouse-shooting land; it was dead and had obviously tried to gnaw through it’s own leg to escape.

More recently I’ve seen a hunt pursuing a fox, down in Sussex, which is still actually illegal until the Coalition of Doom re-legalises it.  But the law sometimes seems to evaporate where the ‘elite’  are concerned. Some ‘sporting’ estates have been prosecuted for persecuting protected birds of prey, but that’s ok because the gamekeeper usually carries the can. I’m sure a lot of it goes on.

Then there was the case of Prince Harry and his posh mate William Van Cutsem allegedly shooting two hen harriers at Sandringham. Two of these endagered birds were shot in flight, and this was observed by a warden at Dersingham Bog nature reserve and two members of the public. Harry and company were the only people in the area with guns, but they denied any knowledge. Must have been a smear campaign by loony lefty animal lovers.

Anyway, on with the walk. We soon began climbing along the faint path alongside Tansley Burn. It was fairly difficult going, but we were reasonably well sheltered from the wind.

At the head of the burn we emerged onto the saddle between Wedder Law (672m) and Gana Hill (668m). Here we turned north-west and picked up a track running alongside the fence that continued up and over the summit of Wedder Law. Fiona paused to admire the view as if she were a subject in a Caspar David Friedrich painting.

Not being Donald-baggers (thanks for the tip, James), we ignored the track heading west fom near the summit of Wedder Law to Glenleith Hill and continued along the track by the fence. We descended 100m, negotiated some boggy ground and climbed alongside the fence, which now supplemented an impressive dry stane wall. We followed the wall as it continued up and then along the summits of Scaw’d Law (663m), Little Scaw’d Law (594m) and Durisdeer Hill (568m).

The views opened up across the Lowther Hills to the north, with the ‘golf ball’ radar station atop Lowther Hill visible in the distance.

Soon we were descending steeply off Durisdeer Hill to the old Roman road at the pass below Well Hill.

Not having been for a big walk for a while, we were both feeling our legs a bit by this point and from the top of the Roman road we could just have rolled all the way back down the glen to Durisdeer. We were never going to do this though, not when we could climb 200 metres straight up the ridiculously steep south-east flank of Well Hill (606m). This we did and by the time we reached the summit it felt more like Un-Well Hill (sorry).

This group of hills between the Dalveen and Durisdeer passes are real favourites of mine. They’re steeper-sided with narrower summits than the open moorland tops of the hills further east and have the beautiful ‘blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed’ forms that I suppose remind me of the South Downs – just on a larger scale. The views are wonderful too, over the Lowther Hills and out across Nithsdale and Galloway.

From Well Hill, we descended to the top of Stonycleuch Rig and then contoured around Turn Hill, following a stock fence. Descending to Glenbo Hass, we then followed a track to the trig point at the top of Black Hill (531m). From here it was mostly downhill, we descended over Wether Hill and our thighs and knees began complaining at the steep gradient. We continued down to the valley, crossed the Kirk Burn, climbed a little to the Wald Path, which runs along the course of the old Roman road, and returned to Durisdeer.

Despite the depressing animal traps, it had been a truly excellent walk in fine but breezy autumn weather, a real antidote to weeks stuck at home in computerworld. Twelve miles with 1100 metres of up and down after sitting on my backside for five weeks; I’m feeling it today as I’m sat on my backside once again, writing this.


17 responses

  1. Now that is really sad to see that one of the estates nasty traps got its target. They do seem to be setting out to kill anything that moves up there. On the walk I did I set off all the pole traps, you get 5 karma points for each one done. A stick or a stone usually works well but if you do it with a stone you can leave no evidence which will hopefully get the gamekeeper scratching their head! They even hunt at night there too, when I spent the night in Kettleton Bothy a tracked vehicle passed with loads of lights up top, there then followed gun shots on the moors.

    Anyway death aside it looks like you had cracking weather for the walk. I love those hills, don’t know why but they appeal. Don’t they remind you of the Howgills? It is more of a killer on the legs than the map suggests also. Great write up and photies, makes me want to get out there now……….

