The call of the hill
The world of deer stalking is dominated by men, with relatively few women taking up the sport. But that needn't be the case, says Sarah Grant, a city lawyer who is truly passionate about spending time in the Scottish Highlands in pursuit of Red Deer.
I remember each and every time I have had the privilege to go deer stalking with utmost clarity. Each time has been different, but yet the same.
It is not about the kill, sometimes you don’t even get the opportunity to take your rifle out of its slip, never mind squeeze the trigger, but that doesn’t make the day any less wonderful or sporting. You see, deer stalking is about so much more than that to me. It is about understanding the habitat and assisting in the conservation of majestic animals, which may seem contradictory. Those precious hours on the hill offer a sensory experience like no other – the scenery, the solitude and the connection with nature in its purest form.
I was introduced to stalking by my now husband when I was in my early 30s. I will admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about, nor was I convinced that I could (or would) squeeze the trigger when it came down to it; plus wasn’t it a really manly activity involving brutal weather, demanding terrain and blood?!
As it was early in our relationship and I was keen to impress, I agreed to give it a go. A few weeks later I found myself at Loch Choire Estate in Sutherland, in the charge of the head stalker Neil MacKay, waist-deep in snow, halfway up the most extraordinarily steep (but beautiful) hill, staring at a hind through the scope of the estate’s rifle. I was totally hooked.
The discomfort of getting there (alternating between being too cold then too hot), the time spent creeping, crawling and sliding into position, the moral dilemma (in my head) over whether I was or wasn’t really a vegetarian after all... all gone!
The political agenda in Scotland just now (including the much feared Land Reform Act – see page 92) creates uncertainty over the future of the sport for which Scotland is so famed, none more so than deer stalking. It appears that the majestic red deer, once an emblem of the Highlands, is considered by some as nothing more than vermin. Highland estates battle on valiantly despite these challenges, offering excellent opportunities for new or less seasoned stalkers to experience the sport that I love so much.
For many, the ultimate experience is stag stalking in the Highlands when these beautiful beasts are at the height of the rut (late September through to the end of October), battling for supremacy. There are many options available through sporting agents such as Galbraith and Savills that should suit most budgets, and costs can be shared amongst a group of friends if you book a lodge for a week. Looking ahead to 2017, a week’s stalking at Loch Choire Estate in Sutherland (including accommodation for up to four people and to include eight stags) is available through Savills from £4,500 (including VAT).
Due to strict requirements in relation to holding a firearm, not everyone will be able to own a rifle but this should not prohibit you from going deer stalking. Most estates will be able to provide a suitable rifle (in accordance with the The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, section 16) for you to use.
Before heading up onto the hill, you will be taken to the range by the stalker for some practice shots. They will be keen that you get the best out of your day so will want you to be comfortable firing the rifle in a safe, stress-free environment, plus it is important for them to know that you are competent. It is in everyone’s interest that your shot will despatch your quarry as quickly and humanely as possible.
With regard to selecting a calibre, the stalker will be able to provide advice. The calibre should be appropriate for your quarry, not your physical stature. It is a myth that a .30-06 or .270 Win – or even a .300 Win Mag – are only suitable for men and that a lady would be best to shoot a .243 or 6.5x55. Moderators are widely used which substantially reduce the recoil, and in my experience there is no discernible difference in shooting any of the popular calibres used for deer stalking. I have shot red deer with a .243 Win, a .25-06 Rem and a .270 Win and I did not notice any difference in recoil, nor did I ‘fear’ any of these calibres. Wincing or flinching at the moment you squeeze the trigger is a very common cause of misplaced shots, so it is important to feel comfortable with the rifle you are using.
When shooting stags, I have found the need for the slightly larger, heavier calibres (the .270 in particular) which will ensure the bullet passes through the shoulder blade (if the beast is slightly turned towards me) and dispatches the stag in the quickest, most humane way. On occasions when shooting stags in the rut (when they are ‘fired up’ with adrenaline and testosterone), I have found that I have occassionally needed a second shot when shooting with a .243, despite an accurate first shot, which was very emotional.
