Most people head north for red stags, but a roebuck in Scottish woodland can be just as exciting a sporting challenge
Scotland epitomises the ultimate sporting getaway. Ask any sportsman across the globe and I imagine Scotland will rank highly on their wish list of go-to locations — and rightly so. Over the decades it has established a reputation for offering a friendly welcome to those sportsmen and women making the journey in search of Scottish roebuck, red stag and more — and it was the same for me.
I can remember eagerly reading articles in Shooting Times about epic stalks, tracking majestic red stags high on the hills of the west coast. Many years later, these dreams were realised as I stalked my first red stag, which was eventually taken high above Fort William.
Traditionally, most people still associate Scotland with those stags, red grouse and Atlantic salmon. However, increasingly, those same people are making the journey — from home and abroad — in pursuit of our roebucks. Many landowners and deer managers have realised that what was once considered a pest species is both a challenging and worthy sporting quarry in its own right.
I now see roebucks as a different but no less worthy quarry than red stags. They are the main reason I started out as a stalking outfitter and made the move north of the border. Every deer species presents the stalker with a challenge but winter months can be easier as they are both mobile and more visible due to the lack of cover. But it’s the difficulty of finding a deer in thick cover that I particularly like.
Any success is somewhat diminished if it comes too easily. We all have those mornings when, at your very first cast, a decent brownie smashes into your fly. It’s a great feeling but the lasting memories are made on the days when it takes hours of hard work and perseverance, along with several changes of fly, until you finally deceive a fish into a take.
Simply being in glorious Scottish woodland as dawn breaks can be rewarding enough. But being immersed in the sound of the dawn chorus as it reaches its peak, and catching a glimpse of a roebuck, resplendent in fox-red pelage as he patrols his domain, is magical. The experience is right up there with hearing the first bellowing roar of a mighty Highland stag.
I’m currently out early most of the time, as I’m mindful that with the roe rut approaching we have a raft of guests booked in. Recently, I took my rifle and I was reminded just what an extraordinary challenge roebucks can provide. I’m lucky enough to have stalked a lot of reds but this particular morning confirmed my believe that roebucks shouldn’t be seen as a lesser sporting challenge when you compare them with reds.
Often, I will take a client out to try to remove malform bucks and there is a genuine interest among many stalkers to shoot unusual heads. However, as the area I was in surrounds a local village — and people tend to use the paths for their early morning dog walks — I was wary of taking a paying guest and having any stalk interrupted by Joe Public.
The ground was close to home and I arrived at 4.30am in almost full daylight. It won’t be long before I am finishing evening stalks and having a few hours sleep before heading out again. It’s all part of the territory with summer roebucks. I left the truck, and took a few careful steps towards the farm track. A mature broadleaf woodland stood to my right and a low sun washed over the winter cereal to my left. I took a moment to stand and listen, watching Zosia, my hound, for any indication of deer.
With the dog clearly at ease, I moved on carefully and quietly, keeping to the verge to avoid the crackle of gravel under my Crispi Highland boots. I continued for a short distance toward the ruins of an old castle. By working around it, I arrived at an elevated vantage point that allowed for great views across the woodland. It’s a tactic I have used before to locate deer — including a recent visit in which I spied the malform buck for the first time.
As I investigated the scrubby willow, the alder and the grassy bank behind it, swathed in a mass of wildflowers, I was sure that there would be roe hidden within. However, a careful scan with the Swarovski EL Range binoculars, followed by the Leica Calonox thermal, revealed nothing. Zosia, on the other hand, was on high alert. She knew something I didn’t. Her nose was up, muscles tensed. She pulled forward. I have long since learned to trust the dog, so I stood, waited and continued to glass.
Eventually movement drew my eye to the line of the hawthorn hedge. I caught a brief glimpse of a roe deer as it crossed a gap and instinct told me it was the buck. If it continued in the same direction, it would re-emerge at the edge of a rye field and by moving left for 100 yards or so I could get on the same track. Crucially, my path would take me above the beast and within a clear line of sight.
As I eased from the cover, the buck was furiously thrashing some low willows below me. I sometimes think that where stalking reds is like prose, stalking roe is like poetry. It’s condensed and very exciting. As I ranged him at 190 yards, I could clearly identify him as the malform. I crawled out into the middle of the track and set the Viper-Flex Pro sticks. Zosia was creeping forward eagerly, anticipating a breakfast of fresh kidneys. A hiss called her back into place.
The picture through my Leupold VX-3HD scope showed a buck moving through the middle of the hedge, fraying and marking as it went, but always slightly obscured. I tracked him, lifting and resetting the Haenel. But each time he stopped, branches blocked my line of sight. Eventually, I ran out of room and he was lost in a deep tramline. There was an occasional glimpse of a wonky antler as he continued his territorial prowl, but he wasn’t hanging around.
Error in judgement
I needed a new plan. Around 50 yards below me, the track had been raised over a field drain and it was possible I could get sight of him, if he left the field on to an open area of banking. I moved into position as quickly as I could and reset myself. The buck emerged from cover and started to move swiftly up the bank. This was the error in judgement I’d been hoping for. At my loud bark, he froze broadside. The shot rang out and I noted a hint of a jump as he disappeared into the rhododendron.
The shot felt good and there was a reaction — or so I thought. But I didn’t hear the crack of the shot hitting home, so I wasn’t sure. I waited, allowing things to settle before moving forward with an excited hound. She has done this more times than I care to remember and we soon arrived at the roebuck, lying dead under a tree with a perfect heart/lung shot. With the malform removed, and the potential for some nasty injuries this season with it, I considered it
a successful mission.
A challenge of red stag stalking is extraction, which is less problematic with roe and is reflected in the price. A good day of roebuck stalking costs roughly half of a day on the stags and represents great value for money. While prices can vary, the average price of a roe stalk is between £250 to £300 per day.
As I left, I considered that regular dog walkers would soon be enjoying their morning wander past this very spot. It was a world away from the craggy place in Fort William where I took my first red stag all those years ago. Reds may be Britain’s most iconic species but I don’t think there’s any beast that can match the thrill of stalking roebuck.