A sudden bout of heavy snowfall spells trouble for Highland stalker Andy Malcolm as he and a friend try to stalk into a herd of red hinds
This time last year, I was struggling to get my hind numbers. The open weather we’d been ‘enjoying’ had meant the deer herds were miles out on the hill. They were also in prime condition and ready to show a clean pair of heels at the drop of a tweed cap.
All this meant that I was knocking my pan in for a beast or two a day. I was getting exhausted, frustrated and not a little down about it. On the plus side, my clients were experiencing some very challenging days and loving it. As far as I was concerned, if there was only ever the chance of one shot, why not have someone pay for it?
Every evening I would sit and watch the weather forecast with fingers firmly crossed, hoping for snow. The only result of this was that, by Christmas, I was pulling the trigger with my middle finger. I was also 20 per cent down on my target numbers and had legs like Conan the Barbarian.
Conditions remained as fickle as ever into the New Year. The deer – now pushed into large herds – watched from their lofty perches with something akin to disdain. I continued to pick away at them through sheer bloody-mindedness.
Then, on 15 January we awoke to a covering of snow. It was just enough to whiten the hills. “Big deal!” I thought sourly as the odd flake continued to float down. “Is that the best you can do?” The snow got a bit heavier, then heavier again, and didn’t stop for a week.
For the first two days, I spent more time pulling cars out of drifts than pulling deer off the hill. When I did eventually find a ‘handy’ group of hinds, my only approach was to crawl up the steep slope below them. My progress must have been laughable as I tried to ‘swim’ up through the deep, soft snow. I certainly wasn’t the one doing the laughing.
The result of my floundering was that I bagged a couple of dry hinds worthy of skinning. It’s just as well I made the most of it; I was snowed in for the next two days.
When the snowplough eventually freed me, I emerged out into the world in a dangerous mood. I was suffering from a combination of cabin fever and bloodlust. Fortunately medical help was at hand. My good friend (and vascular surgeon) Euan joined me for the day and we planned on getting my cull jump-started.
To my amazement, there were no deer to be seen on the accessible parts of my beat. I concluded they had to be in a small side-glen. The only way to find out was to go and see. We drove to the nearest farm on roads that looked like the Cresta Run. Before we set off on foot, I explained that we would be very limited as to where we could shoot. Extraction would have to be by pony and I wouldn’t dare take him anywhere where I wasn’t absolutely certain of what was under hoof. In other words, the pony wasn’t to leave the Land Rover track.
While our ponyman got Fergus saddled up, Euan and I donned our whitesuits and commenced the slow, laborious plunge. I couldn’t believe how long and how much energy it took just to go the 300 yards to the first gate. We dug it out with hands and feet so the horse could get through, then continued on our ponderous way. There were another two buried gates to deal with before we climbed out of the farm parks. At least we weren’t cold.
Once beyond the parks, we entered the glen proper. As we crested the first rise we could see straight away why we hadn’t been able to spot any deer. Every beast on the beat was gathered in one huge herd. This herd was on the floor of the glen not far past the end of the Land Rover track.
I turned to Euan and asked: “Are you sure you want to do this?” He gave it the thumbs-up. I turned back to my trailblazing, muttering: “And I thought doctors were supposed to be smart.”
We dropped down to the cover of the waterside and ploughed on. The long heather and beds of rushes had trapped the drifting snow down here, making progress even harder. We forced a route through snow often up to the top of our thighs.
Our progress was down to a snail’s pace, though even a snail would have had more brains than to be out in this. After struggling through one particularly deep drift, my legs were like jelly and I could just about taste the lactic acid. I’d had enough.
There was only one thing for it: we would exchange The Burn for the burn. We stepped into the frigid waters and started wading up the watercourse. It was sheer bliss – relatively speaking.
We splashed up the river until we reached the point where caution was required. From there we negotiated several exposed bends where we had to do a crouched walk behind the low riverbank.
Finally, we reached a point where the cover ran out. We peered over the riverbank at the 30 yards of smooth whiteness between us and the cover of a tall bank at the foot of the hill. If we could make it to that bank, we would be home and dry – to use a particularly inappropriate expression.
I knelt there and weighed up the situation carefully. I didn’t want to have come all this way for nothing. In our favour was the fact that the day was dulling down all the time. Against us was the fact that there were 400 pairs of eyes, the nearest of them little more than 300 yards away. I craned my neck to look for an alternative route. There wasn’t one.
There was nothing else for it: we’d have to cross the open ground. We pulled our hoods up, tightened the straps on our gloves and steeled ourselves for a painstaking crawl. I needn’t have worried.
We pulled ourselves over the riverbank and disappeared into a particularly deep drift of snow. I had feared a long, slow belly-crawl. Instead we were nearly at periscope depth even on our hands and knees. We still took our time but we reached the next cover without a hint of alarm from the hinds.
From there it was a simple matter of hugging the foot of the bank until we were within easy shot. However, getting the two of us onto a bump wasn’t so easy.
In conditions like these, a common mistake is to flounder about too much in an attempt to get the rifle set up clear of the snow. The numbers of deer here made it even more difficult. Not only were there a great many eyes, but the beasts were spread out through nearly 180 degrees. It would have been all too easy to alert an animal and not to spot it until it was too late.
Euan hung back behind the bump until I was in position and ready to shoot. I then covered the hinds while he came forward and set up by my side.
Everything was as I like it to be. Most of the deer were within 150 yards of us, and all were unaware of our presence. Roughly half of them were couched, the rest were pawing through the snow and grazing. I picked out a yeld hind grazing among the nearest group and got Euan on to it. Once he was happy, I picked out another one for myself.
We lay, conferring quietly, waiting for the right moment. When we were both happy that our animals were standing broadside and clear, we slipped our safety catches off. “Ok?” I asked. “Ok,” he confirmed one last time. “Tell me when you start your squeeze,” I breathed.
“Squeezing now,” he muttered after a slight pause. I could hear the concentration in his voice. My world focused down to the image in my crosshairs and I took up all the slight pressure my trigger would bear. The last ounce of pressure went on the instant Euan’s Tikka went off. My rifle kicked in my hands. Almost as one, the sound of the two strikes came back. Both sounded good.
With a noise like muffled thunder, the deer took off. Two brown humps were left in their wake. I looked at my watch and was amazed to see that it had taken nearly three hours to come one mile. I called up the ponyman and got him mobilised straight away.
Dragging the beasts to the track was a Herculean task. As we set our tired legs to it, the leaden skies gave up the fight and a heavy snowfall started once again.