Ghillie Heather Mitchell’s work on Scottish estates relies on the strong bond she has with her sturdy, sure-footed ponies
Clad in tweeds, a woman strides purposefully over the hills and rivers of the Scottish countryside. At her side is a small, stocky Highland pony. The crisp air dances over the peaks and whistles around their ears as the pair move nimbly across the rugged terrain. On the back of the pony is a gleaming, bulky saddle, bound on with thick criss-crossed straps.
The woman is Heather Mitchell. She is a ghillie, a person who works as an attendant on a deer-stalking estate in Scotland. Unlike other ghillies however, she only occasionally plays a part in stalking the deer. Instead, her role is to attend to her pony, which is used to carry the deer from the hill. These sturdy animals, known as stalking ponies, or garrons, are a heavy type of Highland pony. They are strong enough to carry stags that weigh up to 18st (114.3kg) over rough ground on their special saddles.
Over the last 20 years, Heather has had six stalking ponies. Today, her companion on the hills is 13-year-old Mayfly. She shares a deep affection and trust with all her ponies. “The secret to being a good pony ghillie is to understand the horses,” she explains. “Young lads train as a ghillie, then think ‘I’ll just add a horse in’. But you have to know about horses. The skill is in being able to know what the pony is thinking, and why it might be frightened. You need to be able to pre-empt anything that could spook them.”
Learning the ways of the hills
Mayfly has been with Heather for four years. She was only introduced to stalking work last year, but is coming on quickly. Her background was in dressage, as far from the hills as possible in the horse world. But dressage is the art of training a horse and rider so they work in harmony. It has made this big boned horse as light as a feather on her feet and willing to learn. Heather hopes this will stand her in good stead in her new role. “I only have
to show Mayfly something once for her to get the gist of it,”
she says. “She’s very intelligent.”
Nimble and sturdy, the Highland pony is native to Scotland and the islands. The island ponies are slightly smaller in stature to their mainland counterparts. Both were bred to not only carry deer, but also to pull provisions and wood. They often worked across treacherous terrain in dire weather conditions where only the most substantial horses would survive. On today’s shooting estates, they transport equipment onto the hills, and carry birds home in wicker panniers as well as stags.
Mayfly is an exception to the rule that training usually starts at an early age. Often a foal will follow its mother out on to the hill when she is at work. This way it becomes used to the smells involved in the work in her reassuring presence. It also learns from her how to read the land for a safe and sure footing.
“The foal follows its mother out on the bogs and learns how to test the ground and where to tread,” says Heather.
“I used to have a grey mare who would go up to the bogs
and sniff them to tell if they were safe or not.”
The horse is a natural flight animal, so has to learn to suppress its urge to run from the scent of blood. It is introduced to the experience of carrying deer very gently.
The foal is gradually acclimatised to the scent so it is not frightened by it. “We take a fresh deer skin, and place their feed on it. In this way the deer’s smell becomes familiar.”
It is only when the bones have stopped growing, at approximately five years old, that the ponies are introduced to the deer saddle. Both heavy and cumbersome, this special saddle weighs approximately 2st (12.7kg). Added to this will be the heavy deer. The weight the ponies carry is gradually built up over subsequent training sessions, either using weighted sacks or part of a tractor tyre. As the pony progresses, Heather may recruit a friend to lie over the saddle. “I’ll get them to stick their arms and legs out so they move as the pony moves, mimicking the dead weight and movements the stag’s body would make,” she says.
After approximately three days’ training, the pony is confident and strong enough to carry a load over tricky terrain. As it learns, trust builds up between ghillie and pony. It is essential there is complete commitment between the handler and pony when the first stag carcass is loaded on.
If the pony panics and bolts, it could be injured by the antlers, or run into danger. The glens have many ravines and bogs that would prove treacherous to a bolting pony.
Heather first came across Highland ponies when she was 23. At the time she was working with very different horses at
a racing yard in north Yorkshire. When the racing season finished, she took a summer job at a trekking centre on Rhidorroch House estate near Ullapool in Ross-shire.
“I found myself with 17 of these short, fat, hairy beasts, which were totally different to the Thoroughbreds I was used to,” she says. “They fascinated me, with their slow plod and massive feet, their short, sturdy legs and long tails. Their sure-footedness and sturdiness was the opposite of racehorses. Nature’s four-wheel drives, they can go anywhere, including walking safely across a bog. When you come to a steep bit of ground, it’s as if they change gear and put the power on.”
While at Rhidorroch, Heather was offered the chance to go out as a ghillie with ponies working on the estate. After just one day, she knew this was what she wanted to do. Then and there she bought a Highland stallion, Oscar.
