The back end of the stag season in Scotland this year was one of the wettest and warmest I can remember. From Blair Atholl to Loch Ness, stalkers I know spoke of the broken nature of the rut, with the classic cold mornings that trigger the full swing of activity not coming in until the season had well passed. But as one season finishes, another opens, and as we push on into our winter months, my focus sits firmly in two places: roe does and red hinds.
As much as I enjoy the pursuit of roe across the permissions I have in my area, I have to confess I view the doe season as a little bit of chore. It is more of a job that needs to be done, taking the population back down, than a recreational activity. Not that this is a complaint, but it is the reality. I have put a lot of roe in the freezer over the years, but far less in the way of red deer, so the hind season for me brings much more anticipation and excitement.
More than just the chance for heading out on the hill for the day, November through to January also marks the start of our wilderness hunts. These offer the kind of experience in the highlands we ourselves enjoy. I believe it’s one-of-a-kind hunt in the UK – we were certainly the first to offer a pack-out, back-country, tented camp-style hunt in Scotland. I love to do this with my brother, and it brings me great pleasure to share this with other hunters. When you read this we will have completed our first hunt of the 2017 season, which as it looks right now may prove a little cold with a touch of snow.
Last year saw us complete the first of these hunts, with all four hunters who joined us flying over from Scandinavia, split between Norway and Sweden. In the week leading up to everyone’s arrival, the weather had gone from mild beginnings to a series of low fronts bringing snow to much of Scotland. It settled heavily in the lower highlands, and our usual hill road to the primary camp location was impassable by anything other than a snow bike. This novel transport for Scotland was actually available on the estate, but a much longer road was clear enough for the Land Rover to pass, so we decided for convenience to bundle everyone into the Landy and make the hour-long journey into the hills.
It was dark by the time my brother had delivered everyone to the estate from the airport, and once we parted company with the tarmac, no lights were to be seen through the pitch black of night. Negotiating ice, snow and mud, we eventually got everyone to the prepared camp, which we had set up earlier in the day. We had an extra pair of helping hands, with our friend Lise joining us from Norway for the hunt, arriving a few days ahead of the rest of the party.
Camp was simple, consisting of a 15-man tepee-type tent, with an internal wood-burning stove for added warmth on the long evenings, and of course the provision of cooking and the essential morning coffee. The camp is situated beside a small burn, which actually feeds into the same water supply used to make Glenfiddich whisky. Direct from the hill, it’s good to drink straight up, and provides a convenient pot washing facility. The toilet set-up is simple, though having spent plenty of time squatting in the mountains, I took the time to build a grass turf, rock-surrounded, raised toilet with a deep hole for a little added comfort. Other than that, it is a bog with a view of the hills and the open skies – pretty liberating. No one complains, even if it makes the morning post-coffee ablutions a little draughtier than usual.
Once we’re in camp,we have everything taken care of. Food consists of basic staples and mixed game on the first night, with the intention that we will eat venison from the second day onwards. Mess tins and big stewing pots take care of food preparation, and there’s a Kelly kettle for hot water. Life is simple. There is no phone reception, no wi-fi, just the company of hunters and the great outdoors for entertainment.
It’s a liberating feeling having no connection to the outside world – it is something more people should embrace from time to time. We are far too connected, and the constant ability to be online has really stifled the forming of basic bonds of companionship. In camp, it’s story telling and fire for entertainment rather than a smartphone app, and the rehabilitation of these old-school skills leaves everyone feel better by the end of the hunt.
The hunters bring their own personal kit, plus a sleeping bag and mat. It is essential to have a good mat for a decent night’s sleep – I used a cheap foam option for years, but they really don’t cut it, and my brother and I have moved over to blow-up micro-mats similar to a thermarest for the last couple of years. It is worth every penny of the investment.
Given the origin of our guests last year and the concern over chronic wasting disease in Scandinavia, I took the precaution to ask everyone to come with washed gear and clean boots (boots were still disinfected on arrival), and provided knives for everyone in camp so they could be left at home. We always need to consider such things with foreign clients.
By the first morning the group had already started to bond and get to know one another. Wide open skies greeted us as the light lifted, with everyone fed, watered and packed for the day. The hunting gods must have been watching over us over the following three days, with the best weather in weeks making for pleasant hunting conditions, far removed from the weather we have been having so far this hind season.
These hunts are very much about the whole experience. It is about having the chance to take charge of your hunt, learn from others and your own mistakes. For us it’s not so much about guiding people, more about simply hunting with them as equals. I know from my own experience that it’s easy to become lazy when you have someone guiding who knows the ground. On wilderness hunts, that isn’t the case, and you get out as much as you put in.
Beyond that, the hunters have to take careful consideration of what they shoot. With plenty of hinds requiring to be culled in a season, we have no limit placed on the numbers hunted and shot. However, the onus for retrieval lies on those pulling the trigger. This is where we differ from a usual highland stalk, where the stalker carries out the brunt of the work. Of course we are there to help, but the lead and effort for recovery needs to be borne by those who take the responsibility of taking the life. This in itself limits the numbers of animals that can be processed in a day, with no mechanical help provided, and all carcases being returned to the primary camp. It adds a dimension often lost when relying on other people or indeed the luxury of modern machinery.
The first hunt last season couldn’t have gone better, with everyone taking at least one animal, and some more than that. It was everything we hoped it would be for the hunters, with happy faces and contented souls at the end of it. I look forward now to showcasing the experience to our next lot of guests from London in a few days’ time. Sometimes it’s good to return to basics and shut the modern world out.