So, for the 14th year in a row, back up to Sutherland for a week of hill stalking and salmon fishing. Most of my stalking is down South for roe and muntjac, so the opportunity to go out after red deer on the hill is one I look forward to every year - it is so different!
This year we were blessed, at least from a stalking perspective, with fine weather. Having zeroed on the Sunday evening, I drew the straw of being first rifle on the Monday so after a leisurely breakfast (porridge....with honey) and putting together my piece, I got all my kit together and made ready for the off. We were a party of three; the stalker, me and the second rifle - a Black Watchman, so plenty of Scottish stories and anecdotes with me the only Sassenach.
Because the wind was from the North we spent the first couple of hours walking from the lodge to the old stables on the Northern march of the estate, around 6 miles of easy walking along the argo tracks above the banks of the river. Along the way we diverted off a couple of times to climb the hill and spy over the country. We could see plenty of beasts, but there was no way we could stalk them without them catching our scent.
Having reached the bothy we started heading South, or more accurately, straight up! Once at the top, however, the view made it all worthwhile.
The stalker on the estate here is great - he knows the country and the deer like the back of his hand, in fact almost as well as I know the tread pattern on the soles of his boots! I've had some classic "wet willy" stalks over the years, where I've made close friends with the burns and peat hags, picking up enough ticks and keds along the way that a full body search was required at the end of the day. This year, however, things were a bit different.
From the 'spies' we had made earlier in the day, we had a good idea where the beasts would be, so we headed towards the top of the next hill in readiness of starting the proper stalking.
For anyone not familiar with Hill stalking, the terrain can be pretty tough going. Apart from the steep inclines and the shin-high heather, there are also some significant peat hags that need to be negotiated, with solid and level footholds being the exception. We dropped into one of the peat hags and the stalker stopped, pointing out a pad mark in the peat. A fox! In fact, to be more precise, it was either a one-legged fox or a hopping fox, as search as we might we couldn't see any other tracks. So engrossed were we with searching for the tracks that it was only when I glanced up that I saw, barely 20 yards away on the other side of the peat hag, a group of stags, possibly a dozen or more. Even worse, a young staggie was looking straight at us!
Hissing to catch the stalkers attention, we slowly (oh so slowly) inched our way back behind a convenient clump of peat hag. Taking the rifle case off my shoulder, I took out my .308 Sako and chambered a round. The stalker said to rest the rifle on the top of the peat clump and take a beast standing second from the right. I eased the rifle on to the top of the clump - no chance to drop the legs of the bipod - and got up behind the sights. Looking through the scope all I could see was a big patch of deer hair, so I brought the crosshairs up the back of the shoulder until I was a third of the way up the body and pulled the trigger.
Are there any words you can hear out stalking that are more depressing than these? We swapped notes. First we verified that I'd shot the deer he'd instructed me to (why didn't I shoot the royal!!). Then we discussed the shot - the stalker thought I'd neck-shot the deer whereas I'd gone for the engine room, so he'd been expecting the deer to drop to the shot. Moreover, I was convinced I'd seen the antlers of the beast falling to the ground and out of sight just the other side of the peat hag, so I was pretty sure of the shot. We unloaded the rifle, picked up our kit and stood up. Doubts were in my mind as we crossed the peat hag, only for relief to set in as I saw the antlers appear.
A nice nine-pointer and a good beast to take off the hill. After the gralloch we sat down in the heather and ate our piece. It was a fine day, and we had what I thought was the best view in Scotland.
What I took away from this years stalk is that Hill stalking can be every bit as exciting and unpredictable as woodland stalking. Last year the beast I shot was close on 200 yards away, this year less than 20. Last year I lay looking through the scope for more than 20 minutes while the beast was bedded down, this year it was almost "point and shoot".
When the Black Watchman was on his stalk, I started thinking about my shot and the confusion that led from it. I've neck shot enough deer over the years, and this would have been one of the easiest, but the thought hadn't crossed my mind when I was looking through the scope. Perhaps it was because of the time pressure and the risk of the deer bolting at any moment, or perhaps it was because when I first looked through the scope the crosshairs were on the body. Regardless, those anxious moments when I questioned whether I'd missed remain fresh in my mind, almost as much as the relief when we saw the beast lying in the heather!
When we got the beast back to the larder that evening and dressed it out, the entry wound was just where expected but there was no exit wound. I use Nosler 150 gr ballistic tips for pretty much all my stalking, and it's a round I have complete confidence in. The beast had run barely 15 yards after the shot. Looking at the entry wound, the bullet had hit a couple of ribs, so most likely it disintegrated or deflected, but the gralloch was complete and there was no point searching for the remains.
In all we had four stags over the week, but the really depressing thought is that it's likely to be another year before I get back on the hill.