The Scottish Highlands have their own unique cold.
I’m insistent of this fact, despite my colleague’s protestation that “Cold is cold.”
Having just had the chance to sit in the Alps at -16, and the Highlands at 1 degrees Celsius, I can confirm the Scottish chill definitely gets in the bones quicker!
I ponder my career choice every time I come to wash my hands in a freezing burn or pool after I gralloch a deer. This feeling can’t be more prevalent than when I have to break through a sheet of ice to reach clean water…
With a wintry sun rising in the east behind us, we spied a group of hinds and calves grazing and moving steadily through an area of felled forestry. They would be a perfect group to target, fulfilling several cull criteria; the most important being the suppression of grazing in this particular area of clear fell, thus minimising the pressure on natural heather and tree regeneration.
Driving to the south of the forest, we parked up, shouldered our rifles and set off.
Moving slowly, scanning ahead to check for any other groups of deer, we skirted in a wide arc around the hinds. This initial area has some handy wee knolls and hollows in which to move around, out of sight of the quarry. After a look around we were able to cut across onto an access track and move forward totally out of sight and, just as importantly, down wind of the deer.
When hunting a landscape like this, a single step can reveal an entirely un-spied piece of ground. Glancing down to our left, R stopped walking and slowly drew back from the edge of the track. Lifting my binoculars I searched through the long grass; a group of hinds, some 200 metres away were looking in our direction. They hadn’t quite seen us, but must have seen some movement, and were gazing inquisitively up the slope. Ensuring we were out of sight, we sat on the road. If these deer would settle, we could shoot some from this group instead.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Fifteen minutes went by and, as quietly as they appeared, the hinds sidled further down the slope and disappeared into the remaining forest. We would catch up with them another day. Slowly standing and glancing around; R pointed to the north, a pair of ears, just above the horizon. Our first group of hinds. Dropping down below the track, we continued to circle round below them.
A set of antlers appeared on the skyline. We paused. A lone, elderly stag was grazing ahead, not 70 yards away, just over the crest of a hill. It’s unusual to see a red deer, stag or hind, on their own. This fellow seemed well enough however, and we chalked it up to age. R made some clicking noises to attract his attention.The stag looked at us, trying to decide how much of a threat we were. In an ideal world, he would have been slightly perturbed, and would have ambled gently off to the side, allowing us to creep forward towards the hinds. However, as we all know, it’s not an ideal world, and the stag decided panicking and taking off like a scalded cat was a far better option.
Deer are finely tuned into their surroundings, and it’s not uncommon to see hinds paying attention to the movements of other deer half a kilometre away. Given how flat the landscape is, it would be too much to hope that the running stag hadn’t been noticed by our hinds.
Creeping slowly forward up a slight rise until we could just see the ears of the hinds, which were all turned towards the stag, before the deer began to slowly drift in the opposite direction. We waited a short while before following. Edging onward, bent down to try and avoid skylining, we reached a furrow, left behind by the felling process, and sat, keeping the backs of the hinds just in sight as they moved further away.
They say ‘patience is a virtue’.
Deer stalking requires a lot of it.
Sitting on frozen moss, in a biting easterly wind, with increasingly numb fingers and toes, waiting for hinds to settle down, is a great test of it.
We now had two options.
Wait and see if the hinds dropped down into a burn, out of the wind;
Begin crawling to try and get in place to take a shot.
After sitting and waiting for a good half hour or more, the thought of moving again and warming up overcame the thought of what we would be crawling over. The hinds were 400 yards away. We would have to crawl over 200 yards to get within range of them.
Crawling over frozen, wet, mossy, peaty, blanket bog; hands slipping into freezing pools; the ground topped with chopped sharp branches, frozen solid into the earth, guaranteeing maximum pain to your knees every time you move is, what can best be described as, an “experience”.
The “experience” did not get more comfortable, with the already uneasy hinds moving forward as we did, grazing away from us. The 200 yard crawl became 250 yards, then 300…
Finally, we got to somewhere we could shoot from. As I had been away, R told me I was up to shoot first. Pulling the rifle from the slip and setting it up, I looked through the scope. It took me a moment to get my eye in and pick a hind from the herd. Breathing out and holding my breath, I squeezed the trigger, and watched her drop on the spot. I reloaded and scanned around, looking for another shot, but the hinds were moving off and it seemed that that was it for the day.
“Keep your knife out, you’ll find a pool just along here… Look, this one’s even frozen for you!” R cheerfully remarked as we dragged the hind out of the clear fell.
I gave an appropriate reply as I kicked a hole in the ice.
Really though, I thought to myself, as I scrubbed the blood from my hands; to work in such an interesting and challenging environment; to have a hand in the long term management of an entire landscape; and to get an insight, afforded to few, into the lives of such clever and beautiful animals as our red deer…frozen fingers aren’t a bad price to pay.