It’s the very worst conditions possible for stalking sika,” said Marcus Munro, as we paused on the edge of a woodland ride underneath some power lines. Rain had soaked this part of Sutherland for all of the previous day and night, and now, at first light, the conditions were damp, drizzly and without a hint of wind. It was absolutely still as we crept up the side of some birch, the only sounds came from the occasional snap of a twig underfoot or the squelch of a boot in a boggy bit of grass.

At the end of September the sika on Rosehall estate were well into the rut, and as we skulked ahead we heard the first whistle of a sika stag in front of us. It was quickly answered by another to the left — both whistles sounded startlingly close. We were standing under the cover of the trees with a big bed of bracken in front of us enveloping the high ground and it sounded as though the stag was whistling from a dip on the other side. Marcus set up the

rifle on the sticks for me.

Sika have a reputation for being difficult to kill, and when I fired at the target the previous evening, Marcus explained that the shot should be placed further forward than it would be for a red stag. “Many people who have stalked red deer come to stalk sika and place the shot in the same way. It usually results in the animal being hit in the belly, which won’t kill it. Sika also carry a lot of fat and have much bigger shoulders compared with their smaller haunches, which makes them look out of proportion and makes it harder to place the shot correctly. Always aim further towards its shoulder rather than going up the back of the front leg as you would for a red,” he had said.

“I’ll try to call it now,” he whispered. “If it comes, it’s most likely that it’ll be head on, so put the shot at the base of his neck.”

As he called the stag with his whistle, I gripped the sticks supporting the fore-end of the rifle. Marcus uses the Quadpod, a four-stick arrangement which is so stable that the only movement is vertical as you inhale and exhale, but if the stag suddenly rushed through the bracken I would have to look sharp with the shot. Marcus and the stag exchanged whistles, but there was no movement and it soon went quiet.

“Sika are such shy animals, which is why they’re so difficult to stalk,” said Marcus. “There’s a magic window of about half an hour at first and last light when you have an opportunity, but on a day like today it’s virtually impossible. They’ll be out in the rides for a while but they soon lie up and don’t move until the evening.” Ordinarily, we could have expected to see deer out grazing on the edge of the wood or down in the wide meadows beside the

river Oykel. With its long brown reeds and grasses it looks more like the plains of Africa than the Scottish Highlands, and when not in flood, which it was today, the sika like to browse along the water’s edge. “If the river hadn’t been so high,” said Marcus, “we could have gone out in the boat and drifted down beside the meadows. It’s a bit rub-a-dub-dub, especially with three of us in it, but it can be a good way of getting to them.”

Stalking by boat… that was a new one for me, but this is the way of stalking sika. Nothing is predictable. The combination of their spooky-sounding whistles letting you know that you’re so close to them but yet rarely able to see them makes it exhilarating stalking and you really have to use all your guile when hunting the beast. “I think it’s a shame that the sika doesn’t get enough credit for the sport it provides, especially during the rut,” said Marcus. “Sika stalking is a cross between hill and woodland stalking, and it’s very difficult because they’re such shy animals. They’re a great addition to an estate because it might be a terrible day on the hill and you can come down into the woodland and still have some hunting.”

Marcus dismantled the sticks and we had taken only a few steps further when there was a crashing about in the undergrowth as we disturbed a stag. I couldn’t see it through the trees as it made for the darkness of the woods, but Marcus saw it and could tell immediately that it was lame — it had a broken leg. We peered into the woods with our binoculars, searching the blackness for movement; the felled timber was shiny black from the rain and in the distance everything took on the misleading outline of a stag, but it had vanished deep into the heart of the forest.

We’d had an unsuccessful morning but there was still the evening to look forward to and I was intrigued to know where that injured stag had disappeared to. In the meantime, it was time for breakfast back at the Achness Hotel, in Rosehall, where talk turned to the deer issues of the day, and particularly about where they fit into the Scottish Government’s vision for the Highlands.

European-driven demands for woodland and upland habitat have pushed the deer out to the peripheries of the land to the point where the solution to any problem seems always to be “kill more deer”, which goes against the traditional stalkers’ ethos on managing them.

“The red deer is a woodland animal but they’re not allowed there,” said Marcus. “Admittedly, when they get in there they are a pest, but they are not doing much damage to 30 or 40 year old timber so why don’t the organisations look at another solution to killing them? I totally agree with culling out deer in an area where young trees are coming through, but having deer in some of that old commercial timber through the winter would probably only do it some good. If woodland and land managers would pay more consideration to the fact that upland deer need to migrate to wintering ground, such as woodland, it would alleviate the pressure on upland areas.They’re pretty quick to introduce beavers to thin the woods out, so why not let the deer have that wintering ground instead?

“It is the same for grazing,” he continued. “The worst thing you can do to upland grazing is to have no grazing, because it would kill it off quicker than anything. The environmentalists simply want to reduce upland grazing, reduce the ungulates and so on, but yet they don’t appear to have a benchmark to work from.

“Another thing to consider is that the huge culls that we’re increasingly seeing reduce winter mortality, which means there is no carrion, yet golden eagles are there to clean up the Highlands of carrion. If you take away the natural winter mortality, what are they going to live on? If you take natural

carrion out of it you seriously devastate the ecosystem.”

The magic half-hour

It was soon time to meet again to try our luck at last light and this time we parked near the lodge, just above the river, to see what was about. There was a bit of wind now and we walked up the hard track into the wood, heading away from the lodge. Dark laurel bushes on our right and left made the evening more gloomy as they blocked out the light from the track. We stopped and looked ahead as we rounded each bend, hearing a whistle up the hill far away to our left. Other than that it all seemed quiet, then we came round a kink in the track and Marcus suddenly stopped, signalling that there was a stag ahead. I stood motionless behind him as he looked through his binoculars. It was the stag with the broken leg, grazing across a ride in front of us. We dropped slowly to the ground. Sika have the sharpest eyesight of all our deer and the stag would have been able to see us easily if he had looked up from his grazing. It was so dark and the stag was so black that I couldn’t find him in my binoculars as Marcus set up the rifle. I was positioned for the shot but the stag was standing at an angle, his broken foreleg dangling nearest to us. “Remember to aim at the middle of the shoulder when you take the shot,” hissed Marcus.

“He’s not standing square on,” I whispered back, as I watched the stag take another step closer to the safety of the wood. I had only a few seconds before he would be in cover and our chance would be lost.

“Don’t worry, he’ll go down.” I placed the cross-hairs on the middle of the stag’s shoulder and fired. It felt like a good shot but the stag leapt forward behind a fallen tree. I didn’t see him go down. Marcus congratulated me, but neither of us had seen the stag go down nor had Pete, our photographer, who had caught the whole thing on camera. We hurried forward to where we thought the stag had been when I took the shot. There was no sign of it behind the fallen tree apart from its slots in the mud. The three of us spread out to look among the dark tree stumps and ditches at the edge of the conifers, by which time I was starting to worry. We moved further up and scouted around at the side of the ride; still nothing. Thankfully, it was only a few more moments before Marcus called out that he had found it, dead. I scrambled up into the wood to where the stag was lying in a hollow under a tree. Its leg was completely broken at the knee and oozing blood and pus. When we rolled it over, there were wounds to its elbow and shoulder — perhaps it had been injured when fighting another stag or maybe it had been hit by a car. It was hard to tell, but we had done a good deed by putting it out of its misery.

The unfortunate injured stag had provided the story and, even better, it was my birthday. What a way to mark the day — it couldn’t have been more memorable.

To contact the Achness Hotel, in Rosehall, Sutherland,

tel 01549 441239.