Hill stag alternative
Simon Everett savours a hill stag experience south of the border. The season is longer, the scenery is stunning and it's a lot closer to home.
The Lowther Estate extends to some 70,000 acres of the Cumbrian countryside, with much of its boundary within the fells of the Lake District around Shap and Haweswater. Here, the hills are every bit as spectacular as the softer bits of Scotland and less elevated. The red deer that roam the fells are carefully managed to ensure a stable, healthy and well conformed population. Gregor Cattanach has been the stalker at Lowther for over 30 years and through his selective shooting, the deer are in superb condition. There are always the poor doers, but these quickly get weeded out and offer the chance for visiting stalkers to get a shot
While the stalking is run on a commercially sound footing, Gregor still believes in the old tradition of earning the right to take a trophy, not simply being able to buy your way into shooting one. Regular stalkers with him understand this and know that taking the right stag is more important than it having a good head. There is great satisfaction when leaving the hill with a cull stag in knowing that the shot was taken for the welfare of the herd and not purely for the gratification of the visiting Rifle. If the opportunity presents itself, you will get the chance of a nice head one day.
As with most stalking outings, the day starts with a trip to the range, just to check your rifle, get your eye in and give Gregor confidence in your abilities to precisely place a bullet. On the hill, the wind is a significant factor and can drift even a heavy, fast .270 bullet enough to make a difference. Add to that, the angle of shooting up or downhill and the ability to be at one with your rifle becomes a necessity. These factors will be taken into consideration when Gregor assesses each animal and the possible shooting positions available. He will not put an inexperienced or occasional Rifle in a position where they are outside their abilities.
Having established the rifle is shooting where it should and the person behind it is comfortable with being able to hit an orange at 200 yards from a comfortable position, it is into the Land Rover and off to the hill for the three of us - Gregor, my stalking pal Jared and myself. The part of the fells you go to will depend upon the weather conditions prevailing. After 30-odd years as the stalker on this ground, Gregor knows the movements of his deer intimately and can usually second guess them. He isn't infallible, for deer are fickle creatures at the best of times, but he has a pretty good idea of where to look first. On this particular day, we were going after a group of stags on the Haweswater beat.
The Land Rover came to a gentle stop at the end of the hill road on a patch of grass grazed short by the sheep. The Scot Track was unloaded from the trailer and our rucksacks, rifles and sticks transferred from the Landy to the hill vehicle. Our packs were tied into the back, to prevent them from being lost overboard driving over the rough ground. Rifles were carefully racked in the cab, where they wouldn't get knocked and in both view and ready at hand if need be. My little lurcher, Fly, was allowed along because she is trained to be steady when out stalking and is a great early warning device as well as mustard at tracking if an animal should be wounded. It is also very pleasurable to be accompanied by my little friend for a day on the hill. Dogs are not normally permitted, but Gregor knows that she is rock steady and can be relied upon not to mess up a stalk.
The vehicle makes light work of climbing over the fells and we very quickly left the civilised world behind and were way out into the wild of the hills. Gregor has various spying points. Favourite resting places give a good idea of what the deer are doing on any particular day. We glassed a few and decided upon a plan of attack. There was a group of eight stags lying under the brow of a steep hill on the far side of a valley. We had a great deal of ground to cover to get into position, which involved about a two-mile detour. That is where the Scot Track is so useful, covering the distance in about 15 or 20 minutes, including a gruelling climb. We approached to within about 1,000 yards of the animals without exertion, a stalking luxury.
The Scot Track was parked in a hollow, out of view and we disembarked and got our things together before setting off on foot for the final approach. As we came level with the top of the brow of the hill, under which the stags were lying, I called Fly in to my side. We started to slither down the slope, keeping flat to the ground so as to avoid breaking the skyline. I had Fly on a long lead, but she knows the score and keeps low with me. When we got to the point of taking the rifles out of the slip, I tethered her to my stick, which was pushed deep into the peaty turf. She lay down and kept watch over the loose gear that was not required. It was enough to let her know that she was to remain where she was and stay quiet.
We slithered a bit further down and found a lie from which we could take the shot. A small patch of reeds gave both a bit of cover and comfortable lie from which to place a carefully aimed bullet. Gregor kept his eyes on the chosen animal through his binoculars.
When he was fully ready, Jared squeezed the trigger and the stag tumbled a little way down the hill, out of sight. We watched as the other animals departed, keeping our eyes peeled for the shot stag, but thankfully he did not appear.
We fetched Fly and our bits and pieces and let her search for the fallen stag - even though we knew it was dead, it made her feel valued and included. As we went over the brow, we saw Fly standing proudly beside the dead animal. A successful outing in every sense of the word.