Stalking abroad: the best of Europe by rifle
Sam Carlisle, who has had the pleasure of a fair bit of international shooting, shares his top travel picks
The roar of stags echoes across a glen. The gentle squeak from a cherrywood whistle brings a roebuck hurtling through the forest towards you. The clack-clack of two hand-held antlers heralds stamping from a nearby fallow buck, defending its territory and betraying its presence.
The British Isles has some of the finest stalking in the world. From Chinese water deer on the reedy Norfolk Broads to sika in the Wicklow mountains, there are few places that rival our diversity.
At the root of our sport, though, lie traditions imported from the Continent. It was a German that shaped Highland stalking as we know it, bringing the culture of his homeland to the hills of Balmoral. (Read our list of the best boots for stalking.)
Later, servicemen returning from Europe in the aftermath of World War II, who had witnessed the reverence locals had for hunting roe deer, were largely responsible for growing the popularity of lowland stalking.
With diverse hunting cultures, habitats that range from arid plains to frozen forests to Alpine outcrops, and a remarkable array of big game species, stalking abroad in mainland Europe is an intriguing and surprisingly affordable adventure. (Read more on travelling with guns.)
The largest grouse: capercaillie in Sweden
The Germans like to codify everything. You need to pass a test to go hunting. Even your dog needs to pass a test before you can take it hunting. Every animal has been designated either ‘high game’, historically reserved as quarry only for the nobility, or ‘low game’, which could be hunted by everyone.
As a general rule, hoofed game was in the upper echelon and birds in the lower. The only exception was the prized capercaillie, which was considered special enough to be set aside for aristocratic pursuit. While you can still stalk capercaillie in Germany, the largest numbers in Europe are found in Scandinavia. Sweden, in particular, has a burgeoning population and they present sportsmen with a considerable challenge.
It’s late January and the forests are pure white. I don a lightweight white boiler suit over my usual stalking garb to blend in. With forest skis strapped on to my boots, I am soon following my guide, Wictor, gliding through the trees and over frozen lakes. It’s -17°C, but the skiing is exhausting enough to keep you warm.
We pause to scan the tops of the pine and larch. In a birch tree, we spot a covey of black game. We decide not to pursue them, holding out for a capercaillie later in the day. It has been a good breeding year for the birds and early in the afternoon, after covering about eight miles on the skis, I see my first. It’s a long way off. Capercaillie like to perch at the top of the tallest tree for miles around, deploying their superb eyesight to good effect.
We plan our approach. It’s not easy when they are perched so high up and the woodland is sparse. On skis, you also can’t crouch down or crawl to make the most of any cover. This is seriously challenging stalking. Finding a small dip, we close the distance a little. The goal is to get within 150 yards. At 200 yards, we run out of any hiding place.
Wictor stays back, I take off my skis and immediately sink up to my waist in the soft snow. The final 50 yards takes an age as I huff and puff my way through the drifts of snow. Red-faced, I am at last close enough for a shot. No need to find anything to rest the rifle on, you just sink solidly into the snow and steady the crosshairs on the small white patch that decorates the top of the wing.
Familiarity in the Balkans: Bosnian roebuck
Roe deer occupy the largest range of all the six species of deer in Britain. These enchanting native animals graze in every corner of our isles and are the start of many a stalking career. Their success is in large part down to their adaptability. One of the most stunning habitats they call home is in the mountains of Bosnia.
About a three-hour drive north of Sarajevo, the hills are covered in an indigenous forest. This vast wilderness has never been clear-felled, is cross-crossed with glacial turquoise streams and is home to a prodigious roebuck population. Most of the woodland is too dense to stalk through. But occasionally it opens up into a meadow, probably where a subsistence farmer takes his flock of half a dozen sheep to occasionally graze during the summer. Walking through one of these meadows, following the careful footsteps of my guide, Bojan, I can see a riot of colour. A multitude of different orchids stand out against the other wild flowers and grasses. Every yard, a cloud of butterflies rises, shaking off the morning dew. We pass a small spring, surrounded by moss and mud. The footprints of a bear, only an hour or so old, linger. There are also wild boar, chamois and red deer in these hills. Protected from commercial logging, this landscape offers a glimpse back 1,000 or more years.
Yesterday evening, we’d come to the same spot and seen a fine old buck just as the light was fading. In the gloaming, there hadn’t been a chance of a shot, so now we are back, resting on a fallen tree, waiting for the sun to break through the branches and for the buck to emerge.
Fiesta: Ibex in Spain
Spain is a hunting cornucopia. With 16 big game species, it affords the most diverse stalking on the Continent. While the country is famed for partridge shooting and a unique style of driving wild boar, known as monterías, the pinnacle for most Spaniards is stalking an ibex.
The four species in Spain, distinguished by the shape of their horns, are named after the mountain ranges they inhabit: the Gredos, Beceite, Ronda and Sierra Nevada. Rebounding from the edge of extinction in the 1920s to the 10s of thousands that now roam these hills, they are an early example of hunting being the driving force for conservation.
King Alfonso XIII , spotting their decline, protected them on his own reserves and persuaded a number of landowners to do the same. They employed the most notorious poachers in the land as ibex guardians and the population rebounded.
Bumping down the dirt track at dawn, Jorge is already chain-smoking. The sun is just peeking over the rocky hills. Sharing the back seat with Lola, his tracking dog, I’m feeling the effects of too much pickled partridge, wild asparagus, grilled red deer and Rioja the previous night. The Spanish know how to eat. Parking in the shade of a ruined chapel, Jorge, with the cigarette hanging limply from his lips, points to the summit of yonder peak. We need to climb to the top. Ibex look down for danger, so the best camouflage is to be above them.
Even though it’s early, the climb is hot and sticky. The hills are a golden stone, covered in a carpet of rosemary as thick as the heather on any moorland. With every step it crushes under foot, perfuming the morning air. Resting at the top, we spot a group of ibex beyond a small grove of trees and among some crumbling terraces — signs that, hundreds of years ago, humans tried to subsist in these now empty and arid mountains. Jorge rests, lights another cigarette and plans our approach. It’s the rut and two large males rear backwards on their hind legs, pause in a moment of equilibrium and then crash earthwards, horns meeting with a thwack. We see it and then a second later the sound catches up, echoing across the valley.
The allure of stalking is often in stillness. There is time to observe, consider and wonder. While disturbance makes the sport in driven shooting, it is entirely the opposite with stalking: the goal is to blend seamlessly into the landscape. The travelling hunter has the opportunity to blend into the traditions of other cultures as well. It is surprising how well you can communicate, despite a lack of conversation, when the only shared language is a mutual love of the mountains, forests or marshes.
How to go stalking abroad in Europe
It is a myth that stalking abroad is always absurdly expensive. There are often management hunts available through outfitters that are the same price as stalking at home. The type of accommodation chosen is often a major factor in the cost. But capercaillie hunts can be found from £200 per day, roe deer in Bosnia from £300 and ibex in Spain from £750 per day.
Equally, while a mouflon or chamois is exotic to us, a muntjac or Chinese water deer is a prestigious quarry for many Europeans. There are a number of websites where you can advertise an exchange hunt, which comes with the benefit of staying with a local, adding to the adventure.