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Highland stalking

PUBLISHED: 15:20 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:06 28 November 2012

Brian Waites

by Brian Waites

This was my fifth trip of the year to this idyllic part of Invernesshire, and the journey was as tiring as it was enthralling, and I was back, back to what has become my second home 18,000 acres of majestic upland splendour, home to the indigenous red and roe deer and a respectable head of red grouse and blackcock, considering the current trend in the fortunes of these two, enigmatic gamebirds.

I was there to help out on the estate, for the last two weeks of the red stag season. The head keeper Sandy Wilson, manages the ground, with the aid of a Highland college student, who is gaining, ‘hands on experience’ to cement the theory learnt at that excellent academy, which continues to provide these, future ‘guardians of the countryside’.

Like most estates, these days, the owners sell stags to a sporting agent who in turn sells them on to clients, in this case mostly foreign stalkers; keen to experience the thrill of hunting the stags amongst the highland glens. The guests for the next two weeks would be Danish and all would be visiting this area of Scotland for this first time.

The guests duly arrived Sunday at mid afternoon, two married couples all in their mid to late sixties, ‘This does not fill me full of confidence’, I said to Sandy, as they fumbled and mumbled, as we met them at the target for the compulsory pre stalk zeroing check. Eight shots later I almost ate my words, as all the holes in the paper were all within an acceptable area on the target. Pleasantries were exchanged and arrangements were made for a 09.00 am start the following day.

The first stalking day dawned bright and breezy, ‘There’s a lot of west in the wind’ said Sandy ruefully, as the estate benefits from north winds, this causes the deer to feed into the large bottle neck on the estate formed by the A9 to the west and higher ground to the east, a south and west wind has the opposite effect, taking them towards the neighbouring estates.

The game plan was to split the guests in to two parties, then take each party up to the hill by Argo, (those wonderful, 8 wheel drive, go almost anywhere, vehicles that have, I am sure extended the working and sporting lives of many since their arrival)
The estate is large enough to facilitate two or even three stalking parties depending on the winds and deer movements.

I was to head for the ‘home beat’ and Sandy was to head out to the far end of the glen, hoping to take a stag near to the march (boundary of the estate) thus pushing the remainder further on to his ground, possibly giving the opportunity of taking another beast later in the day.

I headed out in the Argo, steadily climbing, through the beeches and on to the moor, the faint argo tracks of previous trips leading us to the ‘spying rocks’, a cairn of unknown age, situated on a high point giving a panoramic view of the open area of ‘flats’ at the northern end of the beat.

From this vantage point, using our binoculars, we could see three groups of stags nestled amongst the rocky outcrop about half a mile away on the other side of the flats. None of these stags were holding hinds and appeared to be totally oblivious to the fact that they should be sex crazed tyrants at this time of the year. I discussed with the guests that, the rut was not fully under way, and the general consensus of opinion was that the rut was taking place later these days, the weather was unseasonably mild, possibly a consequence of global warming.

I decided that there was a suitable beast for culling on the far right of the groups; he was an older looking stag with characteristic sagging back and belly. With the west wind blowing from or left front, this would mean a detour round to our right of some half a mile, then round the outside of the flats for half a mile before we could begin the stalk in earnest, amongst the rocks, with the wind fully in our favour.

It was decided that the lady would shoot first, so whilst the gentleman’s rifle remained empty, I took the lady’s firearm, closed the bolt on an empty chamber over a full magazine, and shouldered the weapon. And so we set off on foot, in Indian file, with a strategy in our minds and hope in our hearts.

The heather was quite short initially but as we came off of the high ground it became longer and the ground courser, this made the effort required all the greater, but being mindful of the fitness levels of the guests, we made our way slowly round to our right and edged our way towards the start of the rocky out crop.

It took about an hour to reach our initial objective the foot of the rocky outcrop, I looked back towards the general location of the ‘spying rock’ and gauged that the group holding the target stag was some five or six hundred meters away to our left, and higher than our current level.

As we made our way, the reassuring chill of the wind in our faces gave me heart that our approach was, as yet, undetected. The anticipation and excitement level began to rise and we slowly edged towards my mark. Sandy’s advice to me years before kept running through my head, ‘spy lots walk a little’, and so I did.

It was just as well, as in front, and below us I spotted a roe doe, feeding quietly at the side of a burn, some 80 meters away, further investigation with the binos revealed a fawn tucked into the bank. I gestured to the guests to make themselves small and they did so. I pointed out the reason for our sudden halt and suggested that we wait whilst the mother and her young one, moved on.

Eventually the fawn got to its feet and moved slowly down the hill, following its mother, both taking the occasional mouthfuls of feed on the way. After some twenty minutes or so the two fed over a small rise and out of sight. I waited a few moments to make sure they had moved away, before gesturing to the gentleman to remain where he was, ‘Please don’t try to see what is going on’ I said to him, ‘if the deer see you, they’ll be gone’. The Dane nodded, and gave me the thumbs up sign to acknowledge his understanding.

I led on and the lady followed closely behind, our steps were slowed now, as I knew we were on a good line towards the last location at which I had seen the stags. I tried to control my breathing, watch the changing views ahead and to the sides, and stepped as softly and carefully as I could.

