Why the Scottish Highlands are such a shooting tourist hotspot
From across the globe, intrepid shooters catch Highland fever and travel to enjoy some of the best stalking there is, says Thomas Nissen
The weather is far from typical for deerstalking in the Scottish Highlands as outfitter Thomas Heinzel-Kienberger leads visiting hunters Rasmus Andersen and Mathias Nielsen across his family’s estate. The 5,000-acre parcel of land on the edge of Loch Rannoch in central Scotland is vivid with colours picked out by the hot sun. Small groves of trees break up hills tufted with yellowing grass and purple heather.
There are also strong stags with wide, heavy antlers wandering the uplands. These are the type of deer the estate likes to present, and it protects males with these characteristics until their strength begins to wane. Visiting hunters are expected to shoot less favoured specimens — young or old, large or small — singled out by their guide.
The number of deer culled on the estate varies yearly but averages around 50 red stags, taken from different age groups, along with 120 hinds and calves. Adjacent to the property, in the commercial forest areas, deer herds come under intense hunting pressure, but Finnart, the company set up by Thomas’s family to manage the estate, uses fences to safeguard its deer population.
As the group sets out along the gravel road in the base of the valley, Rasmus is happy to leave the rifle in Thomas’s care. A couple of large red deer herds with calves are already in sight. A few stags are there, too, having attached themselves to the gatherings, but as the rut has not really started, most of their kind are still in bachelor groups on higher ground. One such collection, with stags of all ages, is situated under the peaks. The party decides to climb towards it. Unfortunately, on the way up, the stalkers spook a herd of hinds that set off around the hilltop, towing a bunch of stags that were hidden in a nearby gorge with it.
The sun is at its zenith when Rasmus spots a stag just behind the ridge the stalkers are following towards the hill’s crest. The beast is less than 70m away, alone and still, unsure if something untoward is close at hand. The motionless animal is an easy target, and Rasmus quickly mounts the rifle on the bipod, but Thomas isn’t sure whether Rasmus should shoot it. He studies the stag for a long time, but is unable to see its antlers clearly until it finally turns its head and shows all the points in its crowns. Rasmus is out of luck: the antlers are strong with a wide span and the number of points and their placement correspond exactly to that desired on the Finnart Estate. The pair have to move on.
For the rest of the day, the stalking party walks, jogs, climbs and crawls through the Highland terrain, but their efforts go unrewarded. Then, shortly before sunset, they arrive — after crawling on their bellies over several hundred metres — at a spot close to a herd of red deer with a scattering of stags. It’s a perfect position, but now they must watch and wait as the sun slowly dips. Finally, after 90 minutes, the deer move towards the stalkers.
One of the stags with the group has an unbalanced crown, with up to eight points on its right antler but far fewer on its left. Thomas carefully assesses the deformity before declaring that the stag was likely injured when it was in velvet. In other words, the damage is not permanent and shouldn’t hamper the strong stag’s development. Consequently, it will be a younger stag attached to the herd — a high six-pointer with a medium span — that must take the bullet.
It’s close to dusk when, 15 minutes later, Rasmus takes his first Highland stag. For the young stalker the moment brings both relief and joy; it had been a long and tiring day, but the setting and the stalk would make it an unforgettable experience.
Hunting buddies Rasmus and Mathias elected to share a Highland adventure so they could celebrate each other’s successes and double-up on the excitement and experience gained from the stalk. Now, following Rasmus’s day-one exploits, it is Mathias’s turn to see if he can take a stag. His efforts will also be witnessed by another friend, Daniel, who has joined the pair for the second day.
The weather is chillier as the trio join Thomas on the second morning, but the temperature drop has not increased rut activity. The bachelor groups are still visible on the nearby hilltops, just as they were the day before, although a slight change in wind direction means that the stalkers should now be able to take a more direct approach towards the stags’ lofty location while still remaining undetected downwind.
However, the appealing prospect of a short trek to reach their upland prey vanishes over the course of the morning. Encounters with several herds force the party’s members to make a long detour. By the time they close in on a group of deer rich in stags, the three stalkers are feeling the aches of a long stalk around the hill’s summit. Rasmus and Daniel wait behind the last small elevation while Mathias and Thomas crawl forward towards the stags. Minutes later, they are lying on their stomachs, with Mathias aiming at the ruminating animals lying down in the grassland before him.
The herd contains plenty of stags. Thomas goes through them all as they wait, letting Mathias know which ones he can shoot when they get up and wander away from the other deer. Some of the selected targets are relatively young, while others are advancing in years, with a few among those chosen sporting 12-point antlers. There are a few stags that the guide wants to preserve, but for the most part it seems as though Mathias will be free to take his pick of the beasts once the animals choose to depart their resting place. It is now just a case of waiting.
Unfortunately, this proves to be something of an ordeal for Mathias. As anyone who has stalked deer in the Scottish Highlands will know, the weather can turn quickly. Half an hour after crawling into position, the afternoon’s fine weather is blotted out by heavy clouds, and before long strong winds are whipping drizzle towards the hunters. It is worse for Mathias. His jacket is in the backpack he left with Rasmus and Daniel. Soon his clothes are soaked and there’s nothing he can do to stop the cold seeping into his motionless limbs. By the time the animals stand up one by one, Mathias is more than ready to take his shot. (Looking for waterproof kit and clothes? Check out our lists for winter stalking kit, rough shooting jackets, shooting breeks, and best shooting wellies).
But while Thomas has picked out a fair number of stags to shoot, Mathias can’t get a decent angle on any of them. Each time one of the shootable stags stands up, it presents an oblique angle to the gunman. Time and again, Mathias slides the sight between the largest possible target animals, each time willing the beast to turn just a little. The group, however, continues obliquely forward metre by metre. It’s not long until only one stag remains lying in the scrub. Thomas points it out to Mathias.
It’s the youngest and smallest of all those selected earlier. As it stands to follow its companions, the stalker holds his shot for a second or two. Then, realising that this is likely to be his only chance of the day, he crooks his finger and pulls back the trigger.
Stalking deer in the Scottish Highlands is unlike the trophy hunting experiences sold in eastern Europe, where you pay by the gram or centimetre. Highland stalking takes place in often challenging conditions and is conducted more for management purposes.
We all had the chance to take large stags in terms of Scottish antlers, but for one reason or another, none of us took home truly sizeable crowns. On the other hand, it would be hard to find a better hunting experience. The stalks were fantastic, with countless satisfying approaches.
Rather than focus on the resulting haul, it is better to say that we have something to return for. If we come back at a time when the rut is in progress, and the older stags are better spread across the terrain around the herds of hinds, one of us could take an older stag, perhaps even one who has lived a full life and is now ready for retirement — that’s certainly the dream that many stalkers with Highland fever hold dear.