Moving to a job at Lochinvar estate, she was able to learn from a keeper there. “I taught myself along the way and, as I was working with him, I was learning all I could,” she says. “Working as a pony ghillie isn’t something that’s easy to train for. You need to find a gamekeeper who wants to work ponies on the estate. Then you have to have the confidence to learn on the job. The knowledge is all passed down. I’ve learnt from a few old boys I met when working on other estates. They will tell you they know a better way to do something and will show you how. It’s a handing down of their knowledge. I’ve taken what they’ve shared and added other ideas myself.”
The majority of ghillies and gamekeepers are men, stronger than her. “I have to think a bit differently,” she says. “On the hill I can be up to 10 miles from anywhere, with a stag and a pony. I have to think tactically. Whereas the male pony ghillies can simply lift a stag over the back of their horse, I’ll drag the carcass on top of a nearby rock.
I then take the pony alongside it and slide the stag on.”
Stalking work is seasonal from July to February. Stags are taken between 1 July and 20 October, and hinds taken from 21 October to mid February. “All the deer that are shot on the Highland estates are taken as part of a cull programme,” explains Heather. “The stags are selected according to their age. A judgment is made as to whether the older ones are fit enough to make it through the winter. The weak are picked
off to ensure there are more resources for the younger healthy bucks. Also, stags with deformed antlers, which could cause damage to the other deer, are taken.”
When not working over winter, the ponies are in the field. “Then, when the grass comes through in spring, I need to take them into stables or they get fat,” she says. “At this stage, I change their diet to hay and a salt lick alongside unmolassed sugar beet. Each pony has a bespoke feed to treat any ailments or weaknesses it has. For this, I add in things like seaweed, devil’s claw, brewer’s yeast and turmeric. I’m always on the look-out for signs of grass sickness in the ponies, which occurs when bacteria is picked up from the soil, as that can be deadly.
“From April, I start showing the ponies at the country shows and taking them out for demonstrations. I tack one of the ponies up and show how they work with a dummy stag. It is important to me to teach people what we do and keep this tradition alive.”
Going it alone
Heather worked for estates for several stalking seasons, living on site for months at a time. She worked with both her own ponies and those of her employers. Then she decided to become a freelance pony ghillie. Today, different estates employ her each year, in the Highlands, and out on the islands. When working, the ponies are given a field to graze in while she stays in a bothy within the estate grounds.
She is also continuing the tradition of passing on the lore of the job. For the last two years she has returned to the Rhidorroch estate to teach Iona Scobie the skills of a pony ghillie. Iona has taken on the running of the estate from her mother.
“Twenty years ago, the tradition of using Highland ponies on the hill for carrying deer was being phased out,” says Heather. “Instead, estates were using motorised vehicles. But hunters love the authenticity of using ponies, and often ask for them. That is good news for us pony ghillies, and helps keep traditions alive.”
After two decades, she still gets immense satisfaction from working as a ghillie, and cannot imagine doing anything else.
“Being out on the hill is indescribable,” she says. “It’s beyond obsession. I was hooked from the very first time I went up there. As a ghillie working with ponies, you’re alone, but never lonely.
I don’t take my mobile phone out with me. Instead, I carry a radio with me, and the stalker will contact me when the shooting party is ready for me to come and collect the stag.
“I have great memories of lying up there on the hill with two horses tied to my foot, watching a pair of golden eagles swooping overhead, so still and silent. I’ve never felt that feeling of peace and serenity doing anything else.”
Workhorse of the mountains
The Highland pony is one of the three native breeds which are found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
It is unknown how this ancient breed arrived in Scotland, but there are records of them here by the 8th century BC. One theory is that wild horses arrived after the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. A second is that they arrived with prehistoric settlers.
The Highland has distinctive markings, such as eel or dorsal stripes along the spine, zebra marks on the legs, dark points (extremities such as the tips of the ars and tail) and shoulder stripes. These are primitive coat markings similar to those on ancient equine breeds.
Over centuries, this sturdy little pony has adapted to the changeable and often harsh Scottish environment. Its winter coat is made up of a layer of tough badger-like guard hair growing over a soft, dense undercoat. This allows it to survive on the hill, whatever the weather. It has a long, thick tail and mane, long tufted fetlocks and wispy whiskers under its chin. All help ensure torrential Scottish rains run off its body.
A versatile pony
Their bodies are well balanced and compact, with a deep chest, giving plenty of room for heart and lungs. The ponies’ powerful, well-developed quarters are ideal for the physical demands of work on the hills. They thrive outside, regardless of the weather, and can remain in good condition on the poor grazing afforded by the hills and moors.
