Holed up in a cottage at Kinnaird estate for the week, Chris Dalton takes a family member out for a red hind on frigid ground.
Across the months of December and January, I try to complete the cull on any mature female reds, and apart from a few areas where we are shooting under the General Licence, I like to have as much of the work done before the turn of the year as I can.
I take no pleasure in shooting hinds when they are heavy with calf as we get into February; I accept that it has to be done in some cases, but where possible I prefer to avoid it if we can.
Against this backdrop, last winter I had some guys wanting to book training – both pre-DSC1 and DSC2 – and, as I still had a number of red calfs to shoot at Kinnaird, it seemed sensible to run this training in Perthshire.
I had also wanted to do some modifications to the chiller for some time as the existing larder rail did not run to the end of the container and I wanted to extend this rail and move the winch so the rail extended a couple of feet outside the back of the container.
This would allow us to reverse the bike under the rail and winch the reds up outside of the container to wash them off before sliding them into the chiller. Much cleaner and more efficient than the previous arrangement – we had been doing the washing off inside the container so it made cleaning down more complicated than it need be.
The work would take around four days – we had some new boxes to site around the estate as well – so Dean and Shaz were co-opted for the work, and I had booked one of the excellent estate cottages to maximise our time and avoid the need to travel to and from our usual base at the Tayside Hotel in Stanley.
As soon as Jen and Kenna, our daughter and son-in-law, learned that I was going up and staying in a cottage, I got a large number of hints along the lines that it would be nice to see the estate, Kenna had some days off that were just before the cottage dates already booked, Jen’s mum (aka the mem saab Anne) could come and spend some time with her granddaughter, Mia, now aged one… oh, and we can go stalking!
I could not really refuse as it seemed to have been organised already, so a quick call to Sandra in the estate office saw the cottage booking extended by four days.
We set about planning the trip. Organising all the stalking kit, rifles, food and equipment is mostly routine for me, but for Jen, the equipment required for a 12-month-old baby required some serious planning! It developed into something more akin to a full-blown military exercise, rather than a long weekend away.
A four-tonner would have been the ideal means of transport, but miraculously we got there in our own vehicles, on time and with sufficient kit. I did not need to bring the trailer as we had brought the high seats and new towers previously, so they were on site. The new equipment for the chiller had been delivered to the estate office, so that was covered.
The estate cottages are lovely and increasingly we are using them for stalking clients too, as it is so convenient to collect our guests from whichever cottage they have booked and then be walking out of the house and stalking within minutes.
Most are grateful for this, particularly during the long daylight hours of summer stalking and the associated early mornings and late evenings. However, this was not an issue for us with a young granddaughter in the house, who insisted that most of us were up long before daylight – so we found ourselves waiting for the pre-dawn light before heading out onto the hill.
By this time grandma had been supplied her morning cup of tea and been coerced into babysitting while one of the parents went off chasing deer with grandad – mind you, she did not need much persuasion.
I had been out with Kenna the previous morning and we had stalked into and shot a small calf from a family group of hinds; this morning it was Jen’s turn.
Jen had stalked with me a number of times and shot several roe but never stalked or shot reds, and all the stalking previously had been in Ayrshire so it was predominantly woodland roe in commercial plantations.
We headed up through the native birch and alder and worked slowly up the side of the hill to the open moor. These trees are favoured by the hinds, especially in early morning, and I expected to find small family groups of red deer and some roe feeding, but we were handicapped by a keen frost.
It was a lovely winter morning with a bright day forecast, but with no wind and it had been very cold last night. Moving over the frozen bracken, which as we got higher changed to long, crispy old heather, made stalking quietly impossible.
We bumped a roebuck as we worked through a beech thicket. I knew something was in front of us as Zosia was pulling forward with her nose up – there were deer here for sure. We slowed to a painstaking speed and even then it seemed we were making enough noise to wake the dead. The dog got keener as we made each extra yard up the hill, traversing across the slope.
Then I could see them: a group of hinds on the other side of some tangled willows. They were only 120 yards away but we had no shot through the trees, so I inched forward, Jen close behind trying to get to a spot where we had clear line of sight to the deer.
I could see a number of the group feeding so I thought we might get away with it, but the lead hind had other ideas. She had heard us, and though could not see or smell us, was sufficiently concerned to move her group away. So all we got was a deep, loud grunt. All the deer heads went up and the hind led them up and away over the top of the hill – that was that.
Moving to plan B, I knew that 600 yards in front of us there was a deep gully. Behind it was a sheltered plateau, like a small basin, and I thought we would have a look there to see if there were any red deer feeding.
This was almost directly above the cottage, so we could drop back down for breakfast if we found nothing out. So with Jen briefed on the plan and with the hound leading, we headed off; this gully was around the corner and out of sight of the reds we had disturbed, so I was confident that if there were deer here they would not have seen, and therefore been alerted by, the first group.
Progress was slow and noisy but fortunately, after creeping up a ridge, we came across a hind and calf feeding about 300 yards away. They were settled and thus far unaware of us.
All we had to do was make it to a plateau that would offer a good, stable shooting position and was mostly out of sight of the two deer on the ridge. My only concern was noise, so again it was painfully slow covering the distance – each foot had to be placed with infinite care trying to avoid the older heather and placing my boot on softer moss.
We made the ridge and I was not sure if the deer were still there, so I took the rifle from Jen and eased up the bank. Fortunately they were still feeding happily so I was able to push the rifle forward and set the bipod, pointing the Tikka roughly in the direction of the reds. I eased left, allowing Jen to get behind the rifle and set herself for the shot.
I indicated that the calf was the one to shoot. We had a perfect backstop; the range was 210 yards so I told her to take the shot when she had it. I had no issues with the range – Jen, like her mum, is an excellent shot, always concerned with achieving a perfect placement, not wounding the deer.
This is the correct attitude of course, and I therefore need take no part in the decision-making process when she is at the rifle. If she feels comfortable and stable, she will shoot. If she does not, she won’t.
As the calf turned fully broadside, the .243 made me jump. The hind calf dropped immediately with barely a twitch to a perfect heart shot. A lovely stalk completed by an easy recovery, as I could drag the deer directly down to the quad track below us and fetch the Can-Am ATV to collect it from the track edge.
Breakfast would hopefully be ready when we got down to the cottage and joined the rest of the family. Before long it will be Mia coming out stalking with me – mind you, she needs to be walking first…