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Stalking: Highland stags on a budget

Nowhere on earth can match Scotland’s unique blend of scenery, tradition and hospitality and nothing is quite like the experience of stalking red stags on a Scottish hillside. For some visitors, money is no object, but those on more modest incomes can enjoy the same thrill stalking a red stag in Scotland’s breathtaking scenery without resorting to beans on toast for the rest of the year.

If you know where to look, you can stalk a red stag for as little as £300 and if you are canny about your travel and accommodation, you can enjoy the sporting experience of a lifetime for less than a package holiday on a Mediterranean beach. Scotland ranks as one of the most accessible sporting destinations in the world with its excellent road, rail and air links — and for UK sportsmen and women it’s all on our doorstep. No wonder fieldsports contribute well over £250million to Scotland’s economy each year.

The best way to enjoy sport on a budget is to book a trip with a group of like-minded friends. You can share the driving and fuel costs, and stay in inexpensive self-catering accommodation such as a bothy.

Sporting agent Charles Brownlow, who is based in the Borders, says: “I have around 150 estates and river beats on my books, and my best value stalking offer is a bothy for six people self-catering for a week at £2,250, or £375 per person. That includes three stags, and you can add extra stags at £350 + VAT each. Prices have risen steadily in recent years and stags usually start at £400-£450, but if you take a lodge as well, they can be as little as £300 + VAT. You sometimes hear of someone paying as little as £250 for a stag, but if you ask you discover they were friends of the owner staying in the big house.”

Charles’ sporting packages go up to £20,000 per week for visiting sportsmen, but his bread-and-butter is what he calls “mates” holidays for younger clients. “Most of my clients are aged 25 to 35,” he says. “They’re at the age where they’ve started to earn a bit of money, but they don’t have a lot of spare cash. The ideal package for them is a lived-in Victorian lodge with 20-30,000 acres of stalking, a river and the opportunity to do a bit of walked-up grouse shooting.”

Affordable options

For those on limited budgets there are plenty of options. For example, Ardnamurchan estate is on a rocky peninsula that juts into the Atlantic just above the Isle of Mull, where sporting agent Niall Rowantree of West Highland Hunting offers “everything from the very top end all the way through to the affordable stalk for the man on a small budget”.

Niall charges per stag rather than by the day, and over the past four years his clients have had 100 per cent success. “When you’re booking stalking, it’s important to look out for any hidden costs,” he says. “A cheap day rate can add up if you take two days to shoot a stag, and then have to pay extra to have the stag’s head boiled and so on.” His best stags, with upwards of 15 points, go for up to £3,500, but a typical Ardnamurchan red stag will cost around £650. That includes the head boiled and prepared, ready to take away with you 48 hours later. “You can shoot a stag for less elsewhere, but we provide our stags with feed and shelter over the winter and we only shoot mature stags,” he explains. “It takes seven long and lonely winters to grow a decent stag; we need to recover that investment.”

Niall tailors his packages to suit individuals and groups — accommodation starts at £400 for a week in a self-catering cottage. For the experienced stalker, he offers self-guided stalking around areas of newly established woodland. You will need a minimum of DMQ Level 2, public liability insurance through membership of a shooting organisation, and the ability to follow a map. You must also be willing to sign a statement that you’re in good physical health, as you’ll be doing your own stalking and gralloching and dragging the carcase to a collection point. If you can tick all those boxes, the price is £80 per outing, plus £220 for each beast shot.

“For the absolute maximum bang for your buck, it’s got to be winter hindstalking,” says Niall. “You can have two guys go out with one guide for £350 a day. The guide will stalk you in, you can shoot up to four animals in the day and there’s an ATV to get the animals home. Plus it can count towards your DMQ Level 2 portfolio. That’s tremendous value for money, and if you want you can take your venison home butchered and packed.”

Niall makes his last point a plea from the heart: “Visitors don’t always realise how important their financial contribution is to Scottish communities. Taking part in Scottish fieldsports is the best way of supporting what you believe in, the wildness and the wildlife. In a recession especially, it’s important to us.”

It won’t be your primary reason for booking that Scottish stalking break, but parting with the money is easier when you know it is helping to keep the rural economy thriving.