Height of the action

 

In late Autumn I did some DSC2 assessing on Strone Estate in Argyll. During that time I had contact with Tom Turnbull, the owner. Strone is a grand place, and as you can imagine the scenery is stunning. Most of the tourists who visit the area will not appreciate that it is very much a working estate, with a very well managed population of red deer.

Tom manages the deer on the estate on his own, and as we chatted over deer matters in general, I learned that he intended to increase his hind cull this year. I did not take a great deal of persuading, and offered to come back and give him a hand in early January, along with two of my regulars from Eire, Padraig and Killean. They had not stalked reds on the open hill in Scotland yet, and it was very much on their bucket lists.

Commitments meant that I could not make this until the New Year, but that worked for Tom as there are areas of the estate which are difficult to access and also involve a fair drag to recover any shot hinds. This timing would allow him to concentrate on some of the more accessible areas of the estate, and leave some of the harder work to us.

I also decided to bring the camera along, hoping to film some of the action for The Shooting Show. Padraig and Killean arrived off the Irish ferry on 2 January, and we stalked hinds on my own ground before setting off very early the following morning. We met Tom at daybreak at Strone; the drive from Garryloop is about an hour and a half at that time of the morning, and we even had time for a coffee and bacon sandwich at the mobile cafe at the top of the pass – luxury!

Idyll in the hills: Parts of Strone estate are difficult to stalk on, but their natural beauty is undeniable

The weather was absolutely stunning and we could not have picked a better day. There was a keen frost with bright-blue sky, absolutely fantastic. Probably not the best for hill stalking in terms of approaching deer, as the sun on a stalker’s face reflects across the hill like a Belisha beacon. For day one, as there were parts of the hill I had not seen while up here last year, we stuck together as one group, with Tom leading the way. On subsequent days, having covered all boundaries, I would pair up with one of the guys and Tom with the other; this also allowed me to concentrate on the camera and let Tom guide. It made a pleasant change to follow. After a few hours, we found a group of hinds with beasts Tom wanted to take, so Padraig and I held back while they crawled into a firing position. Perhaps 15 minutes later, two shots signalled success. We joined a smiling Killean to assist with the gralloch of an old hind and calf. We did try a stalk after recovering the reds, but time was a little against us, and a swirling change of wind blighted a second stalk – often the case on the hill. It was an absolute pleasure to be out and to relive, as you do, the events of the day over a few beers in the hotel. We had an early night in anticipation of the ‘morrow – the whiskey was only mildly tested.

Day two dawned even better, again with a very keen frost. It took a long time to de-ice the vehicle; Loch Fyne was iced over, so you can appreciate how cold it was! We drove down very close to the restaurant on the loch, which afforded us a good vantage to spy most of that side of the hill.

Spying revealed several very steep gullies running to the top, and we could see parcels of deer on the edges of these, most likely waiting for sunrise and a bit of warmth on their backs. It would be a long, steep climb, but I fancied working up the edge of one of the gullies and working the ridge line from the top, where we could drop down either side of the hill.

Killean and I set off from this lay-by, while Tom and Padraig took both cars to the other side of the hill. Their plan was to park my car on the road below where we would most likely end up, meaning we could drop down to it, hopefully with some deer!

It took us just over two hours to get to the ridge line. We glassed a few groups of deer down below us after we got some height, but the wind was starting to get tricky. It was swirling from the ridge into the gullies below, so while there were shootable reds down there, I did not fancy the prospect of an iffy wind ruining all the hard work of an approach. Instead we continued to a high point where, I hoped, the wind would be consistent.

We reached a corrie where three ridges meet, which provided the ideal spying spot. We spent maybe 20 minutes looking for likely suspects below. There were three hinds, a mature beast with a calf and a yearling hind, most likely her calf from a previous year, browsing in the sun down below. They were on the edge of a very steep ravine which had been carved out of the hillside by what was currently a small burn. They seemed settled, and were in a warm spot in the midday sun, though it was still about -4 degrees. We had a good approach down the gully so they became our chosen quarry, and off we set.

Height-averse Killean nonetheless managed to pick off his red hind from above

Up to this point I had no idea that Killean is not a great fan of heights, but to be fair he didn’t complain (much). We shimmied, slid and occasionally fell down some fairly hairy inclines, which were not improved by a covering of ice. But we made it, and slowly crawled to the high point, which would provide us sight of the family group of hinds. Our approach thus far had them out of view, so we had not been able to watch any progress they made. Initially we could not see them, but then movement below caught our attention. The hind was feeding in the valley, so we guessed the other two were below and behind her, out of our view. They had clearly moved down into the gulley for the lush grass. On the opposite side of the valley was a nice grassy mound which would provide an ideal firing position, so carefully we moved across to it.

The hind was very settled, and we could now see the calf behind her. Killean got set up – he was using my Tikka 6.5 x 55 – and as she gave him a nice broadside, he took the shot. The hind dropped after a few seconds’ stagger, and the calf and yearling ran across the valley on to the far back before stopping and looking back. The Tikka barked a second time and the calf dropped instantly to a neck shot, rolling back into the gulley to end up very close to the hind. The yearling ran over the gulley out of sight, but we gained a bit of ground and she stopped, clearly not sure what was happening. The third shot sounded good, but the yearling did not flinch and ran on for about 140 yards – I watched her progress and was sure the shot was good. She stopped, tottered and then fell and, after a few kicks, lay still.

That was a good result and an excellent stalk – one happy, albeit vertigo-stricken, Irishman whose trauma was nothing that a wee dram wouldn’t sort. I was not particularly relishing the long drag with three reds until I checked our route home and could see a silver Mitsubishi immediately below us in a lay-by – could not have written the script better!

A fairly easy downhill drag of about half a kilometre was bliss at that point. We finished the three days with nine reds, and most had come from the inaccessible parts of the estate, so certainly a worthwhile job done. We will be back next year, but for four days this time. I must find some steep cliffs!

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

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