Stalking marches on

On the hill, red deer stalking

Deer stalking may be more popular than ever, but in a rapidly changing world it is not without its challenges, as Michael Wigan reports.

Stalking is the fastest-growing fieldsport. Newcomers are taking to stalking's need for guile, motionless motion, soundless study, then the drama of fast accurate shooting. In today's lifestyle-conscious society there is the satisfaction of carvery on a carcase you yourself have filched from the wild, participating in old traditions and feeling old feelings. The pull of Scottish stalking is safe and sound.

Robert Rattray of CKD Galbraith's Perth office, a major stalking agency, reports a lively 2011 market.

Expectedly, as lifestyles alter, there are changes. One is the new demand for one or two day excursions rather than the time-commitment of a whole week. Short-break stalks are by single hunters or a pair of chums. The focus of the rental is the sport not the accommodation.

A divergence has developed on prices. The market for truly open-range stalking with a top-class stalker, in the mainstream of Scotland's long tradition, has stretched way ahead of boxed-in sport guided by stalkers lacking distinction. The stalker sees his ‘rifle' at revealing moments of delight or dismay and sportsmen like a stalker with whom they feel comfortable. Evidently the stalking client will pay a lot more for a stalker he already appreciates set in a predictable context.

It is now widely understood that Scotland does not offer trophy stalking and it is seldom asked for. A few estates offer stalking where the extra points on a head are charged per point, as is normal on the continent.

There is a preference for old-fashioned stalking involving garrons instead of churning hill machines. The quiet working animal is recognised as deepening the whole experience. The jingle of the harnesses on the long walk home, the art of balancing and roping the stag, the steady thud of the horse plodding down familiar tracks and the low-profile nature of the whole day, adds to the feel that people value in this ancient activity.

We can be reminded that long before anyone was levelling firearms at game birds, or dangling baits for fish, they were carting home venison for cooking. Stalking is a time-worn activity.

A disagreeable cul-de-sac, in the view of Robert Rattray and others, is the relatively novel option of taking stalking without a stalker. The rifleman is shown a map and off he goes. Think about that. Obviously, there is no significance in beast selection, a fundamental discipline of traditional stalking. Why forego a good head for a poor one when the next fellow will probably nail the first he sees, too? Just take your shot, bundle the thing home somehow - although how customers do this with probably someone else's ATV on ground they may not know is a puzzle - and remember to tell the letting organisation that you didn't see much to suppress future rentals.

All of this demeans the sport's ethos.

Robert calls this new-fangled stuff, ‘a disaster in the making'. He explains: “Passing a competence certificate says nothing about the necessary experience. It undercuts the stalker.” Also it begs the question, what exactly is being managed? The deer? Obviously not. Nor the sport. It reduces stalking to mere numbers. The body increasingly offering unaccompanied deer stalking is the Forestry Commission.

The Forestry Commission, now blended in a combined farming, environment and forestry department, is already in the spotlight. Winter 2009/2010 was a disreputable low in this organisation's fortunes. As a conscientious landowner with a responsible wildlife policy, it failed all tests. During snow-time FC stalkers and hired guns, hyped-up by bonus systems, mowed down red deer that had bust into plantations from the open hill. Before local stalkers had a chance to try and get them out, starving deer had been shot against fence-lines in gory scenes.

Winter 2010/2011 was apparently an improvement on this. Some efforts were made to contact local stalkers prior to shooting animals sheltering from hard weather. This was reinforced by the new protocol, adopted in February, developed between the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) and Forestry Enterprise Scotland.

The protocol encourages collaboration, and information-sharing on all matters from proposed culls and out-of-season authorisations to deer management plans. Charging in and whacking straying deer wandering through damaged fences is to be avoided in favour of shared information and briefing, and co-ordinated actions. Episodes from the past with wounded deer left staggering into the cover of trees, shooting not to kill but to stop the animal moving, and carcases left out overnight, should be relegated to history.

Certainly they brought no credit to the FC and in the nature of things it will take time to eradicate the impression that deer within woodlands are regarded as a mere nuisance to be obliterated any way possible.

