Have you ever had that feeling of trepidation before the stalker arrives to take you out? All you have is a name. The chances are he?ll be wearing tweed and driving a 4×4, but apart from that the variables are endless. He could be experienced, chatty, patient and energetic; or straight out of college, nervy, shy and monosyllabic. You do hear horror stories of stony-faced Highland keepers who grunt and tut through five hours of ear-shattering silence, answering any attempt at conversation with an intake of breath and a nod. A shake of the head means no and please stop asking questions. No mention of history, folklore, geography or natural history, let alone discussion of the tactics for shooting the beast: you are wordlessly ushered into position and told to pull the trigger.
Happily, Jonny McLaren was from the school of thought that a stalker?s role involves far more than just stalking. Jonny has worked as a Royal Deeside keeper for the past 30 years, moving from Tillypronie estate to Dunecht, the home ground on Dunecht estates, and finally to Raemoir estate near Banchory, one of the six other Dunecht territories. Among other jobs, Jonny is roe stalker for the farmland, woodland and upland that makes up the estate. ?We usually take 60 head of roe each year, 20 bucks and 40 does,? he said, as we gained height in his vehicle, until we could look out over the picture postcard glens.
Jonny has always run Labradors or cockers. His current Labrador often comes out stalking, though he cannot get it to bark when it has tracked a deer. ?He does come back with blood on his muzzle, so I know he?s found it,? Jonny said. ?My dogs have a reputation among other keepers for being a bit wild. They may not be field trial champions, but they are not wild either, just good working dogs.?
It was a warm July evening and the Scottish sun was just beginning to drop by 8.30pm. Jonny wore a light pullover above his Dunecht tweed breeches. But the sun was low enough to cast its glare through optical devices, so Jonny shaded his binoculars with his palm as he scoped out two fields of grassland where we were likely to spy a young buck. ?This is when you can try to find the deer to shoot before the stalker. There?s nothing better than if you spot one that he hasn?t!? Jonny said.
The two rectangular fields were on a steep incline bisected by a stone wall. There was a farm track below the fields, our approach route with the vehicle, while scrub woodland skirted the other three sides of the square. The wind, such as it was, was blowing from left to right. Three deer were on the chess board: a solitary doe near the dyke at the top of the right hand field; and a doe and buck near the woodland edge in the left-hand field.
?Do you fancy a walk?? said Jonny, retrieving his sound-moderated Tikka .243 from the back of his vehicle. ?There?s a stream up the side of this right-hand field. If we can climb level with that buck undetected, we?ll see if we can get you in range for a shot.? The stalker set off at a leisurely pace, stopping every 50 yards to check that the chess pieces had not moved. Hidden below the level of the field, we skirted up the ditch, picking our way through broom, thistles and foxgloves. Jonny seemed to glide over the rough terrain, surefooted as a Highland pony, while I struggled to keep quiet and keep up. When we reached a clearing in the broom, he lay down for reappraisal.
The solitary doe had moved from the field into the scrub above, while the buck and doe were in the same place, some 300 yards away. ?We have a couple of problems,? Jonny whispered, speaking from experience. ?Ordinarily we would cut across the field at the top where there is cover, but that doe up there will scupper us if we do. The other problem is the glare from the sun. It?s not easy to make out the quality of the buck from here. And we?ll have to make sure the scopes and binoculars don?t reflect and give away our position.?
Two woodpigeon flapped across the pale blue sky as Jonny weighed up our options. These fields used to move with pigeon, he told me, but since a nearby farmer had moved off rape, the pigeon had gone elsewhere. ?I?ll take the rifle and we?ll crawl as close as we can,? the stalker instructed. ?If we can make it to the dyke in the middle, then you?ll have a shot of about 120 yards, given it?s a cull buck. Feeling confident??
With that, he was off, slithering across the field like a stalking lioness. The ground was hard with sharp stones to cut into elbows and knees, but with the hunting blood up, any discomfort was ignored. Jonny had a steady rhythm, covering the ground with ease, stopping every 20 yards to make sure we had not been spotted. Or was it to let me catch up?
When we reached the dyke, we were met with a welcome surprise. The two deer were now three. The new arrival, which had been lying up hidden from view, was a young deer with two small pricks on top of its head. As we peered over the top of the walls, the two males squared up to each other and locked horns. There was a brief tussle before the young beast was pushed down the hill. Lesson learned, he put his head down to eat. By losing the fight, nature had indicated which buck should be culled: survival of the fittest. Jonny pointed to my jacket, which I handed over. He folded it over the top stone of the dyke for a rest for the rifle. ?Now you?ve got no excuse,? he grinned. ?Get yourself comfortable and then take the shot.?
The bullet phizzed through the moderator and the buck reared up. The other two deer ran up the slope before turning round to watch. My buck staggered forward and was partially hidden behind some shrubs. I reloaded. ?You?ve likely hit it a bit low,? Jonny said calmly. ?They often rear up like that when hit low. It?s a fatal shot, but if needs be we?ll have to wait half an hour. We?ll just leave him be for now.? I viewed the buck through the scope. It was still on its feet, groggy as a prizefighter and suffering from intense shock. It moved out from behind the vegetation and Jonny nodded for me to take a second shot. ?He?s a little pricker,? Jonny said, as we approached my second ever roebuck. ?A pretty thing, but he?s much better out of the gene pool.?