Ordinarily one associates the roar of rutting red stags in the morning mist of the Scottish glens with the autumn. But July signifies the start of the season in the Highlands and though the stags will be in velvet, it is still a time to assess the beasts and start the management of the herd by removing the less healthy ones.
Sutherland offers those classic wide open hill stalks where you can see a stag on the hillside, and getting close without being seen presents the ultimate challenge. Devoid of trees, this region, near Cape Wrath, always involves a long hike and sometimes even a crawl in the mud. I love it ? this is real stalking with the prospect of getting close to truly wild beasts.
I was up north for a completely different reason: I needed to test some extreme range rifles with wildcat calibres I had created, and Sutherland offers unlimited ranges that are safe to experiment in. But it just happened that when I was chatting to the local factor, the subject of stags arose. A group of stags had been coming off the hill during the night and raiding the crofter?s yards and devouring the new season?s tatties. I was told that if I could ?discourage? a few stags it would be much appreciated.
I never rush in; observation is always the best way to start a stalk, and a 4am start on an elevated position gave me the vantage point necessary to assess the situation and observe the stags that were causing the problems. A group of three enormous stags, still in velvet yet just coming into tatters, were separated from the main group, which consisted of both young and old. These three were on their way back up the hill after a night munching on the free veg, while the main group were 1,000 yards behind them.
Those big stags were too good to shoot; it would be better to wait until after the rut. So I turned my attention to the larger group: three youngsters with promise and an array of good antlers on one side and several old stags with poor heads on the other. Apart from the youngsters, any of the other stags would be fair game. They were on their way back up the hill as daylight broke so I would either have to position myself early the next day in the hope that they walk past me as the first light breaks, or wait on the hill for them to return and chew the cud? I took the first option.
Armed with the knowledge gained the previous morning I crept out of bed at 2.30am and walked over the hillock. From here a lochan was glimmering in the half moonlight which lit my way as I edged to my ambush area at a narrow point between the lochan edge and cliff, where the deer would funnel through. The wind was brisk in my face as I pressed up against an outcrop to sit and wait for the sunlight when I could make a safe shot.
I surveyed the area through my binoculars but there were no deer to be seen, so I started to scan the lochan edge along a ribbon of sand on the shore that was favoured by the deer as a dry passage back to their home. I caught sight of the three big stags already walking back up the hill, with full stomachs no doubt. They were 1,100 yards off and I watched them disappear over a saddle on the hillside to bed down. The moonlight probably had them out feeding earlier that night, so where was the other group? The big Swarovski 15×56 binoculars really came into their own here; some stalkers think they are too big but when you want to see a stag at 1,000 to 2,000 yards away in the gloom, they are superb. Sure enough, the other group, of only six deer that night, had taken a lower route up the hill and were heading for a place to bed down behind a small rocky overhang. This was my opportunity.
Now the hard work began. The wind was still up and I had with me my Predator 30-47 Lapua rifle fitted with Zeiss 7×50 illuminated scope and Jet?Z sound moderator. Shooting a 125-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet at 2,820fps from the 20in barrel gave 2,208ft/lb energy with a load of 38.4 grains Reloder 10X powder. I was confident that, despite the wind, shot placement would be certain as long as I stalked in close.
I started off with a slow, crouched stalk straight at the stags from a distance of 1,500 yards, deliberately picking my way through the redundant peat-cutting channels that offered cover. The going was wet, to say the least ? a wrong foot and I was likely to disappear up to my thigh.
The rain started and the pace of the deer quickened as they made for the cover of the overhang. I changed pace and direction to try to intercept them. At 850 yards I stopped and surveyed theground again; zero cover with only heather and bumps in the ground for concealment meant I wasgoing to have to shoot prone, so I fitted my bipod and proceeded at a crawl. The Leica rangefinder was a lifesaver; judging distances without reference points is tough, and the folded-up shooting sticks were used to cradle the rifle in front of me as I rept forward.
The six deer were now resting and chewing the cud, totally unaware of my presence. I could make out an old stag with poor antlers, and a couple of mid-age poor heads; the rest were healthy youngsters. I wanted the old boy, past his best and ideal to cull, but he was almost out of sight in the middle of the group. I had to make up my mind quickly as the rain was now in my face, as was the wind at about 15-20mph.
I always stalk light. My padded shirt was repelling the rain other than at my elbows, and the trousers with nylon knee pads made crawling easy. I ditched the roe sack and deployed the bipod and inched my way forward in plain view of the deer though they were still unaware of my presence. My heart rate was thumping; any false move could scatter my quarry. I stopped to look through the binoculars and subtly changed my direction as the wind eddied around. At 159 yards I was close enough, and rested in a small gulley directly in front of the stags.
Savouring the moment
Nestled into the wet gulley, all the stags were in view and I had a rock steady rest. The group were sitting so I could take a neck shot but that 20mph wind might make it tricky so I decided to wait until one of the stags rose. Thirty-five minutes elapsed and I was beginning to shiver a little. Then a movement: one of the young stags, golden red in its summer coat, sprung out a foreleg and had a nibble, and then rose to its feet ? a lovely animal and certainly not for shooting today. I had to be patient. That?s the essence of stalking: take your time, never be in a hurry to take a shot and savour the moment.
Another deer stood up, again a younger stag, which joined the first and started to spar a little, which disturbed the others so I knew the rest would soon get up and move to a new spot. The old boy was having none of it, but a large stag with an average eight points rose slowly. Change of plan: I would target this animal. My mental calculation for wind drift and bullet drop instinctively computed as the scope?s central dot rested steadily 1.5in high and 3in right into the wind to allow the bullet to strike, hopefully, as a heart shot.
I was about to squeeze the trigger when the stag swung its head around for a nibble of its flanks and obscured my shot. Then it raised its head again and the hillside was awoken by the muted report as the 125-grain Ballistic Tip made contact and water spray from the pelage indicated a good hit. The rolled over and slid 20ft down the heather towards me. I reloaded and covered the deer with the rifle while the other deer stood there, unsure what the muffled sound was. I only wanted one; I was on my own and without a quad. I had to wait unseen for a further 25 minutes before the remaining five stags strolled over the saddle, a little confused as to why the eight-pointer was not following. That?s the important part: with a stag down, do not reveal yourself to the remaining beasts as it only serves to teach them about a stalker?s tactics.
The long drag home
I approached slowly and readied myself for the gralloch. Despite its smaller head it was large and I now had to retrieve the roe sack to get my drag rope. I wrapped the rope around the stag?s head so the antlers were lifted off the ground and around the shooting sticks as a drag handle. I soon realised how heavy this stag was and the soft terrain did not help ? the 2,000-yard drag back home was painful.
Four hours on and I was exhausted with 600 yards still to go, this stag was not coming home easily ? it was making me work for my venison. Luck was at hand when my friend Don, a local ranger, came down the peat track in his van. We exchanged hand gestures and his hand reply indicated that he was less than willing to drag it with me! We couldn?t get it across the burn anyway so we elected to pack it out old style, a haunch at a time, with bin bags and plenty of water for hygiene purposes.
What a stalk! Not the biggest stag of my life, but certainly the best stalk I have had. I started at 2.30am and returned home at 4pm where my wife was greeted with a big smile… and then a snoring husband spread out on the sofa.