First Red Stag
As part of a special birthday present I was gifted a days highland stalking on a huge stag forest near my home. This estate has several beats and still uses ponies instead of argo’s and quads, a real “lairdy” day with stalker and ponyman accompanying me! I couldn’t wait.
The weather in the Perthshire highlands has been shocking this summer, it has been very wet but last week it turned, and the day dawned bright and sunny with the promise of some heat to come after a cold start. I arrived at the estate in good time, I know all the stalkers and the headkeeper but I was introduced to one of the ponymen and the other “guest”. The headkeeper growled at me “Ah hear you shoot a .243?” The disapproval clear in his voice. I got a nod when I said “No a .270”. Many highland estates frown on .243’s as being barely adequate for big stags, and some don’t allow them to be used. After a practice shot, which hit the target despite my thumping heart, we set off in the 4x4 to meet up with our pony man at the road head, from there on it was shank’s pony.
We set off heading northwest up the glen, the wind on my left cheek, as the glen narrowed we stopped at spying places to check the slopes of heather, grass and peat hags on the mountains east and west of us. I love the gaelic names of theses places, which I grew up with and are so evocative “Glen of the black corrie,” “cliff of the eagles,” “corrie of the stags (roaring)” and so on. My stalker and I talked as we gradually made our way up the glen by the river, we had spied two or three large parcels of hinds on the slopes to our left toward the big Ben with one or two stags mixed in. On our right on the slopes to the east a huge group of stags and hinds sat amongst the peat hags watching us carefully. My stalker turned to me and said “We’ll carry on, but these guys might be our back-up plan for later, if they hang around”.
We started to climb in earnest, a steep grassy hill nestled between two glens, the talk had gradually abated – we needed our wind for climbing, at about the 600m contour we stopped and tucking in behind a peat bank we spied our way ahead, quickly spotting a group of 4 staggies a bare 100m away. With not one over the 10 stone mark my guide had bigger beasts on his mind, but he did look longingly at a very “switchy” looking youngster. After some gentle persuasion, they eventually moved away round the shoulder of the hill heading NW, we moved on, and at another stop spotted two bigger deer lying at the base of the final slope leading to the summit. The stalker was keen to try for these but it meant stalking right round the hill to get the wind in our face, we set off eastwards contouring round the hill, keeping below their sight line. The day was warm and things were getting, tighter, I could feel the stalkers anticipation, the tension was palpable, thrumming in the warm air.
As we moved a large group of stags and hinds moved out of the corrie far below us and headed up over the bealach (pass) toward the next glen. The stalker knew where they were headed and it was an improvement on their current position and so was unconcerned, we pressed on. Eventually, stopping, he moved forward to a small knoll to ascertain our relative position and look at the possibilities, motioning me up beside him he pointed to the stags 200yds away and still settled,
“Bigger than I thought” he said “and well worth a shot, we can get a better angle and closer from further north but we will need to go up a level”, we crawled back and moved up the slope to the next level 110 yds further north.
The upper part of the hill resembled a very rough wedding cake, every tier representing a false summit with a few hundred metres of undulating grass and heather ground between steeper slopes with the odd rock outcrop. We were near the summit now, and well above the stags, who lay SW of us.
It was a fantastic position, with a clear view to the big hill across the glen and the sun beating down on our vantage point. From this point we would have to crawl into position for the shot but it was downhill and all in dead ground. As we belly crawled down the slope to a grassy depression a meadow pipit rose up, shrilly decrying us and making a terrible fuss. When we reached our chosen firing point, despite our best efforts the formerly settled stags were up and walking away to the north about 150 yds away, disappearing round the shoulder of the hill. We cursed our luck and wondered if they had heard us or if the bird had given the game away. I asked if there was the chance of another shot, to which the reply was an emphatic “Aye, but we will give them a wee minute or two”. We retreated and moved north east round the summit of the hill back westwards and downwards to try to intercept them as they moved north. Looking down the north slopes to another bealach we could see the group of four staggies that had moved on earlier, we lay down in the heather to try to spot the stags, to no avail, the stalker moved on and downward alone for another few hundred metres. I watched the hillwalkers reach the summit of the “munro” a mountain over 3000 feet to the west of us. I later spoke to two of them in my local restaurant that evening and they were astonished to see my photograph of them from a mile away separated by a glen over 400m deep!
The stalker returned shaking his head, “I think these two are just too good” he said we can’t get at them from here. We’ll head back east and have a look north into Gleann Ghoinean, we had a look from way above, at a huge herd of deer in the peat hags at the head of the glen one stag I could see clearly almost 2km away with the naked eye was a huge black beast. Reluctantly the stalker called up the ponies, we’ll lunch round the back of the hill” he said, as my stomach rumbled, it was almost 1400, “and look at the options, these beasts” he pointed down in Gleann Ghoinean, “are not in a good place amongst the hags it would be a hell of stalk under all those eyes, through the hags, and a worse extraction, there are still other options”.
We moved away and headed south ate lunch while the ponies munched the grass and swished there tails contendedly, a good highland pony trained to carry a stag is a difficult thing to find these days and can cost upward of £4000! I have to say their presence added a dimension to the day that I had not even thought about and to see these hard highland stalkers caring for, and looking after their ponies was a great thing to see.
We looked across the corrie below us to the grass and peat slopes opposite us, the stalker did not fancy our chances of getting into the big group of beasts too many eyes and noses he said, I scanned the slopes with my binoculars and spotted two outlying stags and a small parcel of hinds close by I drew his attention to it, “good spy” he said “they might be a possibility.”
