UP THE HILL AND BACK AGAIN, THE LIMITED EXPERIENCES OF A
NOVICE HILL STALKER.
Now if anyone told me a year ago that I would be driving my ex army Land Rover through the Scottish Highlands to meet a gentleman who had offered me a weeks Sika Hind stalking in some of the most beautiful countryside in the world; well I’d have wanted to know what illegal substance had invoked such a marvellous yet elusive dream. Yet here I was. Where exactly I wasn’t quite sure, in fact I may have been lost! Hang on cottage with the bay window, antlers on garage door. Yes, and there was Sikamalc greeting me with a ‘sling your hook’ hand gesture and shouting a phrase that ends with ‘off’!
Inside the old stone cottage I met Sikamalc’s stalking friends, Mark, Carl and Dave. After the briefest of introductions it was time to taste the local fire water and exchange hunting stories in front of a roaring log fire. A great start to the week I think you will agree!
Stalking day one
The sun had still to rise above the mountains and all around the country was silent. A silence that, in all my years of travelling, I had not experienced before. It seemed to hang in the mist. Stalking the ghost like Sika was going to be hard work, with no background noise to muffle my foot falls and belay my heavy breathing as I ascended into the hills, it was going to be close to impossible.
Through the misty first light Sikamalc led me up a winding path through a plantation block of dark green. As we reached the half way point the uniformed rows of spruce gave way to grey rocky out crops and weird looking lichen covered Scots pines and stunted oaks. This was a scene from prehistory, an ancient Highland forest. Around my boots the heather grew thick and the ground squelched at every step. An odd feeling, like walking on water logged sponges.
I moved as directed by Sikamalc through the forest, our eyes straining to catch first sight of the Sika deer. Already my heart was racing and the adrenaline pumped through my veins. I concentrated hard on regulating my breathing but to no avail, the physical effort and mounting excitement made me wheeze and gasp like an old church organ! Slowly along the deer path, first up and then down the hillocks and into a clearings edge we made or way towards the monstrous form of a storm ravaged pine tree. From here we hoped to get a clear view of any grazing deer. A flash of grey along the far bank and our eyes made out the form of a Sika hind in flight! “********”! I volunteered between gasps for breath. “Well at least you have seen your first Sika hind” Malc said with a grin.
As we headed up the hill to try for another spot, along the sky line to my left two more hinds broke cover and ran. It was impossible to know where the deer were. They seemed to appear out of no where and retreat back to it just as fast! Malc’s Bavarian now took up the scent, not yet two years old but this sturdy little hunter led us up a steep craggy path and on to a set of fresh deer slots and fumets. “Just a little way ahead of us, deer” Whispered Malc “Stay low and wait”! Our position was difficult, the ground steep and muddy. We needed to move up to firmer ground or risk slipping back down the way we had come. Slowly and silently we moved to a better vantage point, stooping low as not to show ourselves. “Swee”! A loud whistle went up in front of us. A hind had seen a movement and broadcast it to all the neighbouring deer. We froze in our tracks, she must have been close but we could see nothing of her. An age passed and we decided to carry on up the hill. No high pitched whistle this time, but as we moved away it became obvious that Todd the Bavarian was not keen to follow; in fact he was fixed on a point some sixty metres below us. “He’s on to them Steve”. Malcolm scanned the area and confirmed that yes indeed there were deer. “Steady now Steve, get yourself ready, find a spot from which to shoot and watch for the opportunity for a safe shot”. A deer trotted out from a line of trees, moving right in the direction we had come and then down the hill along an unseen deer path. Too fast I thought, I had hardly time to think when three more deer followed. “Too much cover, too fast I wish they would stop!” More deer followed in groups of threes and fours, at least twenty Sika stags, hinds and calves moving swiftly out of range down the hill and away from my poised cross hairs. My heart was racing and sweat poured from my brow. I was a nervous wreck! Malcolm grinned at me, I was chomping at the bit to have a go at these enigmatic deer, but it was not going to be easy!
After a brief rest we carried on up the hill. Within three or four steps we stopped again and dropped to our knees. A flash of red, then another, large animals but not deer! Foxes, two flaming great foxes, like great big ginger Alsatians chasing each other through the heather at full gallop. I had never seen anything like it; the lead fox had a woodcock in its mouth and was not at all interested in sharing his prize. Round and round they gambolled and frolicked. Their speed of turns was amazing! “Shoot them will you Steve” I heard Malcolm say. Malc whistled the foxes up, they come towards us but still flew around like a pair of exocets. Automatically I aimed at the lead fox and ‘Bang’! Missed by a mile, what was I thinking to take the shot in the first place? “You missed” Malcolm confirmed. Was that mock surprise in his voice? I would have had trouble hitting them with a shotgun never mind a bloody great, long barrelled 308. The foxes didn’t even seem to notice, they changed course and hared on down the hill in the same direction as the deer.
