Iain Watson and Chris Rogers debate whether highland stalking or lowland stalking makes for finer sport
Iain Watson says highland stalking is best
As the summer draws to a close, the short but magical season of Highland sport opens. Returning salmon splash in the estuaries and sea lochs as they wait for the spates that will let them run their home river. They offer excitement and thrill as they tempt us towards gravelly runs, dark pools and tumbling cascades in our attempts to outwit them. The red grouse, our unique gamebird, crouches in the flowering heather trying to keep its well-grown young together. They provide a different challenge as they power away over the moor, flushed by the dogs then caught by the wind. Out on the open hill, bachelor groups of stags clean their newly grown antlers and burnish them among the heather stems and gritty peat wallows.
Though deerstalking for all species has mushroomed in popularity over the past decades, for many, particularly British stalkers, it’s the red stag that remains at the pinnacle of the sport. There are a number of reasons for this. The animal’s fame and significance as a sporting quarry are acknowledged worldwide. The short Scottish season means it’s available for a limited time. As far as highalnd stalking is concerned, it has a long-established place as the premier quarry dating back over centuries. Added to this, its pursuit takes place in a special location, one that offers challenges both physical and mental, which lowland stalking cannot match.
For those heading north, the autumn trip brings with it all manner of anticipation and paraphernalia they don’t encounter on their home stalking turf. For the more traditional there are the ponies, trained to carry home the prize, or there’s the modern equivalent — the Argocat. There’s the chance to marvel at the skills of the pony man and the relationship, good or bad, between man and beast, or the ability and the confidence with which the Argo driver forges over what looks like impossible terrain. Above all, there’s the skill of the highland stalker and his knowledge of the ground and the deer. There’s the pressure and the pleasure of doing well at the target, whether it’s a rusted deer outline, a cardboard box or a chipped painted circle on a grey slab of rock.
As a stalking theatre, the open hill is unsurpassed. Unlike lowland stalking, the views are often long, and not intersected by roads and buildings. There is no man-made soundtrack. The terrain is varied from relatively gentle grassy slopes to towering rock faces, amid scarring caused by long-melted glaciers. Cover abounds, and though the chosen route has been well-spied, deer often lie hidden just over the next ridge or among broken hags. It’s not a place for the incautious and it demands constant attention to the wind.
King of the hill
Time spent on the hill offers us a chance to connect or reconnect with wild places and with the wildlife that lives there. A blue hare flushes from behind a boulder as the assent to the ridge is made. Groups of golden plover wheel over corries calling as they fly. Ravens, which always seem to spot a highland stalking party, circle above and monitor progress, waiting for the moment. The approaching rut brings the first roars as stags begin to get restless.
As the season progresses, the sight of migrating geese and whooper swans passing high overhead mark a scene unchanged over the many decades.
For me, what makes highland stalking best is its unique combination of location, the people, the variety and challenge on offer, but above all the presence of the red deer. They are masters in their environment; we are just visitors. The deer test our physical ability, our skill at reading the ground and our patience.
Sometimes on edge, the chance of a shot is fleeting. Other times, laid up and basking in the sun, the waiting can be interminable. Other times still the chosen stag will not offer a shot, while his companions stand broadside on. Then sometimes they simply disappear.
When all has gone well and the stag is safely grassed, there’s an overwhelming sense of achievement. Now there’s a chance to take in the surroundings, relax and enjoy your peace with the stalker and his gillie, and then plan the route down to where the pony or argo awaits. Once you have experienced a day on the hill, you will want to go back. In its native environment, the wild scottish red deer is a truly worthy quarry, and a day on the hill provides one of the greatest sporting opportunities that our islands can offer.
There is little doubt in my mind that lowland stalking is the pinnacle of our sport. The lowland habitats offer a diverse number of environments to watch and stalk deer in, from forests to fields, both large and small in size, with a multitude of crops within them. Some lucky stalkers in lowland areas will also be able to stalk in heathland, which, though it can seem dull to the uninitiated, is one of the richest habitats available. The lowland environment is also our native deer’s original home area and therefore it offers us a similar experience to the hunting our ancestors would have had.
In East Anglia we are lucky to have all of the above, and with the distinct lack of hills and valleys it is definitively lowland.
Stalking in this area requires the hunter to be a master of all disciplines and one must be prepared to take a shot quickly if the opportunity presents itself, using whatever aids are carried or come to hand. Generally the distances of shots taken will be shorter than on the hill, but the lowland stalker must understand their bullet’s ballistics for all eventualities.
Multiple species could be encountered and the areas offer both “spot and stalk” and “ambush” hunting from high seats or ground hides. The main difference of stalking the lowlands is that the deer encountered will usually be closer than on the hill, giving the enthusiast the chance to look at these majestic creatures in detail.
Fieldcraft is key
In all environments, the lowland stalker needs to understand wind direction and how to approach the deer after first spotting their quarry. It is in woodland that the stalker finds the greatest difference from hunting on the open hill, and though large pine blocks are often encountered on high ground, when I imagine traditional woodland stalking, it is in the majestic, atmospheric broadleaf woods of England.
The diversity of wildlife on view to the careful stalker is staggering, from wild flowers, songbirds, insects and, of course, the trees and deer. This diversity can also cause problems to the stalker, as deer are quick to pick up on other wildlife’s reaction to possible danger. Fleeing hares in open fields will soon alert the deer to a possible threat and, when stalking in woodland, the clatter of birds flying from trees is another aid to the deer in spotting predators.
Probably the most common problem that a lowland stalker will face is being given away by large quantities of gamebirds, and you can guarantee that towards the end of any stalk, a cock pheasant is waiting to offer the deer one last chance of escape.
Typically, lowland stalking outings will revolve around the first and last three hours of light. Ambushes of the herding species require detailed knowledge of where the deer are feeding and their entry and exit routes from the feeding area. Morning ambushes require you to get into position in the pitch black and wait patiently. In this situation the dawning of a new day can be a magical experience as the sky starts to crack with light, which then reveals the landscape’s features and wildlife within it. Woodland stalks often begin by entering the woods in the dark and waiting for the gradual increase of light to a point where a stalk on foot can be conducted. Hearing the dawn chorus is an underrated experience and it can be as enjoyable as the stalking itself.
The woodland is constantly changing with the seasons — on one day it can seem inviting and relaxing and, on another, quite suffocating. By far the most enjoyable season is the rutting periods of the various deer species. Depending on which way you look at it, the roe deer are up first, and in a good year the rut can be a frantic affair, with bucks chasing does at a high pace. Calling bucks is always a challenge and particularly so in the woodland, where your quarry could appear from any angle — usually behind you! The red, sika and fallow rut, which is spread out over autumn, is my highlight of the stalking year, and of the three, the red stag is the king of the forest with his roar echoing around the woodland.
Lowland stalking is without doubt the best way for beginners to get into our sport. It offers close encounters with numerous species, both challenging and easy stalking on foot or from stalking hides. Most importantly, it gives the opportunity of stalking to all ages and fitness ranges, and offers disabled stalkers the chance to participate in our sport.
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