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Monarch of the Glen - Culling the herd in the heathered hills of Perthshire.

by Melissa Volpi

In the rugged and remote hillsides of Scotland, you can escape civilized society, experience all the seasons in one day, venture for miles through a landscape that basks in the purple hue of wild heather, and stalk a red stag from a distance of one mile to 100 yards. This is exactly what I did, when I visited the Craiganour Estate in the Perthshire region of Scotland.

I wanted to experience life on a Scottish sporting estate; to shoot another red stag while continuing learning about the sport I fell in love with when I tried stalking for the first time and experience the conservation side of estate management.

My day began in the Lodge’s gunroom where Head Keeper David Olds showed me Craiganour’s grounds on a large map before taking a few practice shots with a .270 Estate Rifle. As I sought the target I anticipated the recoil but David helped me relax and concentrate on my breathing.

       

I fired three shots, the first and last shot were satisfying as I relaxed and squeezed the trigger the moment I located the bullseye. The second shot was off as I stopped to think about what I was doing. The moral being, you must be confident in your judgment and take the shot without procrastinating —something I have found difficult but am working hard to correct.       

David hitched on a trailer containing an Argocat and we drove along the infinitely flat landscape, my heart pounding with anticipation. Through the open windows, I gulped the clean, moist air, trying to relax. There was a distinct smell of pine which is now etched in the memory of my adventure.  We passed through grazing herds of sheep and Highland cattle before finally reaching the parking bay, formerly a paddock for the garron, (Highland ponies). Today, it is too expensive to keep ponies for carrying the stags down from the hill, hence the Argocat.

We began our trek into the flats and it didn’t take long to spot a herd of red deer. David flicked a blade of grass in the wind to determine the direction. Unfortunately, we were upwind but decided to try a stalk anyway, but after a few minutes the deer went on the alert and began to run so at David’s suggestion we waited a few minutes before carrying on with our stalk. I knew that if we could get within range, I’d have to take the shot very quickly. Rather than rush me, David suggested we stalk this herd just for photographs and I readily agreed.

While waiting for the herd to relax, I took in the surroundings, and only then realized just how isolated we were. The hills surrounding the valley appeared in silhouette and looked smaller than their 3,000-foot height. There were no other people, no noise; our only company was the wildlife hidden deep within the heather.       

The ground was open making stalking tricky but I was determined to get close to this herd of stags, snorting and tossing their heads around. They looked so full of life, and I could feel a thousand butterflies fluttering around my stomach. The herd was quite close and we quietly crawled toward a small knoll, the only possible cover for some hundred yards until I could see the herd without binoculars through the long dewy grass.

We reached cover but the deer scented us and immediately took off at full speed although I managed to get my camera out for a few shots before the herd escaped for good. We had only been stalking for an hour so I didn’t feel at all disheartened at just taking photographs.       

The rain wasn’t yet upon us and although the light was poor, the air quality made it a joy to be out in the wilds. With a good couple of hours walk in front of us, David and I began a long conversation. By the time we were halfway up the hill, dodging burring grouse, jumping various ditches, I felt we were really starting to know each other. It’s not often that you spend all day in the sole company of someone you’ve never met before. As the day progresses, you move past polite conversation toward something more meaningful and I began to realise that the relationship between keeper and guest is special indeed!

 

At the top, the 360-degree views were amazing. We could see Loch Rannoch to the south, then to the west Loch Eigheach, Loch Laidon, Loch Ba, and Loch Ericht. We felt quite literally on top of the world. As we stopped for lunch David talked about his job. “The best thing is being out on the hills. It’s the solitude, being right in amongst nature and witnessing it all first-hand.” On cue, three white ptarmigan took flight from nearby rocks—the first time I’ve ever seen these northern birds.       

We finished our lunch a little past two and started our trek along the undulating hilltop, hoping to see deer sheltering from the wind. It seemed as though the deer with the wind as their ally, were running rings around us. I began to worry about our prospects, perhaps we should have actively stalked the first herd of the morning with a view toward shooting something other than pictures?       

The promised rain had begun as we walked briskly down the opposite side of the hill, hoping to spot more before evening. Our conversation revolved around deer. Culling is an essential part of effective management and estates need to keep populations to a level commensurate with the feed and cover by shooting the weaker stags that might find it hard to survive the harsh winter. David said, “I have to cull between seventy and eighty stags throughout the season, which means that right now I’m working a twelve-hour day, six days per week to reach my target.” He seemed visibly delighted as he talked about his job, long hours and all and yet I understood perfectly why.       

