For the deerstalker, whether recreational or professional, the hours spent on the ground are hours well spent. As the 2013 red deer rut approached, time was of the essence, because not only was the demand for stag stalking higher than usual, but it also seemed that the rut was slow in arriving.
As stalking has become increasingly popular, and stalkers more numerous, our expectations of the rut and all that it brings appears to have changed. Every season the timing of the rut causes much head scratching and ruminating. There seems to be an acceptance that “back in the day” the rutting times of both red and roe were as regular as clockwork. Not only could you set your watch by them, you could book your holidays to suit them. But was this always the case and are things really changing?
Anticipating the rut
This year, as September played out, deer were watched and ears were cocked listening for roars. Yet certainly here in the far North-West, as the first groups of winged migrants made landfall from Iceland, there was little evidence of stags breaking out, and the roars that were heard came from cattle waiting for their rations to arrive rather than hormonally challenged stags. So is the rut really getting later? Or is our anticipation of it too set in stone? While there’s no simple answer, perhaps we would all do well to allow our expectations of the rut to become more flexible and realistic, while maintaining accurate records for our own area, noting the variation that the years bring.
For me, a new challenge this season was the inclusion of some open moorland in the stalking portfolio — all a bit of a change to the hill environment to which I’m familiar. Along with the moorland were two plantations of mature but degraded mixed conifers, a source of both shelter and security to an established population of red deer. In this remote country, these trees provided an important alternative to going to the hill. This meant that stalking would be less weather-dependent than normal and that there would be somewhere to go when the Atlantic weather fronts and autumn mists put the hill out of bounds.
Understanding new ground means you have to put in the hours watching, noting the wind patterns, finding favoured areas, working on safe arcs of fire, and routes in and out for recovering animals. So with a couple of long-distance spying points selected, I set about counting and watching the movement of both stags and hinds, evaluating the number and quality of animals in and around the area. It became clear that the population was larger than first thought, particularly the number of hinds observed at the beginning and end of the day.
In terms of stalking, the strategy paid dividends, and as October arrived, the occasional roar was heard and the cull figures from the area were on target. With 10 days of the season left, I found myself tucked into the wood edge watching a new area of the moor as evening drew in. A group of a dozen or so hind calves and followers made their way from the cover of the timber and fed steadily towards the cover of a deep burn, where the succulents on offer were clearly to their liking.
They were followed by two mature stags, which left the wood and moved out to join them. With a bit of pushing and shoving they sized each other up, parallel walked and generally behaved in the way stags should behave. The hinds were unmoved by the stags’ efforts and, ignoring the display, continued to graze.
A strangulated roar announced the arrival of a third stag. Smaller than the first two, with a short eight-point head, he advanced purposefully and squared up to the darker of the bigger animals. In very short order this small interloper saw off the other two, and crowing his triumph joined the hinds, which continued to ignore his antics. He was back the following two evenings, unchallenged and chasing hinds.
Bob Franks, an experienced stalker, arrived from Northamptonshire on the last day of the salmon season, for some Macnab was in the air, though the lack of rain during the first two weeks of the month very much mitigated against this. Nonetheless, if a stag could be obtained early in the day, time could then be given to the most difficult element of the challenge — the salmon. The morning was autumnal, with no wind, mist drifting over the riverbanks and along the moor edges, and very still.
As we cautiously navigated our way over the moor, we almost fell over a young stag prospecting along the side of the river. Sound is horribly magnified in still air, and every footstep resounded to the squelch of water and the rustle of coarse grass. Carefully keeping to the moor fringe, we scanned for beasts.
A lone stag in the mist
In the mist, we saw the eight-pointer. With no signs of female company, he was patrolling parallel to the wood edge a little more than 300m out into the moor. As the sun began to break through, he was still shrouded in mist, testing the air and making his familiar strangulated roar.
We watched. Options were limited. Unless the stag came to us, the chances of a successful shot were not high, and certainly other than by a flat crawl we were going nowhere. Carefully setting up the bipod to get above the grass, I watched the stag. Would he come towards the wood if I called him? He was restless, using his antlers to thrash at the ground.
Watching him closely, I gave a roar and waited. There was no response. A second roar brought a flick of his ear, and he moved to look directly at where Bob and I lay flat in the tussocks. Minutes passed and a further two roars started him in to action. Head up, he began to move in a direct line towards us. It’s always a spine-tingling moment when a stag responds and comes towards me. This boy was sure of his ground and, given his performance earlier in the week, was sure of his station in life. Slowly, the gap between us narrowed. A final short grunt from me let him adjust his approach. At 70m he stopped, head up and stock still. Bob had been watching his progress through the sight, and cocking the rifle, he ended the stag’s life with a carefully positioned shot at the base of his neck.
For a stag that had been so assured with bigger males, there was nothing remarkable about him. His time over, his hinds were quickly corralled by some of his former adversaries. Time will tell how much of his genes he left behind, or whether the late, patchy rut will count against him. As for the rest of the day, the sun came up, the river kept dropping and the salmon stayed safe in the pools.