Well every deer for miles around would know that we were out on the hill now.
As we reached the top and stepped out across a small clearing, the sun was climbing high into a blue and grey striped sky. Malcolm explained to me that the deer would soon be finding cover in which to lie up and it was time to depart. We talked quietly as we descended the hill, what had seemed like a matter of minutes had in fact been a couple of hours stalking. I was relieved to be going back to the cottage and looking forward to a full English, or in this case ‘Scottish’ breakfast. We had seen the deer, I now knew what I was up against and what to expect for the evening stalk. ‘I knew what to expect’, did I? Suddenly, not twenty metres away, three Sika jumped to their feet and sped off down the hill. Two hinds and a staggie, these Sika like the many others we had seen that morning seemed to have the ability to hide their large forms in the scantest of cover. They did not stop to accommodate me with a shot although I had recovered my wits enough, with Malcolm’s assistance, to plonk the rifle on to the tripod and wait for them to stop. No chance!
Definitely time to get back to HQ and plan the evening stalk over copious amounts of eggs, sausage and bacon and a couple of mugs of piping hot tea.
For the evening stalk Malcolm took me to a hillside overlooking a number of smaller hills and valleys. From the top we could see the deer paths winding through the heather and across the burns. I prefer to sit and wait for the deer rather than traipse about watching them disappear over the horizon. This area was perfect, Malcolm stood to one side of a tree, and I sat at the base of it facing in the opposite direction. The peace and quiet of the place was fantastic; the only noise we heard was the whistling of a Sika Stag. I thought that it may be very close and that we may see it, Malcolm assured me that it was some distance off over the hills on a neighbouring estate. Wherever it was it sounded great, almost like whale song.
Nothing came of our hill top vigil and we decided to head back to the road and stalk the river valley. Again nothing stirred. I didn’t really mind, I was still coming to terms with the surroundings; it was all too much to take in. We drove down the road and picked up Carl, he had had no luck either. The sun was setting fast as we sped along the single track road. Something caught my eye silhouetted against the marshlands at the forest edge. All I could think of was my road trip through Spain many years ago. What made me think of that? Black Bulls, that was it. Everywhere in Spain I had seen large black bulls cut out of sheet metal at road and mountain sides. I was looking at a black bull! “Malcolm…is that a deer?” The four wheel drive stopped in an instant and we all peered at the creature some four hundred yards off. “I can’t see Steve the windows are all steamed up. Let’s have a look”. Malcolm and Carl were out the vehicle and glassing the horizon before I had chance to disentangle myself from my rifle and kit. “Yes Steve it’s a Sika Stag, quite a decent one, there’s a staggie with him and ….yes a hind, lets go” Malcolm was off at a pace stooping low through the sage grass, I followed as best I could and back at the vehicle Carl scratched his head and wondered what was going on. He had stalked all this area and only now as the light faded had the deer come out.
At about one hundred and twenty yards we stopped and looked at the deer through the binos. They were too interested in each other to bother about us; the stag seemed to be attempting to run the Staggie off. At ninety yards we stopped and Malcolm set up the tripod and I took aim at the hind. Through the binos I could see them clearly but the scope offered a darker grainy picture. I had shot deer in this light before but I felt uncertain about shooting now. Again I was taken with the buck fever and tried hard to concentrate, gripping my rifle hard into my shoulder. Every minute that went by robbed me of a little more light. Bang! The deer moved backwards and forwards and then up a hillock into the forest where they stood in the shadows watching the point at which I had shot. “What the f…., I must have hit it! Where..?” I was lost for words the deer had walked off, it should have been dead! Malcolm wasted no time and began searching the area for clues, I joined him looking for the tiniest indicator that yes indeed I had struck the hind. The light was fading fast as we walked up the hill into the forest. A deer gave a whistle and the three ran off up the slope. I could not comprehend what had gone wrong. “We’ll come back at first light with the dog, it’s too dark and dangerous to do much now” Malcolm said as we made our way to the car.
From what we saw of the deer and their actions after the shot was fired, I had missed the hind completely but we searched thoroughly anyway. That’s how Malcolm is, thorough and professional. I was also glad to get stuck in and look for the deer, I had ‘cocked up’. I had shot plenty of deer like this, but today I had missed, today I had the potential of wounding a deer. I felt sick; the buck fever had passed and left me with my feelings of wretchedness. What was I doing here if I couldn’t shoot a deer at ninety yards? What Malcolm must be thinking worried me too, after all these deer were his responsibility.