Suddenly David pointed to an area of flat ground near the bottom of the hill: a large group of grazing stags. At last! We had two options: either carry on walking along the hillside where there was little cover, or backtrack a little, descend and stalk in from behind. This carried the danger of the herd moving off too quickly in the opposite direction, but there was more cover, which would be to our advantage.

We descended crossing a burn and reaching the flat ground without being seen. David looked through his binoculars one last time. “We’re going to crawl single file to that knoll about a hundred yards south of the herd, keeping as low and quiet as possible. This will probably be our last chance today, so keep your head down, with your tweed cap pointing toward the deer. Stay as close to me as you can.”       

We began dragging ourselves through the soggy moor, by the time we neared the knoll I was drenched. David crawled up and set the .270 on its bipod and scoped for a suitable stag. He then gestured for me to wriggle forward and get into position. I admired the eight-pointer as my senses heightened. His head rocking from side to side as it grazed, foreleg muscles tightening and relaxing as it stepped gently forward. I brushed through the heather as I lined up to take the shot, the raindrops trickling down my face and hands as I gripped the rifle while enjoying the heady aroma of damp tweed and the lingering aftertaste of an earlier dram.       

During my first stalk, all I can remember of the crucial moment was blood pumping loudly around my body, drowning out everything else. This time felt very different. I felt surprisingly relaxed and having been directed to take the shot. I located the stag’s heart in the scope, pushed the safety catch forward and squeezed the trigger. It was all over in a flash.

I felt nervous now and rather queasy as I watched the stag jump forward. Perhaps I was shocked to see the stag’s reaction. I kept asking if I had shot the stag cleanly as this was only my second kill and, thankfully I had: straight through the heart. But during those few seconds before the stag’s body gave up on him, I felt stricken with panic.

“It’s good to feel that way, Melissa,” David remarked. “It shows that you care.”       

We waited until the rest of the herd ran off into the distance before walking over to my stag. I suddenly felt buoyant and quite proud of myself at a quick clean kill.

David took a few pictures of me with my Stag before beginning the gralloch and I had a few moments to reflect before we fetched the Argocat. Perhaps for some it’s the lust for blood that generates a feeling of pleasure when stalking, but for me it’s less the actual kill than the stalk itself that delights the senses. The feeling of health and happiness radiating within as you roam the moors and hills of Scotland while feeling part of something bigger than yourself, enjoying all the benefits of a superb day’s stalk in search of this majestic creature, with its proud bearing and acute sensibilities. This is what’s priceless to me. 

You can find out more about Melissa and her work by visiting http://melissavolpi.com/ 

Deer Stalking in the UK

We hope you enjoyed Melissa’s first contribution and what better way to follow that up than with details of some Deer Stalking opportunities in the UK?

Firstly then, Scotland where we still have availability for Hill Stag Stalking in the Southern Highlands near Callander. This is chargeable at £399 per stalker per day inclusive of one Hill Stag. We are not able to accommodate large groups here but day stalkers and those looking for 2-3 days sport are very welcome. Similarly we have dates for Hind Stalking available later in the year too although we are now starting to get tight for availability.

While Roe continues to be the species that most stalk here in England, Sika in it’s limited pockets remain one of the most elusive and challenging of all our Deer species to hunt, and with good reason!

We began promoting Sika Stalking in Dorset earlier this year having identified locations and guides where we feel our clients have a decent sporting chance for them and in September we will expand our portfolio to include Southern Ireland where these species may also be taken. Further details will appear in the next issue and online at www.TheHuntingAgency.com.

We have enjoyed a very good season on Chinese Water Deer this year with local and International clients taking some excellent trophies. We are already booking for CWD and currently have availability throughout the next season.

Finally, for those of you who enjoy woodland stalking, we are booking for Fallow and Muntjac in the Forest of Dean, Herefordshire. This is a scenic location but unfortunately the habitat is not conducive with generating large heads and therefore a simple and reasonable pricing structure is available for those looking for the sport rather than the hat rack!

Please contact us for further details or to make a booking, thank you. 


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