Standing 13-14.2 hands high (a hand equals 4in/10cm), the Highland pony was originally a farmer’s workhorse on crofts. They were used for transport and carrying goods before roads were built approximately 200 years ago. After that they pulled carts.
Highland ponies are extremely versatile. They can jump obstacles up to 4ft (1.2m) high, are sure-footed and have indefatigable endurance. On top of this, they can carry weights in excess of 18st (114.3kg) and tackle the roughest, steepest, and trickiest terrain.
Their hardiness is accompanied by a kind and gentle nature, a steady temperament and intelligence. A Highland pony usually only needs to be shown something once to be able to then do it.
Special deer saddles are used to safely strap the deer to the pony’s back. These distribute the weight evenly so there is never too much pressure in one area. Made from thick buffed leather, they are stuffed with horsehair on top of straw, for comfort.
The straw absorbs moisture, keeping the pony’s skin dry. The padding is covered with a thick woollen cloth.
Many of the saddles are more than 100 years old and are now rare. “You need to ask around to find one, scour the papers and leap on one when you get the chance,” says Heather. “Some estates hold on to them, even though they’re not being used, so it can be near impossible to track one down.”
Because it is so hard to source replacement saddles, they are cared for meticulously and repaired as required.
Unlike a riding saddle, which has one girth, deer saddles have two or three girths, which are crossed over. “This keeps them securely on under the heavy weight of the deer,” explains Heather.
“Different estates designed their own saddles in different shapes and sizes.
These reflect the size of their deer, which varies depending on area.” She has a Glen Strathfarrar, which is designed is for bigger deer, while her Glen Quoich is for slightly smaller ones. Both are saddles that were made for carrying deer, but can be ridden in. They have two or three girths, a breastplate, breeching strap, which goes round the back of the pony under its tail, and a surcingle, which runs under the horse’s belly. All help to hold the saddle in position. On top of these, there are several straps designed to secure the stag in position. A third type of saddle is known as a combination. This is one made for riding, but has extra straps for fastening the stag on with.
Words: Abigail Alldis and Katy Islip Photography: Mark Mainz
Among some of the rarest animals on earth, Northumberland’s Chillingham cattle have roamed freely for centuries, without human intervention
A herd of small off-white cattle graze in open parkland dotted with huge, gnarled oak trees. Behind them are gently undulating slopes, down which meander streams lined with ancient alders. Stretching far into the distance are the peaks of the Cheviot Hills. This idyllic setting is the parkland of Chillingham Castle, approximately 23 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland.
Lazing under the trees, feeding in a slow, deliberate manner, or wandering through the bracken-covered hillsides, the cattle live as their ancestors did centuries ago. For these are Chillingham wild cattle, a truly unique breed.
With fewer than 100 bulls, cows and calves, they are among the rarest animals on earth. But what makes them so special is that they are never – and for hundreds of years have never been – handled by humans. Supplementary food in the form of bales of hay is provided in winter, but that is the limit of human intervention. Other than that, they fend for themselves, fighting, feeding and breeding as wild cattle would have done 1,000 years ago.
The first written record of the cattle at Chillingham dates from 1645 in documents held by the Earls of Tankerville. Historians have discovered, however, that, in 1344 King Edward III granted royal permission for Chillingham Castle to be ‘castellated and crenellated’, that is fortified, against the possibility of invasion by the Scots. A dry-stone wall was built around the 1500-acre (610-hectare) estate. This may have been the point when the cattle were first enclosed, to be hunted for food.
Another theory is that the cattle were present as early as the time of the Domesday Book, in the late 11th century. There are, however, no records to support this. Before they came to Chillingham, it is believed they roamed through the great forest that stretched from the Northumberland coast to the east to the Irish Sea in the west. Today the cattle scatter freely across 330 acres (130 hectares) of open pasture and wooded habitat, within the estate walls.
“No one really knows how the cattle got here, but we can be reasonably sure they are the descendants of domestic cattle that somehow escaped from captivity,” says Chris Leyland. He is the farmer in charge of the herd. It is his belief that, having broken free, the cattle may have been ignored for many years. For centuries the border country was largely a no-man’s land between the warring English and Scots. During that time the cattle would have been largely left alone, apart from some taken for food. When peace returned to the area, the wary and aggressive cattle would have been difficult to catch.
Small and light
Having lived in isolation for so long, these animals vary in behaviour and appearance from today’s domestic breeds. The first difference is that they are much smaller. Most are half the weight of a typical domestic breed. The average Jersey cow weighs 900lb (400kg), while the ubiquitous black and white Friesian is 1280lb (580kg). Chillingham cows weigh between 616-660lb (280-300kg), while the larger bulls are approximately 660lb (300 kg). Chris does, however, recall one large bull that weighed in at 880lb (400kg). They are short compared with domestic cattle, roughly 43in (110cm) at the shoulder, compared to a Jersey’s 48in (121cm).
