GOS CHASE

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A Walk on the Wild Side: Robert Macfarlane heads up into the Peak District, in search of a rare bird...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012 

I went to the Peak District in search of my first wild goshawk. The goshawk, or "gos", is the berserker of British raptors, a sparrowhawk on steroids. It's a magnificent creature, furious and burly, with a barred chest and a white eyebrow arch of feathers. In older goshawks, the irises darken to a diabolic red. They're fierce birds, forest birds—and also rare birds. I've only met one goshawk before, a female flown by a falconer I know. She was skittish, she was beautiful, and her name was Mabel. The falconer and I drank tea in a front room with the curtains drawn, while Mabel sat on her bow-perch, blinking in the half-light. 

I long to see a gos in flight, in the wild. "So come up!" said my friend John, who has lived in the Peak District his whole life. "We'll go looking. Goshawks are hard to see but we might get lucky."

Two days before I was due to go, John called, sounding tired and sad. "The nests of two of the breeding pairs here have been ransacked," he said. "The eggs have been destroyed. It's all too delicate for us to go near." 

Tucked in between Manchester and Sheffield, the High Peak largely consists of high moorland. With ownership split between the National Trust and private estates, its landscape politics are complex. Conservation groups battle to depress the numbers of certain species (Canada geese, rhododendrons, cormorants) and boost others (pied flycatchers, curlews, sandpipers). Estate owners legally trap out crows and kill foxes. And raptors—pere­grines, hen harriers, buzzards, goshawks, all perceived as threats to the grouse population, all protected by the law—die in large numbers, poisoned or shot by unseen hands. 

John and I decided on a long upland walk that would take us close to gos country, but also onto the moors of Bleaklow: home to curlew, the elusive dotterel, golden plover, and perhaps my favourite British mammal, the mountain hare, Lepus timidus, whose fur is white in winter and gold in summer. 

We left from the shore of the vast Ladybower Reservoir, where rhododendrons were in bloom, vast pink banks, hundreds of yards long. It was hard not to admire their floral ebullience—the lavish eye-candy of their flowers. The sun was high. Everything was zingy with light. "Let's get walking," said John.

So we did, following the Derwent river into its meandering upper reaches. The air was liquid with the cries of curlew. The water was treacle-brown. The valley flanks were wooded with sessile oaks, birches and white-blossoming rowans. Side-valleys split away to right and left, each enticing us to explore. A big raptor turned on a thermal above a distant crag. "Buzzard," said John. "It's rare to see any birds of prey up here these days. Even a buzzard is good news." 

The landscape was full of creatures on the hunt: a common lizard shimmying across the path with a moth in its jaws, meadow pipits carrying beakfuls of grubs back to their chicks, a tribe of wood ants heroically hauling off a bumble-bee. Everything had its mouth full of food, and soon John and I did too: a cheese-and-chutney roll each. The sun was hot on our faces. A merlin flashed overhead—zing!—banked round and came past again, mobbed by a brave pipit.

From there we left the path and began a steady climb towards the summit of the moor at nearly 600 metres. As we neared the top, stones started to surface around us from the peat and the heather: gritstone outcrops weathered into wonderful forms—breaching whales, Easter Island heads, hats, cannons. 

These are the Barrow Stones, and we stopped among them for a lounge and a clamber. I remembered what superb rock gritstone is to climb on: it makes even a lubbock like me feel like a gecko. Rubber shoes stick like glue; hands clamp and hold. We bouldered, traversed, hung, lolled, leaped, gibboned and geckoed with glee. There were buckets, pinch holds and smears. It felt great to be touching rock again; a long-overdue laying on of hands. 

From the top of a tor I heard a new bird call: between a hinge-creak and a penny-whistle. "Golden plover," said John. He's a fine birder, able to hear them long before I see them. We walked on towards the cries, jumping from hag-top to hag-top, or ducking down into the black peat-slurry of the hag valleys, until we glimpsed the plovers at last through binoculars: smart and shy birds, with flecked golden backs, white chests and black underbellies, scuttling from cover to cover. They were beautiful to us—but of course to them we were killers, so we veered away, dropping off the shoulder of the moor to another outcrop of stones. 

Among those stones we wandered and talked, looking down the Westend valley to where the sun was falling hard on oak and bilberry and bracken, a dozen different greens flaring in a single sightline. I spotted a mountain hare, hunched by the curve of a grey gritstone boulder, barely two yards away: glowing golden eyes and a golden edge to its ears where the sun shone through the fine fur. It stayed still for a few seconds, then slipped under the boulder, and we skirted wide around it. 

Then came the long walk home, over Round Hill and Ronksley Moor, following a high old track called the Black Dyke, before dropping off into Linch Clough, which guided us back to the reservoir and the rhododendrons. A kestrel took flight and settled in a birch tree. The cries of the curlew could still be heard. There had been no gos, but the moors had given us so much else.

Robert Macfarlane teaches English at Cambridge. His new book is "The Old Ways"

Top: the author heads down the valley to cross the Upper Derwent at Slippery Stones. Above: on the rocks at Bleaklow
Photographs John Beatty