Bucket list bounty

Chris Dalton seeks a red stag with a guest from down under, who is after the full authentic Scotland experience – including rain, mud, grallochs and a long drag home

One of the unforeseen spin-offs of my media activities, both with this illustrious magazine and The Shooting Show (TSS), is the contact I get from fellow hunters not just from within the UK, but around the globe. It interests me greatly to understand how like-minded folk chase a different quarry, overcome the particular idiosyncrasies of foreign species, and how their general hunting practices and traditions differ from ours. I get some very positive feedback regarding how we hunt in the UK – in many instances we are the envy of our fellow sportsmen and women.

I entered into one such dialogue with Joey from Western Australia, who is an avid follower of TSS in general, and Oscar the deer dog in particular. I learned that at the top of his bucket list was a hunting trip to Scotland and a good red stag from the hill. He explained that he was a hands-on hunter who wanted to get mucky and wet, work hard and understand how we gralloch. My type of hunter!

And so it was that I welcomed Joey for a few days up at Kinnaird Estate at the end of September when the stags should be roaring on the open hill, and they were. I met him at the Tayside hotel, which I use as a base when I am in Perthshire. It’s a great, traditional Scottish sporting hotel: warm, friendly, full of fishermen and shooters, with a drying room, a flexible breakfast and a nice bar meal. Joey arrived early, so we had time to have an initial evening recce and a few check shots with the rifle. I brought the new Browning X-Bolt in 6.5×55, which is, without doubt, my favourite all-round calibre for UK stalking.

The only part of the team missing was Oscar; though still around then, he was feeling his age, and to be honest if we are out on the open hill crawling around, a hound the size of a donkey can be a hindrance. Joey’s performance with the rifle on the range that evening suggested we might not need a dog anyway; he produced an excellent group. We had a brief evening stalk and got into a few hinds and some small stags, but they were not the plan; we wanted a big beast.

Aussie Shooting Show fan Joey fits to the rifle

Day one of the proper hunting dawned. It was wet, warm and windy, but the stags were roaring all the over the place, and this was the first time Joey had been out ‘in the roar’. The mist had rolled in, and that accentuated the noise coming from around us – I think we could have gone home and left Joey there, as he was mesmerised by it all. I skirted around the moor edge where it joined one of the birch forests, normally a good spot to find hinds, and where they were there would surely be a stag. But not this morning – we found small groups of hinds, but they were not corralled by any stags, and from the noise coming from the hill they were busy courting.

By now the rain had stopped and the wind picked up, clearing the mist. I could see a large group of hinds and calves on the sheltered side of a small glen about a kilometre away. They looked settled. I couldn’t see a stag, but knew there must be one, so there was no point dallying. We went for it. They were in the open, and if you didn’t know that corner of the hill you would have seen no approach. However, you can follow a deep burn, which would get us close to them and out of view.

All went to plan, but I defy anybody not to get excited when you are closing in on a group of hinds with stags roaring all around you, and as we got closer I could sense my guest’s rising anticipation – along, if I am honest, with my own. This was my first stalk in the rut at Kinnaird, and I had a feeling we were into a big stag; I knew one was with my group as the low, bellowing roar-come-grunt from just over the brow was giving the game away.

We got to a point where the small stream flattens out, so our main cover was gone. This left a slow crawl to the top of the ridge. Again, all was straightforward, and my guest was getting his wish to get thoroughly wet and mucky, crawling through sphagnum moss, mud, deer poo and heather. We saw the stag – “a beaut, mate”, as I was later told. He had a big, black body and lovely head, covered in peat where he had been wallowing and constantly rounding up his girls. He was close enough to shoot from here – I just needed to get past the low heather we were crawling in and get the rifle poked through for a shot off the bipod. It is this last few yards that are crucial: I was not worried about the stag, but I was concerned about 40-odd hinds picking us up.

Thus far we had been okay. I was focused on these as I eased the rifle to my chosen mound when a poke from my Aussie stopped me, pointing to our left. Our progress had been spotted by a hind and her calf, browsing well away from the main group, which I hadn’t seen. Bugger. This could all go wrong. There was nothing for it but to freeze face down and hope they settled or at least wandered off. We were like that for 10 minutes, and then the lead hind decided she definitely did not like us, and barked before trotting across us and down to the main party. This put them on edge, and they started to gather ready for a move. Decision time; we pushed the rifle on to the mound through the heather, my guest sliding into position as the lead hind started to take the group away to our right.

Our stag was still strutting his stuff, and came into perfect broadside, but too briefly for a shot. The hinds dropped down a small gully, and our stag followed, so we could only watch the view of a cracking pair of black, white-tipped antlers and head, as no part of his body was visible. He stopped repeatedly to give a roar, but at no time gave us the opportunity to see enough of his shoulder – I swear he was taunting Joey, giving a last grunt before disappearing over the ridge.

Joey got his first Scottish red stag – and he got tired, wet and muddy along the way. Just as it should be!

We still had a chance. The hinds had drifted away, not run, and there was dead ground on our side of the peat hags to get alongside. With luck we might be able to move parallel to them and get above them for a shot. This was one of those times when a run is required, which is what we did, and minutes later we were creeping up over the heather to look down.

Again I thought we had blown it. All I could see were the backsides of the last few hinds, which had drifted past the gap in front. They were not overly concerned but were making their way up to higher ground, no doubt following the lead hind who would have sensed danger and taken the group away. But the hunting gods were with us. Out wandered our stag – belligerent, snorting and master of this particular bit of wet and boggy peat hag. He stopped to give a bellowing roar, which would be his last. The 6.5×55 barked and there was a satisfying ‘thwack’ as the round hit home hard in the engine room. He ran a short distance before collapsing all in view.

What a memorable stalk and a fitting end for this particular monarch. A hunting experience appreciated by Joey who had worked hard to get his stag, this was the only big stag I will take off the hill this year all part of a carefully monitored management plan. The stag will by now have pride of place in a hoise close to Paraburdoo, Western Australia.

For stalking opportunities Chris can be contacted on 07710 871190 or via www.ayrstalk.co.uk

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