From a distance, the cattle can be momentarily mistaken for large sheep, due to their off-white colour. Closer to, the curved, upright-pointing horns of both males and females are seen. There is a reddish tinge around the ears and, in some animals, around their feet, eyes and nose. From the rear they appear considerably thinner than domestic cattle. The latter have been bred fatter to provide meat or milk, whereas these animals are naturally lean, adapted for running and fighting.
Perhaps most peculiar, though, is rather than the typically bovine lowing, the cattle make an extraordinary sound. This is a rather mournful series of hoots and grunts, which echo around the park.
The bulls fight for the opportunity to mate with the cows, in trials of strength. Unlike animals such as red deer, whose rut is an annual occurrence in autumn, the Chillingham cows can conceive all year round. This means the males must always be alert to the possibility of mating.
The confrontations are usually over quickly as the dominant bull asserts his authority. He confronts and sometimes attacks his rivals to send the challenger running away. “This can be a dangerous time for the other cattle,” says Chris. “The beaten bull may flee in panic, and end up crashing into and injuring the watching younger males.”
These younger bulls hang around on the periphery of the herd, not daring to challenge the dominant bulls for fear of being badly injured. Overall the bulls form a pecking order in which each animal knows its place. This changes over time as one bull successfully challenges another higher up the hierarchy. Many of the cattle bear scars on their bodies, with few bulls living longer than 10-12 years. The cows can reach 15 years old.
When there were far fewer cattle than today, the herd was led by a single, dominant animal, known as the king bull. He would be the only one to mate and sire calves. His dominance lasted for a period as long as three years until he would be deposed by another bull. However, with an increase in the number of cattle, this situation has now changed. Today several bulls get the opportunity to mate.
The cows usually have one calf every two years. They can be born in any month of the year, an adaptation to help protect the calves. If they were all born at the same time, there was more of an attraction for predators such as wolves.
When the birth is due, the cow heads away from the other members of the herd so that her offspring will be safe. Otherwise the calf is at risk of being trampled by fighting males. After a week or so following the birth, the calf emerges from its hiding place to join the herd. It will not be weaned for a further seven to 14 months.
The appearance of the new calf often attracts the attention of the other females. Childless cows may try to steal the calf, so if they come too close the mother will push them away. All the calves used to struggle to survive during the autumn and spring months because sheep were competing with them for grazing. The sheep have now been removed, leaving the cattle without competition. Chris describes them as “good little grazers”, able to gain nourishment from poor grass where domestic cattle would struggle. They can survive harsh winter conditions when domestic calves would perish.
Following the long and freezing winter of 1946-47, only 13 animals, eight cows and five bulls, survived. This fall in numbers together with the fact that no new animals have joined the herd for hundreds of years, should have left the herd at risk of infertility caused by inbreeding.
Chris believes that the reason this has not happened is that over time any inbred animals have simply not survived. This has left the herd purged of anything that could adversely affect them. Members now are fit, healthy animals.
As well as the Chillingham herd, there is a second, much smaller group of approximately 20 animals at a secret site in north-east Scotland. This was established in case any unexpected problems, such as disease, occurred within
the main herd.
The Chillingham cattle are related to another rare breed, the White Park cattle. These are also white but have longer horns, and black, rather than reddish, ears. In the early 20th century, some Chillingham cattle were taken to be crossbred with the White Park.
The cattle roaming the park at Chillingham are a splendid sight. Left to their own devices, they are not only surviving, but thriving. To watch them is to take a step back to a time when Britain was home to more wild than domesticated animals. The majestic setting of their home in the wilds of Northumberland, the mystery of their arrival and survival all combine to make the Chillingham wild cattle one of the natural wonders of Britain.
Visiting the park Because the Chillingham cattle have never been handled, they can be dangerous to people. The only way to see them is to join a guided tour of the estate. Visitors are warned never to approach too close, as they risk being attacked and even gored by the sharp, pointed horns.
The wild cattle are not the only attraction for visitors to Chillingham Park. There are also herds of fallow deer and small groups of roe deer and hares.
A host of woodland birds can be seen, including resident nuthatches, green and great spotted woodpeckers, and summer migrants such as redstarts, which nest in holes in the oak trees. A small population of the native red squirrel also lives in the park, which is open to visitors from April to October.
Chris Leyland (pictured below right) is the part-time park manager for the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, which has owned the cattle since it was formed in 1939. He also owns a 400-acre livestock farm in nearby Belford.
Words: Stephen Moss Photography: Steve and Ann Toon