I admit it, I was biased, a deeply xenophobic “Sika are the devils own introduction to the highlands”, type of guy. This view had been perpetuated by comments such as “ugly brutes”, “Neanderthal deer”, “aggressive little bu**gers”. I have none in my area of the highlands nearest is probably 50 miles away in Argyllshire. My views were based upon the views and comments of others. So when I booked for a weeks holiday and stalking at Mellness in Glen Urquhart 8 miles from Loch Ness, with David Brown I was intrigued to hear that there was a healthy population of Sika, according to David there were even some monsters in the area! I decided that if the opportunity arose I would try for one.
So we found ourselves weaving through the Great Glen and alighting at Mellness a triangle of forest and upland moor straddling Glen Urquhart and Strathglass about 25 miles south west of Inverness. There is certain degree of anxiety when you book a break over the internet. On occasions that “idyllic secluded lodge set in private woodland” actually turns out be a glorified shed at the bottom of a semi rural garden! (This actually happened to my mother-in-law on a highland break) Although my mild concerns had been largely dispelled after many E:mails from David and Laurna. We turned off the road through an access gate and climbed the track past stately larches and rowans creaking with red berries. We drew to a halt outside David’s magnificent timber lodge and were greeted by David with a welcoming smile. Jumping into his 4x4 he led us further into the woods topping a rise we stopped outside a lodge just a little less imposing than his own, set overlooking a lochan with an open aspect from east to west through north, and birchwoods caressing the lodge to the southern side.
After settling in to our Forest Lodge, David came by to discuss the stalking; I could see he was itching to get out, as was I, the weather had been poor with heavy squally showers blowing through, however, we decided to go out and see what trouble we could find. It was one of those evenings where you were destined to bump every deer in the wood. A red hind spotted us on the access road, and tore away down the ride barking, pity. Crossing an area of clearfell, I tucked in behind David, we entered the wood proper moving over a clear trail, suddenly ahead, a Sika whistled at us and showed a clean pair of heels. “Ach” said David “he’ll clear all before us”. It was the first Sika I had seen or heard, the eerie whistle sounding more like a bird than deer, it was a sound I was to hear often in the coming days. The wind blasted again as we entered a scrubby, open area about 150 yards across, David pointed out likely deer entry points and a very well used wallow 30 metres to my left with a ride extending beyond over a slight rise. “I’ll be under the tree over there” he said indicating right, “Good luck”. I slipped the magazine from the rifle and clambered up into a high seat, the sitka swayed alarmingly as a strong blast pummelled it’s upper branches. I settled into position and started to scan the area sweeping left and right with my eyes, the rain driving into my face. Time passed, as it does in a high seat, the minutes telescoping into one another, I tried to stay alert but was getting cold, I glanced at David he was relaxed under his tree, motionless. I heard a crack behind me, something large breaking a branch, I swivelled but couldn’t see anything, in the dense under storey, I could hear a large body exiting stage rear.
I swear I was getting seasick. A sudden thought struck me, how could I possibly shoot with any confidence in such conditions? Sighting down the rifle it was as I suspected, I couldn’t have put a shot within 6 feet of a deer unless it was during a lull. I pulled back the bolt and cleared the chamber and removed the magazine, David shouted from below me: “It’s like sitting in a washing machine under there, to be honest, I wouldn’t normally come out on a night like this”. “Neither would I” I thought ruefully. We trudged home damp, but undaunted. “By the way did you see the red stag that walked down 15 yards behind your high seat?” I hadn’t.
We agreed to try again the following evening. The next morning dawned bright with a promise of fair weather. I took an early morning walk up the track and was delighted to see three stags in an area of re-stock one was bellowing loud and long for all to hear.
David arrived at five, his enthusiasm was infectious even after over 40 years of stalking he couldn’t wait to get out, his dog skipped beside him almost as excited as we were, but tracking from heel to heel as if attached to David by bungee cord. We turned right from the lodge this time and skirted the eastern boundary of the wood heading northeast The plan was to skirt a large area of re-stock stopping at points to scan the area. As we climbed up, the re-stock opened on our left and we went much more cautiously, David indicating with his hands the recent fraying of sitka saplings, “that’s a sika stag marking his territory” whispered David. Reaching a high point we scanned the re-planted area, nothing showed. We made our way back to the track and carried on swinging further north then north west as we looped around the felled area. A magnificent view opened up before us.
