This is a slightly different sort of write-up from those I usually produce, as stories of stalking stags in the Highlands are ten a penny on the Stalking Directory, although admittedly there aren't that many on here that don't involve seeing any stags, let alone shooting one. They sort of lack finality. Nevertheless, this was a hugely valuable learning experience and in no way does it feel like a wasted trip, so I'll focus on the elements that make this the case, and some things I've learned.
First of all, my wholehearted thanks go out to Tamus/Megsjockey of former SD notoriety for inviting me to explore his syndicate's new ground with him, being a tremendous tour guide, host, and of course teaching me a lot about stalking. Also to his friends who hosted a total stranger for the weekend (not sure they're on here though, so won't mention names, but if you are there, huge thanks!).
First discovery: I can stalk deer on my own like a grown-up.
I'd never stalked in Scotland, let alone with a chance of a stag, but most importantly, this was my first ever chance to explore a piece of ground on my own and pit myself against deer without the reassuring presence of a guide, by which I just mean someone who knows their onions, not necessarily a professional. I had every reason to believe that I had at least picked up the basics of stalking: walk into the wind, do so very slowly, look carefully, stop often, wait and watch. And then hope the woods are well-disposed towards you. It wasn't until 20 minutes into the first wood, pre-dawn on Saturday morning, that I saw a roe doe in my binoculars, perhaps 30 metres away into the trees, and I'd seen here before she spotted me, I could have shot her if she'd been on the menu. She wasn't, and eventually bounded off, but I was left with a huge grin on my face because this was a Big Moment: I'd successfully stalked into a deer on my own!
Second discovery: I should trust my own judgement on species identification.
Later on in that same wood, around the eastern edge of it with a stretch or moorland to my left and woods to my right, a large brown bird took off from the undergrowth. Something like a hen pheasant, but with a less urgent sort of clatter. And either it was closer than I thought, or it was much bigger than a pheasant. I can see the picture now in my mind's eye: large chest, and a fan-shaped tail, like a turkey. I know what that it, it's a hen capercaillie! I'd be certain of it if it wasn't such an unlikely conclusion. I'd only seen one cock capercaillie maybe fifteen years ago in the Vosges in Alsace, but they're unmistakable. So maybe a hen blackgrouse is a safer bet. I decided I'd tentatively claim that's what I'd seen. Later on, when we met up again, Tamus asked how it had been. "Well I saw a roe doe, and bumped a buck over the other side of the moor, but he ran off. How about you?". "Not bad: I put up a pair of capercaillie!". "HA! I knew it! So did I! A hen I thought I must be wrong!". Well I'm not wrong. I know my giant grouse when I see them.
Third discovery: There are red deer motorways.
We spent most of out time exploring a large area of mixed forestry where I had time to try and learn the habits of the local deer, apart from being somewhere else at the time. About an hour into my travels, I came across what almost looked like the entrance to a cave under the trees, veering off from the real "human" path. Entering that low tunnel, it was clear that this was a local red deer motorway, with one main track down the middle down the hill, and transverse smaller paths crossing into the woods on either side. Ah-ha, so this is where the go when they're about.
IMG_6273 by pinemarten, on Flickr
IMG_6271 by pinemarten, on Flickr
Fourth discovery, which isn't really a new one: there are other sorts of trophies.
Here are the trophies that I brought back from the weekend:
You haven't failed if you've found ceps! This one was just after I scared off that buck. A sort of woodland ransom I suppose. You keep your buck, I'll take the cep.
IMAG0446 by pinemarten, on Flickr
I don't think I have to say anything about these. There's nothing like this in the south. I've never seen bright red mosses and lichens so deep that your feet vanish into them. What a beautiful landscape. How could I refuse the follow-up invitation? And I haven't see it in snow yet.
2015-10-04-074734-18 by pinemarten, on Flickr
2015-10-04-075242-20 by pinemarten, on Flickr
Fifth discovery: Swarovksi binoculars are better than Leica ones (!)
Because these are roe, like I thought in the first place, not hinds. Just goes to show how the mind can make you see what you wished for rather than what's there.
IMG_6277 by pinemarten, on Flickr