Hunting Red Deer In Scotland

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An adventure across the Scardroy estate to cull a wary stag

Colin leaned over and whispered, “I could call and get him up, but he might run down the hill without giving us a shot. Better to wait until he gets up on his own.”

I nodded agreement. Eighty yards downhill, the antlers of a red deer stag showed just above the little ridge that concealed its body. We had been stalking it for several hours, keeping hidden behind the hills as the herd meandered along.

Eventually they had laid down for an afternoon nap and we were able to complete the final approach, first crouching, then on hands and knees and finally slithering to the crest of a small ridge. I wasn’t going to spoil things by getting impatient.

Every now and then the antlers would move as the stag tossed his head. Through the scope I could practically count the flies buzzing around the stag. I had the bipod deployed and, lying comfortably behind the rifle, it was no hardship waiting.

The grass, the hills, the vast space and solitude made it seem much like hunting mule deer on the rolling prairie of southwest Saskatchewan. Only the very different antlers, the patches of heather, Colin’s tweeds and his rich Highland accent reminded me I was in Scotland.

Colin Hendry is Head Stalker, a prestigious and important position on a Scottish estate. With Assistant Stalker Duanne Roberts, he’s responsible for managing and protecting game and environment on the 10,000 acre Scardroy estate.

It was only about 20 minutes before Colin whispered urgently, “He’s getting up!” The stag rose and stood facing to my right, angled away a bit. I settled the crosshairs, and the suppressed .243 spat its mild report. The stag ran about 75 yards and was down and dead within seconds.

A series of fortunate coincidences led up to the moment. The previous January, at the annual SHOT Show, I was talking with outdoor writer Wayne van Zwoll, an old friend with whom I’ve shared hunting adventures in half a dozen states and in Africa.

Wayne mentioned he and his wife Alice would be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in 2013. He was planning two weeks in Scotland, devoted to sightseeing and touring, something Alice would enjoy.

As it happened, 2013 marked 40 years of marriage for my wife Simone and I. Naturally my thought was, if Wayne can demonstrate a thoughtful, sensitive and caring side, I could too. We agreed two such thoughtful guys deserved at least some time for shooting.

Then came the second fortunate coincidence. I was re-reading the adventures of famous African hunter W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell, in which he talked of Corriemoillie, his estate in the Highlands.

Idly I did some Internet searching and found not only does Bell’s lovely house still exist, the upper level was available for self-catering accommodation. We booked two weeks in August. Best of all, we became friends with the current owners, Sharon and Willie Wright. Sharon very kindly made arrangements for us to shoot on Scardroy estate, located only about 20 miles away.

Game management is taken very seriously on these estates. Since the game is free roaming, the stalkers from various estates meet annually to assess game populations and jointly decide how many stags and hinds (females) need to be culled in order to maintain healthy herds.

Currently, Scotland has several species of deer. Native to Scotland are red deer and roe deer. Fallow deer were introduced around the 11th century and Sika deer in more recent years. Muntjac, another deer species, was introduced in England and sightings have been reported in Scotland.

With no natural predators, abundant grass and mild winters compared to Canada, deer in Scotland reproduce rapidly. Landowners and the government monitor wild species closely. In order to maintain healthy herds and prevent overgrazing, populations need to be kept in check.

It is widely accepted that controlled stalking and shooting is the only effective method. Income from those who want the opportunity to shoot, and from carcasses sold to local butcher shops, helps pay the cost of running the estate. It provides an incentive for landowners to maintain healthy, stable game populations.

Deer stalking in Scotland is not something taken up lightly. To own a centrefire rifle, you must have access to land and game. If you have access though, it isn’t unusual to shoot dozens of deer annually.

Often it is up to the gamekeepers to shoot surplus hinds at the end of the season. Stalking for red deer stag generally begins in September, after the velvet is off the antlers. Many prefer to stalk during the roar (rut) by calling.

Red stags are magnificent creatures. Genetically, they are closely related to North American elk; in fact, until recently, biologists considered them one species, cervus elaphus. Close study of mitochondrial DNA resulted in our North American elk being recognized as a separate species, cervus canadensis.