At one point we crossed a patch of burnt heather and as we did so the hard, bone dry stems dragged on our boots and gaiters, making a totally unnatural din, I cursed Sandy for burning this particular piece of hill, selfish and irrational, I know, but at that time it seemed as if every deer for miles around would be able to hear our approach.
We eventually made it back into the lush green heather and our steps were immediately muffled, save for the soft brush of the foliage against our gaiters.

I expected to make contact at any moment and my movements became even slower, staccato like, as each roll and dip came into view, I scanned and rescanned the hill.
Then, suddenly a familiar colour and shape caught my eye; it was the rear end of a red deer, yellowy brown and almost black in parts, I estimated it to be around 150 meters away. Then the unmistakeable shape of an antlered head came into view, the beast was feeding, facing away from us.

The group were slightly below us and the wind was almost directly in our faces. I dropped slowly to my knees and the guest automatically followed. The lady whispered that she had not seen the deer, I explained where they were and that I wanted to get closer and that we would do this by climbing slightly and crawling into the group.

I carefully opened the bolt of the rifle and drew it back, as I returned it towards the breach, it picked up the round and as it did so it made that awful metallic rattle which always seems amplified by the stalkers heightened senses. I pushed the round home, fully closed the bolt and put the rifle in safe mode. Rifle sung we began to walk slowly up the hill, watching as we made our way.

Forty or fifty meters up the hill and out of sight of the deer, we changed tack and moved towards our deer. Slowly and carefully we edged forward, the decision to climb higher was justified as a rise ahead allowed us to advance some sixty meters keeping us out of view of the deer.

As we made our way to the top of this rise, I dropped slowly to my knees, my companion followed suit, I held my hand up, palm towards her and the lady nodded. Alone I crawled to the top of the rise and looked over into a small bowl in the hillside.

There in front of me, some 80 to 90 meters away were a group of six stags, three young spikers, a knobber (young first or second year animal) and two others, one of which was the older beast I had spied earlier from the spying rocks. The other was a younger beast in excellent condition; he possessed of a bonny set of antlers, an uneven 9 pointer, dark in colour and wide in the beam.
His older group member was in poorer condition and the hard years of hill life had clearly taken it toll on him. His head was an even 8 points, not as heavy or wide in the beam, as his young friend, but a tidy head none the less.

I made the decision to cull the older beast, he was after all older, in poorer condition and more importantly, the younger stag would serve the local heard better as a rutting stag, than hanging over a mantelpiece in some Danish household. I slowly removed the rifle from my shoulder and slid it forwards through the heather, removed the scopes covers and lined the rifle on the old stag.

The shooting point was perfect. Low heather, ‘clear of the muzzle’ and a clear view of the beast, the hillside some 20 meters beyond the deer would serve as a perfect backstop. All was set, I slowly turned and beckoned the lady forward, she did so in perfect form, body, knees and elbows hugging the ground, head down, the lady moved up on my left side, directly onto the rifle. ‘Take up the rifle and pick out the third deer from the left’, I instructed, the lady obliged.’ I can’t see it’, she whispered. I gave a large white rock just above the target animal as a mark. ‘Yes, yes, I see it now.

I took up my binoculars and took in the scene, quietly I told the guest,’ Wait till the stag is broadside on and standing still. We have done all the hard work we can take our time. They don’t know we are here’. I eased off the safety and nodded to the lady, she nodded in return.

The group ahead of us grazed steadily and moved to and fro, until eventually the old stag obliged and stood facing left to right some 90 meters from us.’ When you are ready, take him’, I instructed the lady. A couple of seconds later I heard the rapport of the shot and simultaneously saw the strike of the bullet on the beast, middle of the body just behind the front shoulder. ‘Reload!’ I called to the lady, the need for stealth gone with the shot. She did so, ‘Just wait’ I said, as the old stag ran a dozen steps before turning down the hill, stumbling and falling over. He raised his head briefly, before expiring, undoubtedly within the same mountain range he had been born in and in which he had lived a full and natural life.

We waited five minutes or so, watching for any movement from him, but he was dead, cleanly and humanely. Our small group advanced towards him and after checking for any eye reflex I confirmed life extinct, and congratulated the lady. The mood now changed to one of post hunt jubilation, pressure off, for stalker and guest alike.

Photographs were taken and the beast gralloched, our ‘pieces’ taken from our pockets and eaten in the superb ‘al fresco’ restaurant that is, the highlands.
Those who have experienced the thrill and exhilaration of stalking on the open hill and enjoyed the natural wonders of the north, will be able to emphasise with the mixture of emotions our small group were feeling at that time and the memories that were being etched in our minds…

For those who have not yet ‘chased the wild deer’ I offer this advice, if a sports person you are, then you know the thrill of the chase, and the greatest thrill of all is waiting for you amid the high glens and splendour in the highlands of Scotland.

 

About Brian Waites...

I am a working man who loves shooting sports especially stalking. Though I live in Yorkshire I am lucky enough to have a good friend who keepers a 16,000 acre estate in Invernesshire. I spend a great deal of my spare time up there and I have began to write down some of my experiences – from heather burning to walked-up and driven grouse days to my great love, deer stalking.

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