What makes this attitude even more bone-headed is that it disregards the truth established long ago that deer can be intelligently managed alongside trees. Working at Eskdalemuir long ago for a private forestry company, the stalker and wildlife manager Ronnie Rose proved that not only could both be managed in tandem but wildlife indices could be pushed way up at the same time. Using soil maps, and vegetation establishment disciplines to honey-pot deer for control purposes, Rose demonstrated that civilised treatment of deer within trees was both possible and conducive to good timber outcomes at the same time.

To ignore or sidestep this uncontested knowledge was always courting failure and in the stalking world, ridicule.

A private spat between deer managers and Scottish Natural Heritage, which started with the government agency defending deer carcases being left out on the hill resulted in some rapid back-pedalling when the civil servants spotted a potential PR gaffe. Perhaps most damaging was the potential impression that government deer control, despite modern means of transportation, was simply not up to the job of removing shot animals. Alternatively, it was unable to manage deer-culling without doing so in inaccessible places. Neither perception was desirable.

On the public policy side of deer management, stalking proprietors and stalkers can look back on the last year with relief. The new wildlife and environment bill dropped its most threatening features. The recommendation from the outgoing deer commission chairman to abolish protection seasons was abandoned, in the process tacitly exposing civil servants as having exceeded their brief.

There is a recognition even in government agencies that reactions to high populations of red deer were sometimes overdone. The new problem is seen as a fast-growing number of roe deer. Various aspects of co-ordinated management, accepting the key role of deer management groups, are now inside mainstream thinking.

It seems only yesterday that local deer groups were debating whether or not to commission a deer management plan. Over 90 per cent of deer groups now have a form of adopted plan. DMGs which in the early days were suspected of paying lip-service to collaborative management are now more normally functional bodies with good levels of attendance. Stalkers are boning up on habitat assessment, which was never a fine art and always more a matter of simple observation twinned with on-the-ground knowledge.

Venison sales are worth £43million, up from £36million three years ago.

Doubt does persist, however, that all parties perfectly understand each other. Habitat assessment is frequently the chasm dividing those on the ground from public agency observers. Several estates are in dispute with Scottish Natural Heritage about condemned habitat and whether its condition is improving or deteriorating. In the background but never yet used is the government's own power to impose and conduct culls and then charge for them.

Meantime the refusal of official bodies to accommodate whole-grazing philosophies embracing falling sheep numbers frustrates many of these discussions. Officialdom is too often perceived as looking down its own close-focus telescope.

The inability or unwillingness to accommodate the effects of frosting and hard winters, insect damage from winter moth and heather beetle, and the failure of scientific modelling to tease out what is actually happening to habitat in the context of climate alterations, is a running sore. Too often government agencies are left looking naïve about genuine habitat issues, covering their tracks with gobbledegook, and having an ingrained bias against deer.

The degree to which stalking estates have been let off the hook is a measure of the attention and respect accorded to representations in the Scottish Parliament made by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Its membership of 4,700 is known for a high level of knowledge.

The pro-active association has a convincing no-nonsense style and communicates its knowledge-based policies in a way which exposes arm-chair theorists. Politicians have recognised this. Seldom has a worker organisation validated its own industry (and the shareholders, in this case known as landowners) in such a way.

Above all, politicians have come to understand that traditional stalking is deer management on the cheap. Various studies exist, but a recent one concluded that to present one stag to a paying client on the open hill costs around £3,000. Stalking customers paying £500 for their beast are getting a deal.

The government has understood well enough that paying the difference themselves is undesirable if not inconceivable.

As of May 5, 2011, however, there is a novel political scene. The SNP has majority control of the Parliament and can do what it wants. Scots emerge like a tortoise from a shell into non-coalition daylight.

Previously the SNP seats were virtually
all rural. It looked after its constituency carefully. It no longer has to. The power-base has become urban.

The obvious point of vulnerability is further squeezing of deer forests by advances in land reform. The complaint that too much is owned by too few can easily be resurrected. Almost invariably the substitutes for private owners, community-owned estates or conservation charities, drop stalking or misunderstand it.

There is a host of new parliamentarians and walking is more likely to have been on their electioneering profiles than stalking. The period to come will be vitally important to the future of this old sport.

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