  2. Hello faithful Lone Reader! It was a fine walk in great autumn weather with that fantastic light you get in the Southern Uplands this time of year. A shame to focus on the traps etc. but you can’t avoid them in that part of the southern Lowther Hills. Now you’ve said about the nocturnal shooting, I think I’d avoid staying at Kettleton Byre, there were also loads of copies of ‘Soldier’ magazine in the bothy, which starts to create a bit of a picture. I’ve nothing against soldiers – my Dad was one for 30 years – but as part of the overall picture of the place, it’s a bit off-putting.

    I imagine the hills here are rather like the Howgills, James, but to my shame I’ve never actually been there. The Howgills and Cheviots are on my list, but I have a bit of a habit of incessantly revisiting places that I relly take a shine too – to the exclusion of others.

  3. Your other reader her 🙂
    One of my favourite areas for peace and quiet too.I`ve spent a few cosy nights in Kettleton Byre and I believe they have now fixed the smoke problem with the stove since my last visit.
    I guessed that the traps were for mink..never thought of stoats at all.Pretty evil looking things but I did bag myself some karma points on my visits 🙂 The local estate has some “history” with regard to wildlife crime. I remember googling the area after I first encountered the traps and was glad to see that they had been prosecuted.The slopes of Well Hill were covered in rabbit holes but curiously there were no raptors seen all day long.You can make your own assumption on that one.!
    Well Hill to Black Hill is a cracking walk in itself for a summer evening and as Well Hill is a Marilyn you can add that to your Marilyn list Peter 🙂

  4. Hello Tonto. The stove has a shiny new flue pipe, so I’m sure it makes for a smoke free experience. It is a great wee bothy, I was just feeling a bit negative after the trap-infested ‘sporting estate’ experience. We did see a pair of kestrels up by Tansley Burn, but I guess they’re not high up the estate’s extermination list.

    I didn’t know I had a Marilyn list! Better empty the kitchen draw and see if I can find it tucked away. With much respect to the collectors of Munros, Corbetts, Marilyns, Donalds, Murdos, Hewitts, trig points, Vanessas etc I’m not a collector of hills or their concrete appurtenances (I had to look that up). I’m afraid my slightly Asperger’s collecting fetishes lie elsewhere!

    The Well Hill ‘massif’ is indeed a cracking walk in its own right; two days after and my thighs are still complaining about the up-Well Hill down-Wether Hill gradients.

  5. Some lovely images and lyrical passages as usual, Pete; I felt the call of the hills through this one. But it really is difficult to concentrate on the landscape or the walking when confronted with such blatant and solipsistic self-regard concerning the persecution of other species. Friends of ours here in Greece often bemoan the immensity of illegal hunting in this country, holding up the UK as a good example of a society that has shed that affliction. But as you very rightly point out, it’s simply disguised by the emperor’s clothes, the ‘correctness’ of landownerly life. The ways of gamekeepers is a huge discredit to an age when so many species, including the hen harrier in Britain, verge on being extinct. How many karma points would one rack up by deciding that gamekeepers and their employers were vermin, I wonder…

    • Hello Hoff, I’m not actually for banning hunting; I don’t particularly like it, but I’m not sure that banning fox hunting – the obvious example – has worked. Likewise if people want to shoot critters for sport, so long as the critters aren’t protected. The really important issue is the persecution of protected species and the prevention thereof.

      Regarding ‘sporting’ estates, it’s a complicated and difficult issue. Obviously red deer numbers need controlling in Scotland – the research carried out on the red deer population in one area of the isle of Rum showed that if numbers weren’t controlled it caused serious problems for the animals themselves, let alone the impact that they’d have on the environment. Deer stalking also provides employment. Historically though, many crofters were effectively turned off their land in the late 19th early 20th centuries to make way for ‘deer forests’ so the estates could cash in on the popularity of the ‘sport’ among the leisured classes.

