Why head overseas when the excitement of the red deer stalk is right on your doorstep, says Andy Malcolm
Although you wouldn’t think it, there is a definite downside to writing for this hallowed publication. Professional interest means I feel obliged to read all the articles (at least, that’s what I tell my wife), and that’s when I get ideas. Expensive ideas. Ideas that could have my bank manager putting my number on speed-dial.
Countless times I’ve found myself sitting, magazine in lap, staring into the middle distance. In my head I can hear the first baying of the hounds as they drive the keiler of a lifetime towards my stand. Or maybe I’m in dense African bush, my nerves like guitar strings as I seek out a huge old buff…
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you’re probably also familiar with the teeth-jarring thump as you come back down to earth. Often the price of such an adventure – even before you’ve included flights, accommodation, food, and so on – will be nothing short of eye watering. For far-flung destinations, it could be the amount of time spent away from family or work that is prohibitive.
It’s easy for me. I can play both the ‘time’ and ‘money’ cards in trumps. However, my biggest difficulty is trying to justify any shooting trip when I have Scottish red deer stalking at my fingertips.
Now, it may just be that I’m biased. I’d also be first to admit that I haven’t a lot of experience in other hunting fields. But I do know just how challenging – and rewarding – stalking on the open hill can be. A rough calculation tells me I’ve spent in excess of 2,500 days in pursuit of these magnificent animals (heaven knows how many stalks that represents) and I haven’t tired of it yet. Nor have I found anything to match it.
It might be that there are readers out there who will be nodding sagely in agreement right now. For sure there will be others who will be muttering ‘codswallop!’ and ‘hogwash!’ But the people I’m most hoping to reach are those who have never tried this amazing sport but fancy giving it a go. After all, if you live in the UK, it’s some of the most affordable and accessible hunting you can get.
If you do fancy a slice of this particular venison pie, there are a few things you should consider. First is whether to opt for accompanied stalking or to go it alone. Most Scottish estates only let accompanied stalking and I would strongly recommend this, certainly to begin with.
Initially, you’ll stand more chance of success with a professional stalker who knows the ground. They’ll also have the knowledge and equipment for getting your quarry home, which puts them right at the top of your Christmas card list. In addition, many clients welcome the added security of having a professional present. This includes the knowledge that backup is there, should a shot go wrong.
If you do aspire to solo stalking in the future, accompanied stalking has another huge advantage: watching a professional in action is probably the quickest way of learning the basics.
For those of you who just fancy giving it a try, it couldn’t be easier. You don’t need to have stalked before. You don’t need to have shot before, although some experience, even with an air rifle, is helpful. You don’t need to have your own rifle. In fact, you don’t even need to have a Firearms Certificate. As long as you are over 17 years old and are supervised by the estate stalker, you’ll be able to borrow an estate rifle.
At the start of your day, you’ll invariably be offered a shot at a target before you set out. Any stalker worth his salt will coach you through this if you need it. Thereafter, they’ll keep you right every step of the way throughout your day.
So now you have to decide whether you want to go after a stag or a hind. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. One thing is for sure: if you want a souvenir of your first red (and you have a large space above your mantelpiece) a set of antlers is a great memento.
You can stalk stags from 1 July until 20 October. Early in this season, the stags are still in velvet and you won’t get a decent trophy. Furthermore, the stags tend to stay high up and far out, which can make for a long day. If conditions are against you, heat, flies or midges can also take the edge off your enjoyment.
As the season goes on, the weather gets cooler and the deer get ‘hot to trot’. Late September/October is a very special time to be on the hill. Come the rut, those sleek, shy stags have mutated into great hairy monsters that can chill your blood at 100 yards with a single roar.
Unfortunately for you, a lot of the good stag stalking is sewn up at this time of year. But you never know your luck. Make your inquiries. The daily rate for Scottish stag stalking tends to be in the £400-450 a day range. This normally entitles you to one stag.
Some estates will only offer stag stalking as a weekly let to a party, with accommodation at the lodge included. The price will depend largely on the dates and how many stags you can therefore expect. The initial price might seem off-putting at first but do the sums. Once you break it down, it can work out the same per head as a modest package holiday. And if you’re with a group of like-minded friends, you’ll have the time of your lives.
If you are looking for the best value for money, however, hind stalking is the way to go. The open season is from 21 October-15 February. Typically, a day’s accompanied hind stalking will cost around £200-250. This usually entitles you to as many beasts as you can get on the day. Of course, you may blank. Then, again, you might have one of those red letter days in which case you could get a lot of banging for your bucks.
It’s less usual to find weekly lets with accommodation for large parties of hind stalkers, but if you do, it turns a solitary sport into a great social occasion. Having the accommodation on site also does away with the task of travelling when you’re cold, wet or – dare I say it – inebriated. Plus you get all the luxury and service you’d expect during a week at the stags. The estate I work for is looking into the viability of such lets. Interested parties can find links for this in the box to the right.
Whether it is stags or hinds you are after, there are a few things you may want to consider before you book your stalking. Perhaps you would like to stalk on an estate where extraction is done by pony, for example. If you have concerns about your fitness, vehicular access to the hill may be a priority to you. Scenery, climate, deer densities and culling practices all vary from place to place. Decide what you are looking for and do your homework.
If you’ve not stalked in Scotland before, knowing where to start looking can be a real problem. The Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group website is worth a visit, first off. You can also find the link for this in the box at the end of this article. On it you’ll find a list of estates offering all manner of sport. From there you can contact the estates directly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If, after speaking to them, you feel that particular estate isn’t what you are looking for, see if they can recommend a place that fits your requirements.
Word of mouth is probably the best way to find good stalking. If you know anyone who has stalked in Scotland, pick their brains. If you don’t have any such contacts, maybe you’d consider joining your local branch of the British Deer Society. Most enthusiasts are only too happy to share their hunting experiences and just one handy tip could conceivably save you more than the price of your membership.
If you do take the plunge, bear in mind that there are a few steps you can take to ensure your Scottish experience is an enjoyable one. Having a reasonable level of fitness is going to help. If you have doubts about this, choose your venue carefully. A sympathetic stalker is as important as the terrain.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to get started, but a hat, a good set of waterproofs and a decent pair of boots are a must. To that you can add some warm layers, gloves and a balaclava for a winter’s day at hinds. Binoculars will certainly add to your understanding and enjoyment.
Finally, if you are a shooter, try to get some practice in. Remember the ranges on the open hill are often greater than those you experience if you are normally in woodland.
So don’t just sit there. The experience of a lifetime is out there waiting for you.