The car had travelled about half a mile when we spotted Mark at the side of the road. He had a very nice Sika hind. I got out and helped put it in the back. “Did anyone get one then….I heard the shot?” Mark asked a broad friendly smile across his face. I felt the eyes of the others on me; I kept my head down and wished for the ground to open up. The conversation on the journey back to the cottage was all about the hind that I had missed. The majority of the conversation that night was about it too. I kept going on about it to the other chaps and turning it over in my mind. Malcolm promised me that we would go at first light with the dog and look for the deer. It was his intention to do it anyway, but just him saying it calmed my troubled mind. I slept little and woke early, eager to get down to the spot and start looking.
Doom, gloom and despondency
The morning brought with it a grey lifeless sky and much rain; although even with a blue sky in Scotland it still manages to rain in some way. From stair rods to soaking mist it was always there to foul your view through spectacles, binos, scopes or all three at once.
Our priority that morning was to check out the ground we had seen the deer last night. We approached from the direction the deer had fled and within minutes we saw a staggie with a hind. Could these be the deer from last nights failed stalk? The staggie was watching us but didn’t seem to be overly concerned. The hind was within shooting range but obscured from where I was standing. Could I move closer without being seen? No the staggie was aware of something, why confirm his fears for him. All I kept thinking was this is an easy shot take it but don’t cock up this time! I pulled hard on the rifle and clamped it down into a very unnatural hold. Sweat poured off my brow and into my eyes as I tried in vain to steady myself, the familiar sickly feeling overtook me and before I was ready I’d pulled the trigger. I new the outcome before I saw the deer’s reaction, the staggie moved towards the hind as if to say what was that? She looked at him and in a motion of mutual agreement they were off. ‘Hells teeth’! Could the day get any worse? I just could not comprehend what was going on. I made a mental check of all possible explanations. Had I dropped my rifle, thus altering the zero? I don’t think so; no way, I am fastidious about my rifles and their accuracy. At this early stage I was already considering the possibility that I was developing a complex. I already had the feeling that I was not up to the challenge and therefore causing myself to fail. This missed opportunity developed into an extended search for the deer from last night and now the morning’s hind.
Malcolm was confident that again I had clearly missed; he had noticed that I had a tendency to pull up on the rifle as I pulled the trigger. What was going on? I had certainly not intended to. In myself I didn’t feel right, an important part of me was missing. I have often told my wife that when I hunt a primitive side of me emerged like an ‘auto pilot’ it was ‘Group Captain Caveman’ that brought home the bacon, not me! For some reason he wasn’t with me, his ability to lock on to the prey and execute a perfect kill had deserted me. Even with the experienced guiding hand of Malcolm at the helm I was adrift at sea and plagued with self doubt. What a mess, one thing did comfort me though and that was that all I had done was miss. No cigar from the coconut-shy but thankfully no injured deer.
At this point I would love to say that we went on to shoot a beautiful hind and all was well again. In fact even after a rigorous zeroing session back at the cottage I still managed to completely miss yet another Sika hind on the next trip out. The mickey taking came thick and fast from my new friends. It was meant in a good humoured way, a gentle kick up the arse, but it only served to make me even more miserable. “You wait till JayB finds out”! Malcolm chuckled. JayB and his wife were due to come round for dinner that very night. I was a dead man! JayB would kick my arse from Tuesday to breakfast. I had taken the rise out of both him and Sika Malc on the website so many times; it was time for a fair portion of ‘pay back pie’. I was due it, I knew it; I just hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
We had a great night the eight of us, an excellent meal and copious amounts of wine and whiskey topped off with Mrs JayB’s homemade mince pies. JayB gave me the treatment admittedly, but he gave me some sound advice also. “You are trying too hard relax, it will all come right…….eventually”! I can still see his grinning face as he sat nursing his whiskey glass contentedly.
My friends, all much more experienced in the ancient art of deer hunting told me of their previous undoings. It seemed that just when you thought that you were the best hunter since ‘Alan Quartermaine’ bump the proverbial bollock dropped! We are all human after all and therefore fallible.
A welcome diversion
Malcolm’s 4x4 propelled us smoothly down through the misty mountain roads and out across the changing landscape of the central and western highlands. We were off to see Malcolm’s land on the West coast, a different and altogether more mountainous terrain. We stopped briefly; I had spied a group of Red stags on a hillside over looking the road. At first I thought that they numbered around ten mature individuals but through Malc’s binos I saw in fact forty nine of the most wondrous stags I have ever seen. What a sight, they were all aware of us and looked down on us like royalty looking over their subjects. “They are fair, one or two good stags” Malcolm commented, he should know it’s his job to, but to me they were magnificent. We drove on, the reassuring sound of Dire Straits coming from the CD player. Malcolm would often explain the movements of the deer in that particular area or the local history of a place. We were in the company of a man who enjoyed his work and took great pride in explaining it to others, in my experience that is rare.
For a little while at least my cares were far behind me.