      I suppose with grouse moors, the estates are turning land over to shooting for income and it provides employment. The Buccleuch Estate employs 32 gamekeepers. These men are just doing their jobs and largely within the law. I just really don’t like the zero tolerance approach to inconvenient wildlife. In Wales and the south of England, badgers are still persecuted – and often by the Environment Agency – because of their supposed transmission of bovine TB, though no link has ever been established. Some sheep farmers in Scotland are up in arms about the reintroduction of sea eagles, which their predecessors persecuted to extinction, because they take a few sick or dead lambs. ‘Vermin’ is the term applied. The militant farmers are paid for any losses. Have a look at this link on the reintroduction of sais vermin to Rum:


      • Just back after a little time away in Poland where I had the good fortune to watch two white-tailed eagles off the Baltic coast! Extraordinary creatures…There may be a case to be made regarding the need to control red deer populations but their numbers are artificially high in many cases precisely because large estates were turned over exclusively for the cultivation of deer. And although estates certainly provide employment I’ve read enough reports over the years to suggest that many gamekeepers don’t stay within the bounds of the law. The numbers of hen harriers, golden eagles, merlins, peregrines and red kites shot or poisoned throughout British estates is alarming. For many gamekeepers, raptors remain the perennial enemy, regardless of how obsolete the myth of their predation may be.

        love Hoff

      • Hello Hoff, I hope I’ll be reading about your Baltic peregrinations in the very near future.

        You’re probably right about the continuing persecution of raptors on many British estates, however, I don’t think that such practices are universal any longer. Legislation and its concomitant sanctions have obviously played apart, though perhaps the law should go further. Either way, the law is only the law when it is applied and the case of Prince Harry and his chums – shows that little chestnut up. I do think some estates take a more enlightened view these days, however.

        You’re certainly right about the numbers of deer resulting from the creation of ‘sporting’ estates. On Jura, many crofters were effectively cleared from the land to this end, by the imposition of punitive rents. In the absence of natural predators, culling appears to be the only answer. Reintroducing wolves and bears to the Highlands and Islands would be an exciting proposition, though!

    • Hello Cactus Bob, the byre has been done up recently with a new stove etc. It is a great area around Durisdeer, some fine hills and few people out walking among them most of the time. Have you stayed at the byre in recent times?

  6. The control of stoats is also to help ground nesting birds which we don’t “blast to smitherenes” I live locally to these hills in thornhill and I know for a fact the estate here are very strict on there rules and would never set “man traps” and the crow traps are under very careful inspection by keepers who check them every day, crows will kill young grouse, curlew and other ground nesting birds young so for every predator that is humanely dispatched you are potentially saving 15 different species of birds. And the poison like things you happened to mention if they are white then they are grit piles for the grouse, it’s a medication to cure illness in grouse Glad I could help

    • Kian, the traps are only there to protect the grouse. If it wasn’t a grouse moor there’d be no traps. If you want to notify the polis about my setting off traps then go ahead. Glad I could help.

      • I wasn’t just suggesting it I’m telling you that the traps are place to protect ground nesting birds I’ve been into field sports since I could walk and you being a city slicker you have zero understanding for the way that a grouse moor works you suggested that poison was left out on an open Moore and that gamekeepers set man traps hahhaha ridiculous

  7. Hello again Kian

    The ‘man traps’ reference was ironic, but you seem a bit slow so I’d imagine that irony is a little sophisticated for you. I understand how grouse moors work and they’re no use for anything except shooting grouse. Give me a break from the ‘protecting ground nesting birds’ schtick.

  8. This is Kian’s Mum.After reading this feed it is obvious that my 13 year old son holds a lot more intellegience on this subject than yourself.Kian spends most of his time outdoors and has great respect for wildlife and conservation.A man that is educated would not need to use such words that you have used in your previous post.I think your the one that is the “slow” one!

  9. At least learn how to spell ‘intelligence’ before making bold claims as to your son’s intellectual capacities. Having said that, he writes well for a 13 year-old so I’d no idea that he was so young.

    However, I have my views on the way grouse moors are managed to the detriment of all the inconvenient wildlife which predate on grouse, their chicks and eggs, and your son has his. He chose to leave several comments on my blogsite, which I’m perfectly entitled to respond to. His comments in the first instance were sarcastic so he and you can hardly complain if I respond in kind.

    If Kian does indeed have a great respect for wildlife and conservation then perhaps he should look into the business of grouse moor management a little more closely There’s precious little conservation involved and the wildlife is generally trapped, shot and, yes, illegally poisoned because of the threat posed to the grouse shooting revenue.

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