Stalking red deer in the highlands of Scotland is on most people's sporting 'to-do' list. Duff Hart-Davis explains the romance of the stag, whether you're after a monarch of the glen or a switch.
Stalking red deer in the highlands is a great joy. It takes you into incomparable surroundings. You can shoot a stag in Thetford Chase or Somerset or the Lake District easily enough but the environment will not have a tenth of the romance that enhances operations in the far north. Read more on red deer stalking in the Highlands or Victorian parties stalking in the Outer Hebrides. And do take note of Duff Hart-Davis’s checklist below:
STALKING RED DEER IN THE HIGHLANDS
From the high tops the views are stunning of countless summits, of islands, of the sea and close at hand you come on secret places that even long-distance hikers never reach: deep, hidden corries, little hill lochs, waterfalls, faces as sheer as the roofs of Gothic cathedrals. This is the world of peregrines and golden eagles and of the ptarmigan (which they hunt) but, above all, it is the world of the red deer. And stalking red deer.
Plenty of hotels offer days stalking red deer but the most enjoyable plan is for a group of friends to take an entire forest, lodge and all, for a week or fortnight. This means they wake up in the heart of the wilderness, with grouse sounding off like alarm clocks all around, and can start operations from outside the front door. In this spectacular, open environment the deer are visible from great distances and the challenge is to approach within range. By far the most thrilling part of the season is the rut, which traditionally begins on 20 September, “the Day of the Roaring”. It is the noise that sets a rifleman’s pulse racing: the bellows that echo across the glen as the stags defy challengers and marshal their hinds. The group seethes with movement as the master stag chivvies one hind after another and drives off younger males.
In any day stalking red deer on the hill, the key figure is the professional stalker. I always find it immensely enjoyable to spend a day in the company of a man who has accumulated a great store of knowledge about the red deer and the ground. Since stalkers spend day after day on their own, many are taciturn, but if you ask about the hill, past and present, they will soon open up and start to reminisce. Whatever you do before you go to the hill, make sure you lower a substantial breakfast. Porridge, eggs and bacon, toast and coffee, will set you up for an energetic outing stalking red deer.
As you set out to stalk red deer, you may be accompanied by a gillie leading a stout pony. Once you start up the hill, you and the stalker will be on your own, having left the ponyman to wait and watch from below. The stalker will set the pace and it’s a good idea to keep close behind him. He is bound to be fitter than you, and if he is going too fast, say so. He will call a short rest or, at least, slow down. My late brother-in-law, who tended to be overweight, had a reprehensible habit when stalking red deer. Annoyed when stressed, he would turn round and go home without a word. The stalker, looking back a minute or two later, was naturally alarmed, fearing that his guest had had a heart attack and fallen into a hollow.
Unless you volunteer to carry the rifle, the stalker will keep it in its cover, on his shoulder, and he probably will not load the magazine until action is imminent. Only in the last few minutes will he ease a round into the breach and slip the safety catch on. Wind is all-important when stalking red deer. You can approach deer upwind or across the wind but hardly ever downwind, for they can scent you from a mile away. Your leader will be familiar with every trick that the wind can play and he will manoeuvre accordingly. If he suddenly spots the tips of antlers or a hind’s head showing over a brae, he may sink down, an inch at a time, until he is fully hidden, or he may drop instantly, as if shot, before withdrawing and working round to a vantage point from which he can make a survey of what lies ahead. Whatever he does, imitate him.
It is unlikely that he will allow you to shoot a royal – a 12-pointer, or monarch of the glen, unless you have contracted to get one. More likely he will choose an old beast with a head that is going back (declining every year), or a switch – one with no forks at the top of the antlers – for the aim on all well-managed forests is to improve the stock by selective culling.
As you close in, the stalker will move with ever-greater caution, winding through peat hags or creeping up burns: you may have to struggle up a waterfall or lie face-down in a black wallow until, in the final approach, he worms his way forward to a firing point and motions to you to come up beside him. The next few moments, or minutes, are, to me the best of the day when stalking red deer. If the stag has temporarily gone out of sight in a hollow, you can get the rifle comfortably settled, and there may be time for a whispered discussion. Then, as the target reappears and turns broadside, your companion will hiss in your ear, “Take him now!”
Even with a well-placed chest shot, the stag may run 50yd before collapsing. Whatever its reaction, reload immediately and keep still until you are sure it is dead. In the worst scenario, the stalker will grab the rifle and go after it to finish it off. It is then his job to gralloch the beast – if you are keen, you can volunteer. If it is your first time stalking red deer and your first stag, he will daub your face with blood, not to be washed off until morning. Next, the stag has to be recovered. A good beast of 16 stone or more will soon show you what the expression “dead weight” means: it flops into every hollow and becomes lodged against rocks, so that in boggy or tussocky ground you will need to tie ropes round front feet and head, and both pull from the front. On steep slopes one of you may have to act as brakeman, with a rope on the back legs, to stop the body knocking over and possibly goring your companion in front.
In earlier days when stalking red deer, the way of communicating with the ponyman was to light a small fire and send out smoke signals. When primitive walkie-talkies came in, there were splendid scenes of the stalker jamming the point of his gralloching knife into the radio’s innards as a makeshift aerial in an attempt to get a signal. Mobile phones make things easier. When you reach the pony, stalker and gillie will load the beast on to the saddle – a skilled operation. Then you can have the pleasure of heading home with your stag borne down the path ahead of you. Argos are also excellent for extraction but they are uncomfortable and noisy and leave unsightly tracks across the hill. A traditional pony is far preferable.
At the larder, the weighing and cleaning of the carcase will take only a few minutes, after which all can repair to the gunroom for well-earned drams and an exchange of information with people who have come in from elsewhere. Then you are more than ready for a bath of steaming, peat-laden water and dinner. Is not such a day a hundred times more worthwhile than a day at pheasants? On a 400-bird day you may shoot 50 birds but at £50 per bird you pay about five times what you would for your stag. You have moments of excitement when birds pour over but you do not have the long-drawn-out thrill of stalking red deer. Standing in line, you take little exercise, and you probably over-indulge at lunch, whereas the hill will stretch every muscle in your body and leave you feeling a new man.