Some years ago, I spent a few summer days stalking roe in the Scottish Highlands, and was left wondering how you could keep up that pace for more than a couple of days. With the stalking ground an hour from the accommodation and darkness not falling until after 10pm, we were rarely home until after 11pm, with the alarm next morning set for 3am. Even then it was already quite light when we arrived on the ground again. Clearly, the further north you travel, the shorter the nights, but this was a punishing if exhilarating challenge.
It reminded me that as a professional stalker, this is not something that you can treat lightly. In the days when I used to guide weekly visitors for eight weeks consecutively, the late nights and early mornings had a cumulative and progressive impact on the mind and body, and it was something you had to manage carefully to maintain sharpness and good humour. Guiding involves so much more than simply going stalking. That said, every dawn has its magic, perhaps greater when the sun climbs slowly above the horizon and begins to bathe the landscape with its warmth, heralding promise and optimism. The dawn chorus too is always miraculous, and makes every early start worthwhile. But sadly for every perfect summer morning, there must be a cold, grey, wet and windy start that suppresses activity, and from which all wildlife shelters.
When a visitor arrives for the first time, a dynamic of mutual trust has to be established before any sort of success can be sought. The visitor looks at you and wonders whether you know what you are doing, and you look at the visitor and wonder whether he or she will shoot straight or even see the deer. A range of abilities are presented, and it is your job to try to match your offer to those abilities, sometimes conjuring success from what seem like very limited opportunities. A week is a long time – plenty of time for success, and plenty of time for abject failure and disappointment. In fact, sometimes it is too long – if things are going well you can run out of opportunities, if things are going badly then everyone gets increasingly depressed and disillusioned. As a professional, you know your ground like the back of your hand, and you’ve done your census work, but you simply cannot arrange the weather.
Roe move most predictably in ‘average’ conditions for the season. Unusually hot, unseasonably cold, wind from the north or east, or simply very strong wind and your chances of success become massively reduced. A sharp change of weather can sometimes be the most difficult to manage, but after around three days of the same weather, however awful, roe will adapt and begin to be active again. Visitors, however, have paid their money, have arrived with expectations and, even though they know that if they were at home they wouldn’t bother to go out in such conditions, somehow they expect you to come up with the goods.
Annoyingly, even a change from awful to good weather frequently takes those three acclimatisation days before an improvement in the stalking is seen. It can thus be very challenging managing expectations under those circumstances. Trust is everything, but that can be severely put to the test when you spend hours on the ground and see so little. Everyone, stalker included, begins to have doubts, and it is at that point that, in some desperation to produce a result, you begin to push the envelope in a way that can become self-defeating and make things even worse. And yes, I have fallen for this over and over again.
My records, maintained over some 30 years, demonstrate quite clearly and unambiguously that the average time of shot for bucks, regardless of the season, is 7am. Nevertheless, when things are difficult, you inevitably believe that you have to get out earlier, usually too early and with the result that everyone has had enough and is ready for breakfast at the precise time when something might actually happen. Pushing that envelope for ever earlier starts and ever later finishes means even less sleep for all. Lack of sleep makes everyone tetchy, and so things can start to unwind.
Eight weeks of this is frankly too much, and the only way to get through it is to pace yourself and ensure a steady routine. My experience of roe now suggests to me that three days is more than enough, both for the visitor and for the deer. If things go well, three days should be enough for success. If things are going badly, then the endless repeat pattern of behaviour around the estate as you look in vain for activity begins to alert the deer, thus provoking their anti-predator instinct and further reducing your chances of success. You have to accept disappointment with grace, and not let yourself be forced into tactics that you know are unlikely to work. A further complication is that while the guest is on holiday, the stalker is at work. Work involves stress, and it is never easy to unwind immediately upon returning home after an evening’s stalk. A winding-down period is often necessary before the welcome oblivion of sleep can be reached.
It is a close but tense relationship to spend several days stalking with a stranger. Trust is hard won and easily lost. Lack of sleep can be a dangerous accelerant to that relationship breaking down, and it is the guide’s responsibility to do what is necessary to minimise that risk. It is important to maintain self discipline and ensure that you are adequately rested to perform to the best of your ability. An hour’s midday sleep is usually enough for me, giving just enough time to recharge the batteries and extend endurance. The secret is to get to know your visitors over many years, and thus establish the degree of trust that ensures that even when things go badly, it is not you that are blamed, but the vagaries of mother nature.
There is much to experience during a stalking outing, and even if the deer are not being co-operative, few outings can truly be described as worthless. When the relationship matures beyond that of client and stalker to one of companionship and collaboration, taking enjoyment and satisfaction from whatever nature offers from day to day, then the stalking becomes only half as tiring, and the empty periods so much more easy to tolerate.