A change in the wind and a trip up Heartbreak Ridge.
I was glad of the diversions Malcolm had planned for my wife and me. Trips to places of local interest and a chance to pick up some mementos of our trip, we even managed to rouse JayB from his lair and enjoy a cup of tea and a chat in his lovely home overlooking the river and far off hills. At this point I was happy not to be on the hill, to my mind it was only a matter of time before something really bad happened. Yes I would enjoy my holiday and forget about the stalking. One afternoon we returned from a shopping expedition for moleskins for Malc and a Bugatti flat cap for me. I don’t feel right going stalking unless I look like an extra from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”
Mark and Carl informed Malcolm that they had been watching a group of Red Hinds two thirds up the infamous Heartbreak Ridge. I was blissfully unaware of this and stood in front of the bedroom mirror admiring my new cap perched on my head at a dangerously jaunty angle! ‘Knock knock’ on the door and an urgent summons from Malcolm meant only one thing. ‘The hunt is on’! All my kit lay sprawled on the bed and a hundred other places, ‘panic’! “Hurry up Steve if you are coming, we haven’t much time”. Malcolm was right, in an hour it would be sunset. We shot off at speed, Malcolm filling me in on the mission as we drove. “We won’t have time to come up over the hill, we must try to find a blind spot and then crawl towards the Reds downwind and parallel to them.” Sounds easy enough to me, not! Heartbreak Ridge was as inviting as Mount Longdon and just as exposed.
A few hurried hand signals and we were off up the hillside. Swamp grass made way for granite, then loose scree before yet more granite out crops and slippery moss and heather along deer paths dangerously close to the edge. We stooped at first, then moved at speed on all fours, this was a stalk at break neck speed! We would stop for a minute scope the deer gather our thoughts and then off again. As we got closer we crawled on our bellies. “Keep down Steve as low as you can, Malcolm looked me up and down, yeah right! 6ft 4ins and 18 Stone, I stuck out like Nelson Mandela at a White supremacists convention!
Again we stopped, the ascent was at break neck speed, the adrenaline pumping through me was the only reason I had got this far. “Right Steve, get lower this is a tricky bit”. It was, burnt off heather, sod all to cover our advance and in plain view of the deer! “Eat dirt Steve”, I did well and truly! I began to feel the cold around me and the water pouring in little streams out of the rock soaking through my clothes. At that moment I felt sick and retched; I swallowed hard and tried hard to get my breathing under control. I felt that at any moment the deer would spot us and calmly turn tail and trot off. No way would we bag these deer, everything was against us surely? It was time to loose some kit, first the shooting sticks then my binos. Closer and closer, my head pounding with the sound of my heart, the sun was going down fast; not much time left now and we were still to get back down.
“Right Steve we are here, look two yield hinds and a hind and calf; take the yield at the back okay”? From the cover of a large rock I aimed at the deer 160 yards away. “That’s right Steve shoot the yield hind when you’re rea…” ‘Bang’! The hind fell as if instantly asleep before Malcolm could finish his sentence. I reloaded but she moved no more, Captain Caveman was back! The other three deer hardly moved. Malcolm knew what was going through my mind, ‘I’ll have another one’. He checked that I was aware of the mother and calf then coached me onto the other yield. She new something was wrong but the strong wind had carried the sound of the shot away from the deer. The old girl sniffed at the empty air and by chance walked towards us. At 100 yards I sent a bullet into her side, her legs faltered for only a moment but she stayed erect. My second shot to the neck saw her drop to the heather.
My heart leapt with joy but we stayed prone behind the rock waiting for the remaining two deer to move off. The cool mountain water filled my boots and trousers, the steam of my sweat hung in a haze around me. The relief that finally it had come together. “Well done Steve, now go down the hill and get your kit, do you understand?” “Yeah Malc kit hill yeah” I stumbled away like a zombie to find my binos and sticks and then with my last effort I pulled myself back up to my grassed deer. I lay my hand on them both and thanked them for their sacrifice and wished them well in the afterlife, “thank you my pair of beauties”. I stood up and Malcolm bear hugged me like a mad man, “you did it Steve well done”! We laughed and pratted around for a minute before becoming very English and shook hands “Yes well done, good fellow”.
The sun was almost gone when we pulled the two deer on to the road side; I was so very tried and so very relieved. For the rest of the evening I was’ no good to man nor beast’ I was on cloud nine, so very-very happy.
Now that is my story, it is in no way a text book account of how to shoot in the Highlands. In fact I am very aware of my failings. I hope for one thing only and that is to explain to other novice stalkers the pit falls and the pure bliss that you will all encounter on your individual paths. No one is ever one hundred percent right, we all make mistakes; learning from them is the way to proceed and advance through life.
Thank you and good hunting!