Forest fortune

Chris Dalton has to negotiate some testing re-stock forestry on the hunt for red deer – and finds that getting out is going to be harder than getting in

September is when my thoughts turn seriously to the red stag rut. As in most cases with deer managers, the work on assessing and evaluating your deer population continues throughout all 12 months of the year. We are always monitoring the situation, and any factors that will influence our decision-making in terms of the numbers we need to cull from any given block or estate. External factors will clearly influence these decisions –particularly the interests of commercial forestry and newly planted areas. You cannot manage any areas of trees for purely sporting purposes unless you are very fortunate, and I can’t think of any scenario where you would be allowed to do so on a grant scheme or if felling and re-stock is about to take place.

I manage an area covering three commercial and privately owned forests in Argyll, in which the first phase of felling has just started and re-stock is planned within 12 months. Deer numbers are high – particularly reds, with sika and roe also present. The reason I was asked to take this on in the first place is that the previous stalking tenant had been purely a recreational stalker, and the owners now required a more qualified and experienced deer management team. I am not knocking the recreational stalker – most of my stalking clients are such and they do a damn good job. But there is a limit to what someone running a family and day job can do in the limited time he or she has available.

One of these forests was a real problem. The work had cleared an area of thick scrub and trees, which up to this time which had been impenetrable. It led into some secluded, small glens that were steep with severe rock faces, and for the best part of 20 years or so had never seen any stalker in there. There was simply no access.

Once the work had finished I could finally have a look round in there. I was not surprised to see evidence of sika and some big reds. Up to this point they had never been troubled, but now I needed to thin them out seriously. But while the problem of access had been eased, the issue of extraction had most certainly not. I had seen two nice sika stags and some cracking red stags in there – not fantastic heads, mostly in the seven- to ten-point category, but they had serious body weight.

Long haul: The unorthodox dragging method eventually pays dividends

I use an Argocat when extracting reds when we can’t get a vehicle close, but even an Argo is beaten on re-stock. The machine goes over the stumps no problem, but then the stump holds the wheels off the floor and you are stuck. If you are lucky you can use the forwarder tracks where they lay the brash as a path to make a track, but this was not possible here. The forwarder tracks only ran a short way in, and then you were left high and dry. So another solution was required.

One of my guys had seen a capstan winch in action, and I was aware that Forestry Commission rangers use them frequently, so after some research, we added one to the list of South Ayrshire Stalking’s equipment. It’s not cheap but it’s easy to use, and weighing around 12kg, you can carry them around easily. Now I had a means of extraction. But I couldn’t really take a client who I didn’t know in there and let him shoot a deer and then muck in with a potentially tricky and experimental extraction. Enter my regular guests Brian and Paul, alias Elmer (watch The Shooting Show if you would like an explanation for that one). They did not need asking twice, but commented that I should be paying them to come. Once I had restarted the pacemaker and got up from the floor, and with negotiations concluded to my satisfaction – well, I am a Yorkshireman living in Scotland – arrangements were made for a trip towards the end of September.

We had four days’ stalking in all. Over the first two days, the boys shot cull stags in some of the other forests, as the wind was in the wrong direction for the targeted site. As you have a narrow field of approach, everything had to be in place. These deer are not daft – no wonder they had attained these body weights. One advantage, though, was that they had not been disturbed much and so were reasonably settled and would move about relatively freely during the day.

On day three we were up bright and early and stalking in just as the first hint of light came up. It was quite still, so progress was painstakingly slow. We went together, Brian on the rifle with Elmer bringing up the rear to provide the muscle – well, he is a builder. Used to sitting on a machine and telling everybody else what to do, then – maybe it was not such a good idea after all. But it was too late now. We got up along the side of the wall and into the steep glades where the deer were most likely feeding. My truck was parked on the track – capstan prepped and ready with drag rope, we were all set.

The stag population badly needed thinning – this was a good start

It is always at this time, as an outfitter, that you begin to wonder if the deer will co-operate. I have every angle covered, manpower, mechanical assistance, enough daylight to recover, stalkers in tow, dog at my side raring to go… so of course the deer don’t show up. I need not have worried – we heard a long, eerie sika whistle three times, then minutes later, stags started to roar so close they made us jump. I defy anybody not to have the hair stand on end when that happens on a still September morning.

It was difficult to pinpoint the source of the noise, but I hoped that the reds were in the bottom of a small valley just over a rocky outcrop in front of us. If so, this was going to be the easiest approach possible, with wet grass so we were making no noise. We eased up over the ridge and peeped over the edge. There they were, some laid down and a big seven-pointer with black antlers and massive body, standing perfectly broadside, oblivious to our presence. It really does not get any better.

Brian poked the rifle over the top, rested on a mossy tussock, and I instructed him to control his breathing and squeeze the trigger. Job done. Our stag fell on the spot to a low neck shot, with some startled stags exiting stage right and left rapidly, one almost running right over us. To say that was a good result would be an understatement. It was a pity Elmer missed out on witnessing the action – all he got was clattering red deer hooves running away. Never mind – he could help with the drag in. I left them to gralloch the stag while I popped back and picked up the capstan from the truck, and with the rope on a hose reel I walked back to them.

The recovery, unaided, would have been around two hours of grunting and pulling uphill and over re-stock. With this little bit of kit you could have achieved it single-handed; with two of us, one guiding the deer and taking the rope out and the other operating the winch, it was a breeze. I can recall many a drag of four or five hours off the hill – yes it’s character building, but I think I have enough character now to see me out.

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