OK so my 'real' first day at the hinds was a wash out due to rain so heavy that Noah would have just forgot the whole ark idea and just hoped for a quick drowning. We were, on that occasion able to stalk into a group of hinds but driving rain meant we could not keep the scope clear enough to take a safe shot. Bugger.
The estate offered another day - which by the way was not expected by me as I'd learned a lot, particularly about staying dry! However, a brilliant and generous offer, and duly accepted.
So, first day at the hinds 'Take 2'.
Skidding around like a cow on a curling rink when I got out of the car at the estate office, it was minus one and icy. A light drift of snow was falling and the sky threatened more. I was glad to see the same two gents who had taken me out previously stalking as my partners for the day and had already learned so much from. Hopefully today would bring success.
Driving up to the head of the glen, the wind was from the north, a couple of inches of powdery snow on the ground and a mix of snow clouds and bright blue sky above. Just as we edged out of the forest in the landrover about 7kms from base we spied a group of hinds and observed them for a while but their location made them a tough group to stalk into. We needed to be further along the glen to stalk back on them but moving the vehicle up the glen to get into position would probably spook the group back into the trees. So decided to leave this group alone and head further into the glen.
A few kms further and we spotted a small group, looked like a hind, yearling and calf on the lower slopes of the hill, in the edges skirting a burn on the far side of an estate building and its sheltering trees. We could stalk forward easily up to the trees but beyond that point it could be an awkward stalk as the ground was very open. So, just after 9:30 and with the sun glinting off the snow, we made it forward to the edge of the trees, when a pair of roe does spotted us and headed for the hill above. The hinds were on alert now, but we slowly made it into the dead ground via a strategically placed burn. Slow but steady progress put us on a good line to the group, which we could see just on edge of the slope down to the burn. The hinds were very alert, something back down the glen was taking their attention and they were clearly ill at ease. Meantime, we had reached a deer fence and further progress was halted due to its remarkably solid construction. We could not get over it as in plain sight of the group and could not slip under or through as it was a sodding excellent bit of fence. So for a bit, we watched the hind group and the hind group watched out for trouble.
40 minutes or so later they finally wandered out of our sight line and we were back in pursuit. Up over the fence, limbs a bit cold and stiff from sitting in a snowy bog for a bit. My circulation would soon be getting restored though. We pegged on up and around the next rise, and as we carefully edged over to where we expected the deer just caught sight of them legging it up over the next rise - and on the rise beyond we could see a much larger group of 40 or so heading up and over the next snowy rise against the blue sky beyond. The estate march being not too much further beyond the skyline. This large group looked like a migration was under way!
Looking behind us, the munro summit of Mount Keen was clear of the cloud and looked fine in its winter coat. Relative to its summit, I was putting us at around 2,200 feet and still a fair bit of uphill to go if we were going to get into this group and take one of them. So we set off upwards in pursuit, the slots clearly visible in the soft snow. We bore to the right making our way around the hill and into a position downwind. The hills of Tanar have very little cover to offer and so we made use of the larger features to make progress - but it was soon time to get low and slow.
The final few hundred yards were a belly crawl up to a low mound of heather, maybe a foot or so high. The stalker called me forward into the rifle and only now could I see what we were in to. With the sun behind us it was radiating warmly off a group of 40 plus reds, the snow brilliant on the ground and the blue sky behind. It was a privilege to be so close and able to observe the group, unaware of our presence.
With so many animals milling around feeding, the challenge became selecting a cull animal that was clear of the group and presenting a safe shot. A series of whispered discussions to confirm a selected beast, then wait till the calf/ stag/ hind in front/ behind (take your pick - we had them all) is clear and take the shot. We went through the process many, many times and I had great support and encouragement to take my time, not to rush. Finally a good hind was clear at the far right of the group at about 150m. Waiting, it took a step forward, waiting, head down, waiting, a calf crossed quickly in front, then it was clear, shot taken and like a wild west stampede the group dissappeared from sight. 12:30 pm.
The shot, my first taken at a deer, looked slightly back and the hind had run out of our sight line with the group, after the shot. We quickly found a blood trail and set off to follow up. A couple of hundred metres away and what seemed like half an hour but would only have been a few minutes we found the beast lying up, blood clearly visible foaming from its mouth and mortally wounded. Staying downwind and out of sight, unable to take a clear second shot to despatch her. My adrenaline when taking the shot was real, as was the fact that the least enjoyable part of my day had been immediately after taking the shot. This was quickly followed by the realisation that this would not be a 'perfect', 'engine room', 'bang flop' and all the other terms I'd heard. We pressed on and got into position in a minute or so for a head shot for the coup de grace, but by then the hind was quite still. We approached, and confirmed dead.
The shot was just off target, and had mortally wounded the hind in the liver and lung. The hind was dead in minutes. But it gave me pause for reflection.
Hands were shaken, the traditional blooding, the hind bled and gralloched and then the long drag back to the road. The sun was reflecting off the snow, Mount Keen clear of the cloud in white robes and rips of blue in the sky. My first red, my first hind will always be in my memories. A more humbling experience than I had expected. A rawer experience than I had expected. A more confronting experience than I had expected. But I guess that is what experience is all about.
A flask of tea back at the base of the glen at the landrover, a piece and with the the most reliable component of any landrover (the clock) showing 2pm we headed out for our second stalk of the day.
We headed right to the head of the glen which was now deep in the shadows but without spying any more groups of deer. The evening sun was brightening the tops and we headed up one of the estate tracks to get a bit of elevation. From here we could clearly see a good group, back up a couple of thousand feet at the top moors..... Loins girded, a quick pee to relieve the pressure and back off we went - this time following up a steep burn. I think they are called burns because thats what they do to your calf muscles, thigh muscles and lungs - they were all burn-ing.
At the head of the burn, a whisper and a few hand signals showed the gameplan. We would arc up and around a patch of snowy bog, quietly to gain the heather above and where we hoped to find the group. Slowly, crouching, on all fours then finally belly crawling to inch forward. Coming behind the rifle, a hind came into view. It was 3:30 and we were losing light fast, the deer almost un-discernable from the snow free heather behind them. A second red came into view, this time a calf which was part of a following hind, yearling, calf group. We were taking the calf then reload for any follow up opportunity.
Watching the calf move forward through the scope, a clear broadside shot presented. Shot fired and the calf dropped on the spot. Reloaded, but the rest of the group had cleared.
A good calf, the shot through both shoulders and taking out the top of the heart. Not the cleanest, but effective. And after my first hind, I'll admit to some relief.
A steep drag back down to the landrover and then a drive through the dark scots pine forests back to the larder where I was still learning from the preparation for the dealer - again, lots of questions from me and advice freely given to me.
My 'first' day at the hinds was a truly memorable experience. Glen Tanar is a remarkably beautiful estate and makes for challenging stalking. I've gained a much deeper respect for the stalkers knowledge of his ground and his craft. Despite having 'prepared' for this through the DSC1, which was excellent, I see how much I have to learn and what value experience brings. Personally, I am OK with culling deer - but I am not OK with my current levels of 'performance'. Being able to 'execute' the shot accurately and reliably is one aspect I really need to work on. And my fitness. With the rigours of stalking in the winter, over mountainous terrain and where everything you are doing is as yet unfamiliar, not second nature, the margin for error gets eroded substantially. So to stay confident, I need to develop my confidence as a shot beyond that which 'got me through' the DSC1.
If you have fallen asleep, its time to wake up now! Thanks for reading, and I'm looking forward to many future days on the hill.