After lunch in the sun, the stalker suggested we head to the bealach and have a look on the far north slope of the hill again, looking on the little sheltered galleries flat and out of the wind that the stags seemed to favour. Leaving the ponies and ponyman we set off and on reaching the bealach the stalker headed left northwards towards the skyline and peering over, turning toward me his hand immediately shot to his mouth with a single index finger raised, the universal sign for quiet, he back crawled and hurried back to me whispering that there were four good stags just where he thought they might be, it was “a fearsome long 220yd shot” from there, but again, going up and forward would give us a better shot, we edged up and forward on hands and knees, the stalker reached the skyline and settled into the white grass, this time the rifle came out the slip and was pushed forward, a round was chambered and he motioned me up beside him, skylined, I felt unbelievably exposed, just a few strands of grass between the stags and me, I could see them, one was looking openly, in our direction three were lying down, they were on a shelf of flat grass 150yds away tucked into a corner of the hill 20 steps would see them round the corner, and away, a voice whispered in my ear “the third one on the right, quickly now” I got in behind the rifle, too slow, I picked him out, he was on his feet moving, left, away, the crosshairs danced tantalisingly across his torso. A decent stag 8 points, I became aware of the wide open space behind the stag, the crosshairs wouldn’t settle, two thumping heartbeats, he was gone. I breathed again. The stalker looked at me. “Too slow he said, get in behind the rifle quickly the shot was there”. He picked up the rifle and moved back.
I was annoyed and disappointed with myself, with him, I wanted to say something, I had wanted to impress, and instead had looked amateurish, I mentally recreated the moment, I had been slow; too much analysing and assessing, I had been aware of the white grass waving before the rifles muzzle I had seen the clear air behind the stag, I had been aware of his movement, he hadn’t stopped, I was used to doing things on my terms not being instructed and handed a rifle ready to fire. I hadn’t been ready. Damn and blast it.
I caught up with the stalker embarrassment and annoyance prickling me “there may have been a chance, but it was a brief one, I don’t regret not firing, and I understand that that may have been my only opportunity today, in which case – fine, I accept that.”
He turned and said “It won’t come to that, there are still the stags you spotted in the peat earlier today, it may be a dirty stalk but we should get to them. But you will need to be quick this time, shots in the peat hags appear and disappear quickly, and some of them at very short range, be ready at any time to come up and fire”.
I was very aware of how much pressure stalkers are under to get guests into a good position, if a guest has travelled from the US or Europe, and paid thousands of pounds for the privilege of stalking a Scottish red stag only under exceptional circumstances can failure be an option. These hard men feel that pressure, but don’t show it. They cover hundreds of miles a week over the roughest, highest and hardest ground in the UK. Terrain that leaves guests, wheezing, and legs screaming in pain, they do it summer and winter, in rain, sun, wind, blizzards, fog. They can wear out two pairs of boots a season and need 4000 calories a day to maintain weight between August and the middle of February. They come in all shapes and sizes but I have never met an overweight hill stalker. They deserve our respect.
We headed back to the bealach and moved south west this time, downhill, from the head of the corrie dropping down and contouring the slope, the wind was hitting the corrie wall and coming back behind us, a concern visible in the slight frown on the stalkers face, it was marginal.
We came to the first peat hag, the stalker crawled up the black bank peering over with only a hint of eye. Nothing. We crawled over into the next flat, and moved toward to the next peat bank. This time the stalker glassed the surrounding flats, he came back down, “There are hinds a hundred yards to our front, and I can see the very top of a stags antlers, we need to crawl 25yds up this peat gully to have a chance, flat to the ground, no noise, don’t lift your face, there is very little cover, but once we are in the gully proper we can crawl into position and see if the shot is on”.
This was said in whisper as light as breath in my ear.
We set off, almost swimming up the wet boggy hag. I pulled my cap down and kept my cheek to the grass. It took 5 minutes to cover that 25yds I remembered advice from years before “Gang as if ye are somethin’ growin’. We made it and on hands and knees crawled into the shallow gully and up the westward bank. The rifle came out and round went in, a 150 grain soft point. I was motioned up and the whisper came again,
“Follow the hinds down the slope, after the last hind there is a bare 10 yds you will see a stag standing broadside on uphill, that’s your stag. I settled behind the rifle traversed it downhill, the westering sun was bright through the scope, I saw only hinds, then in an instant a huge backlit stag filled my vision. In that instant nothing else existed, only that huge magnificent animal, I squeezed the safety off, settled the crosshairs, the stag was below me about 130yds away facing uphill, I settled the crosshairs below his shoulder. Time stopped.
My hand squeezed.
The world jumped and a muted roar filled my ears, the stag dropped.
I raised my head and reloaded, my blood started circulating again, the world came back to it’s normal spinning axis. I breathed. I had never needed a breath so badly. “Too high” hissed the stalker “the way he went down looks like a spine shot”.
“I don’t think so” I said “but maybe”. No movement from the stag, the rest of the herd were disappearing downhill, the stalker took the rifle and unloaded it, “chambers clear” he said. “That stag is dead”. We approached cautiously, he lay in the heather, a fine 9 pointer past his prime, but still handsome, a clear wound bled from above his elbow, perfect heart shot, he was dead when he hit the grass, he weighed out at 15stone hill weight. After the gralloch we shared a ½ mile drag down to the burn. I turned to the stalker “I didn’t want to mention it, but “that was my first stag”. The stalker smiled, “you should have said.” he called me over, bending he reached his hand into the bleed hole in the stags throat, it emerged red, with thick gobbets of blood and flesh, “this is a tradition in the highlands” he said, running his finger down my cheek and across my forehead.
Wear this till sunset, it’s a mark of respect for the stag who died today”. I was proud to, I had been blooded.
My sincere thanks and deepest respect.