David was on the alert, normally a “fast” stalker moving swiftly and fluidly between strategic points he slipped into full stealth mode, I tucked in behind. The tension tightened my chest up. I hardly dared to breathe “this area around the corner is a favourite lying up point” mouthed David. I looked to our left into a shallow bowl with a stand of spruce at it’s centre and a small burn running down hill. The main area of re-stock was hidden by a low ridge beyond this area. We followed the burn but drifted in and out of the trees covering tussock grass and the odd peaty hole. I saw roe fumets on the ground at my feet. Reaching the base of another low fold in the ground David motioned me back and stepped up to spy over the top, he motioned to me, up I went, just in time to see three red hinds galloping towards the tree line to the right 150metres away. “They must have been lying up and seen my head” said David. We took a few steps forward over the rocky knoll. The next few moments are forever etched in my memory. We were no longer skylined. Suddenly a dark, lone deer sprinted from our left from an area of dead ground, on the same line as the hinds. “It’s a sika, a stag, a big stag, Oh he’s a medal for sure”. The stag sensed us and turned left away from us, he covered the ground quickly opening the gap. I was moving; to my left an exposed bone of smooth rock surfaced from the heather and grass. A natural firing point. Rifle off the shoulder, chambered a round, safety on, bipod deployed, scope covers flipped up. I hoped he was still there. My heart hammering. I saw him. Black against the green, his white antlers showing eight clear good points. Oh happy days! He was across the low ground on the up-slope in front of us, a long ways-a-way, looking directly at us, frowning, nostrils expanding and contracting as he tried to get our wind. I remembered an old ‘keeper friend of mine, “Ye kin sometimes fool thir eyes, bit ye kin ne’er fool their noses”.
Concerned, but not sure what we were, we had been given the benefit of the doubt, at least for a few seconds. I settled into the rifle, even in the scope he seemed small in the reticle. I was on him. Apprehensively, I waited, hoping he would turn, presenting a bigger broadside target, no movement. An age passed, my breathing slowed my heart hammered less violently. A good thing. A voice in my ear. “If you’re going to shoot, now would be a good time”. That was all David said, and it was all I needed. I knew I could make the shot. I raised the cross-hairs to just below his chin, and squeezed. The Sierra Gameking soft point left the rifle at 2850 ft/sec. The stag collapsed. “Well done, Well done” a thumping hand on my shoulder, “He’s down, great shot, great shot” I reloaded and checked, no movement. I wondered again at the big Sako .270’s, ability to drop deer quickly. Suddenly, another shout “Another one, another one” a huge stag ran down following the line of the one I had just shot, “He’s even bigger, look at the head on him”. The stag ran towards his obvious former rival and seeing him lying motionless in the heather decided he had pressing business elsewhere. Turning tail he beat a hasty retreat disappearing in seconds. He was magnificent and obviously the dominant male of the area. Comically, David looked devastated, and relieved at the same time. I had made only a token effort to get back behind the rifle. There was no doubt in my mind David would have given me the shot if it had presented itself. We gave our fellow a minute or two more and made our way over. The first thing that struck me was what a handsome animal a Sika stag is; Compact, and powerful, well marked with light dappling on the face and head. His ears were scarred and split from many battles. David stood over him admiring the thick beams of his antlers and commenting on their balance and symmetry.
David turned to me looking directly at me he said “I learned this from my grandfather and it was passed to him from others before him” turning back to the stag “I am sorry I have killed you, when we meet in the next world may your spirit forgive my spirit”. It was right, and what he deserved.
A great outcome to a wonderful stalk, that evening we drank whisky and talked late re-telling the story to our very patient partners. I had other evenings out in the wood, and but for fate’s fickle hand may have had another nice stag, but it wasn’t to be on that occasion. Maybe next year………