Red deer are found over much of Europe, Asia and even parts of Africa. Size varies considerably depending on climate, forage quality and local genetics. Some of the largest are in New Zealand, where the species was introduced.

Scotland’s red deer are about the size of mule deer, with a good average male running around 225 pounds on the hoof and exceptional animals going well over 300 pounds.

Deer stalkers in Scotland seem relatively unconcerned with antler size. What they value is the experience itself. Red deer are extremely wary, with excellent eyes, nose and ears. The terrain “on the hill” has few trees and little cover other than irregularities in the terrain itself. The challenge is to stalk as close as the terrain allows and cleanly take the selected stag, with the herd completely unaware of your presence. Picking off a stag at long range would earn either scorn or, at best, bewildered pity for having passed up a memorable stalk.

Bringing your own rifle is certainly possible, and many do. Since we planned to travel around and sightsee, we felt finding a location to store the rifles when not in use was too much trouble.

Scottish shooters are encouraged to have suppressors (“moderators”) on their rifles, to protect the hearing of shooter and stalker, and to not bother neighbours. Also, the mild report doesn’t alarm the remaining herd and maybe cause them to move to the next estate.

Colin kindly allowed us to use his own rifle, a Tikka T3 in .243 with 6x Zeiss Victory scope and moderator. Wayne and I both fired a few shots at targets to demonstrate we could shoot and handle firearms safely, and to check the sighting.

Bullets for red deer must be 100 grain or more. The ammunition we used was by RWS with a tough-jacketed 100-grain bullet. We both had close range (60 to 80 yards) one-shot kills and in both cases the bullets exited.

A stalk actually begins down in the glen, scanning the hills with optics to try and locate a herd. Once it’s decided which side of the glen to climb, the critical factor is the wind. There’s always at least a light breeze up on top. Colin occasionally lit up his old pipe during the stalk, using the smoke to judge wind speed and direction.

Sometimes the stalk is all walking, with an assistant leading a hill pony to carry the game back. We weren’t quite that traditional, first driving a road along the bottom of the glen before leaving the vehicle to start the climb.

While the hills aren’t particularly steep, it’s not easy walking. There’s no such thing as a level spot. The ground is covered with tussocks, holes and narrow slits a foot deep cut by water, often cunningly concealed by heather. Even on hilltops everything is wet and the ground underfoot quivers like jelly.

Two things make walking easier: decent shoes or boots with non-slip soles and good ankle support, and a walking stick. Scots are the darnedest people to walk you ever saw. They love to walk and they love their walking sticks. Buy one, you won’t regret it.

You won’t be troubled by the weight of a rifle. The stalker carries the rifle in a canvas soft case. It’s a matter of tradition. After the herd lies down and the final approach begins, the stalker uncases the rifle, chambers a cartridge and sets the safety, deploys the bipod legs and removes the scope covers – all to avoid noise once you get close.

Not being burdened with a rifle does make for easier slithering. Only on reaching the last bit of available cover does the shooter slither into position behind the rifle.

Of all the methods of hunting big game, I consider stalking the most challenging. It involves first finding the game and seeing it before it sees you. Once the game settles down it means approaching without being seen or heard, constantly monitoring wind and terrain. There’s a sustained level of excitement. A shift of wind or any little error – a dislodged rock, an uncontrolled cough, getting too impatient – and the game is gone.

It was a pleasure to see how much Colin enjoyed the stalk even with all his experience. I remember as we were getting close, the rubber sole of my shoe squeaked on a wet branch. We were now close enough even a slight sound might be detected, and the glare Colin gave me did my heart good.

As we reached the last bit of cover, Colin’s expression was one of pure happiness, of someone completely living in the moment. Later on he said, “I’ve seen you shoot. We probably could have stayed on top and killed the stag from 200 or 300 yards. But think of what we’d have missed.”

It’s truly a wonderful experience, and as Colin said, not to be missed.

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