After getting your eye in on the range, you will then head off up the hill. Most estates use Argocats to transport you to/from the hill (and to bring back any beasts you shoot). An Argocat bears a striking resemblance to a toy car but can cross the varied Highland terrain with apparent ease. I would advise making sure you’re appropriately dressed for the hill before you leave the lodge, as there may be limited space to take much extra kit with you.
My essentials for the hill consist of a pair of sturdy lace-up boots which support your ankles and provide grip on steep ascents or descents, and a thumbstick which acts as a ‘third leg’ on the hill (mine has saved me many times from falling into burns or stumbling over rocks). A cap is also a must. As well as keeping out the cold, a cap affords you better camouflage on the hill. Wily deer seem to be able to pick out the outline of a human head in the undergrowth at 200 yards!
Your experience on the hill will be more enjoyable, the lighter (and warmer) your kit is. There is so much excellent lightweight technical kit for ladies (as well as for men) on the market just now – I am currently coveting the Harkila Pro Hunter X trousers and jacket.
I have adapted my field shooting kit (tweed plus fours and shooting coat) by adding gaiters or waterproof trousers but at times I have found my movement was more restricted due to the bulk (and weight), particularly on a wet day.
On a day’s stalking, you will alternate between energetic spurts (very hot) and periods where you dare not move a muscle (very cold), so I cannot recommend base layers enough! My preferred base layers consist of a pair of 40+ denier tights (also keep out the ticks) and my Schoffel gilet, but you may prefer ‘proper’ thermals.
If you have cold hands like me, you may wish to wear gloves but I find it is advisable to take your gloves off to do any crawling as they are guaranteed to get extremely wet. On particularly wet, cold days I take a second pair of gloves to wear on the way home when the adrenaline is wearing off!
As you head out to the ground where you will be stalking, you should keep your eyes peeled for beasts on the hill. I used to have to borrow the stalker’s binoculars but your stalking experience would be greatly enhanced if you bring your own pair as you will be able to make your own assessment of the ground that you will cross and the beasts that might be suitable to shoot.
Many well-known brands offer excellent compact binoculars (rather than the conventional large, heavy style) which will provide sufficient magnification and clarity.
Making the most of it
As you make your way up the hill, keep on the heels of the stalker. Highland terrain can be demanding. You will get so much more from your day’s stalking if you are fairly fit. There is no one exercise that I would recommend but I find that some cardiovascular exercise (mostly walking my dogs) and yoga (don’t laugh) are the best preparation for me. If you are concerned about your fitness, let the stalker know and they will adjust their pace accordingly. On the heels of a seasoned stalker, any hill is possible! At times the stalker may ask you to keep down or to crawl in as you get close to a deer. Do as the he does in these instances. If he slides on his left hip, or crawls on his elbows, he is doing so for a reason so you should do the same. This is not the time to be an individual!
If and when you get into position to take a shot, take a moment to consider the beast you have in your sights. I always like to understand why I am shooting that one. ‘Old school’ thoughts were that one should only shoot the old and the weak but that it not always possible and it is a narrow way of looking at herd management. A wise man told me that the objective is to manage the herd from a distance, to manage the herd in a way that is appropriate for the ground they are on. The beast in your sights may indeed be weak or old, or he/she may be a fine beast that is on its ‘way back’ and suitable to be culled.
Deer stalking is a less well-known country pursuit than shooting for fishing, especially among ladies and those new to the world of fieldsports, which I feel is such a shame. Deer stalking (or anything to do with rifle shooting) may seem completely inaccessible by comparison to shotgun shooting where so much great work has been done to raise awareness and accessibility. I have been stalking many times, always in the Highlands, yet I consider myself merely an amateur, albeit an incredibly passionate and keen one.
If, by sharing my experiences, I can inspire someone else to get involved, then I will have gone some way to repay all those incredible, patient stalkers who have taken the time to explain each and every part of the process to me, and who have supported me on each occasion I have been stalking.