The Rare Strath Haggis

Below is a rare photo of a strath haggis (Haggis chloris), a relative of the better known, but still misunderstood, common haggis (Haggis vulgaris).

Whereas the common haggis is famously an upland dweller, the strath haggis frequents the glens and river and stream valleys of the Highlands of Scotland. Its superb camouflage is the perfect example of evolution, growing thicker for the colder winters and moulting in early summer. The longer coarse, reddish guard hairs (visible in these photos) remain all year, it is the woolly green fur that is shed for a thinner coat between May and early June.

Strath haggis (Haggis chloris)
Strath haggis (Haggis chloris)

Like the comparison between the woodland red deer of, for example, Dartmoor, and those of the Scottish Highlands, the strath haggis is larger than its mountain dwelling cousin. A male Haggis chloris can easily be twice the size of the equivalent Haggis vulgaris. As the records are so scant, it is not known whether the two species interbreed.

Unlike its more common, but still rare, cousin, the strath haggis does not have shorter legs on one side of its body, instead the longer back legs serve to enable mobility in much the same way as a hare. It can be argued that the shorter front legs are more like arms, ending in five digits — not unlike a human. These near-fingers have remarkable dexterity and a powerful grip. One old fisherman once told me of seeing a strath haggis crouched on a rock along the beat he was working. He was surprised when it swiftly reached beneath the water and brought out a small trout, which it proceeded to grasp tightly as it leapt to the shore and disappeared in a series of bounds into the surrounding reeds.

Until I heard this tale I believed the literature to be correct in assuming the strath haggis to also exist entirely on a vegetarian diet, as it is said its mountain dwelling cousin does. I believe, although I have no proof, that it is likely both species are omnivorous and either the early records of this have been lost (or disbelieved), or the evidence has never been sufficiently recorded.

As is well known, Haggis vulgaris was almost entirely hunted to extinction on account of its delicious flesh (the modern replacement, mutton haggis, heavy on pepper and oatmeal, and as tasty as it is, cannot compare to the exuberant old records regarding the cooking and flavour of this beast). Many years later, following the subsequent ban on haggis hunting, it appears both species are staging something of a comeback. This is good news for the ecology of the Highlands, but I do worry whether estate owners will attempt to capitalise on this, encouraging rich people to pay extortionate sums in order to once more be able to go on a haggis hunt. Of course, Haggis chloris may escape such a fate simply by the locales in which it resides — the wooded straths of the Highlands are often hard to hunt, with too much cover and few clear sightlines.

In all my years of observing nature this is only the second strath haggis I have been lucky enough to see, and I know that is two more than many.

Strath haggis, Haggis chloris
A closer view of the haggis, still turned away from the camera. The reddish-orange guard hairs are clearly visible, as is the spider’s web I believe it was collecting. You can also make out the right forearm, although the digits are curled.

Both these photos were taken from behind the animal, from cover and under bright sun. It has been written that the haggis is most active around dawn and dusk, so it may have difficulty seeing in full sunlight. The wind was also blowing towards me, masking my scent and any inadvertent noise I made.

However, despite my care, this particular beast quickly realised it was not alone and swiftly vanished into the woodland, leaving no tracks and only these photos and my account to prove it was ever there.