One last chance

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Brian Phipps has one final opportunity to take a stag on the Dalchully estate with a close-knit band of European hunters before a change of ownership shuts down stalking on the estate. The clock is ticking…

The challenge was set: I had one day and one day only to grass a mighty stag from a highland estate in Laggan. I have travelled and stalked in Scotland many times, but unfortunately, due to time and restrictions, dropping a stag here was becoming a seemingly impossible dream. But all this was about to change.

Dalchully is situated on the outskirts of Laggan. It is not a huge estate, perhaps 7,000 acres, and it culls on average 40 hinds and 30 stags every year. I often stalk on an estate not 20 miles away, and for the last week of red stag stalking every year a regular group of us descend upon one of the oldest and remotest hunting lodges in Scotland. We take up residence for the week, and languages from every part of Europe chatter away to their hearts content in front of an open fire.

04(alt)_Brian Phipps-505This year my week was due to be cut short. Dalchully had been put up for sale, and the buyer was a New Zealand Leisheep farmer who had no intention of continuing with any sort of shooting. It was a shame to hear the news, but business is business, as they say, and the stag season this year would be our last. The estate was letting stalkers in every day to complete the required cull numbers, and the time had finally come for me: 20 October. To say the pressure was on would be an understatement – if something went wrong that day, there would never be another chance.

As day dawned I left the lodge and travelled to Coul Farm. Stephen March had been head stalker there for the past five years, just a small part of his 25 years in the profession. He was looking forward to the challenge of his new job as head stalker for the Duke of Grosvenor in Sutherland, but it was still emotional for him, knowing it would be his last time stalking stags here – and possibly the estate’s last time too.

I was accompanied by Aigle MD Christophe Perrier, and together we wasted no time in loading the Argo. The 7,000-acre estate is nestled behind the farm, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in character. Thick, boggy heath land surrounds the mountains, and the river bores through the winding glen. Water gushes down the hillside, adding to the river’s momentum, and the roar is both impressive and deafening.

The Argo was essential for the first part of our journey. Although walkable, it is a real ball-breaker pushing through knee-high heather and deep bogs, and it is such a long way you would be exhausted before you even started your ascent on the mountains.

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Gentleman as I am, I had offered Christophe the passenger seat, clambering into the back, stained with the blood of previous stalks. That itself wasn’t a problem, but as the dark clouds chased us through the glen the skies opened, emptying their contents down on yours truly. Exposed to the elements I improvised as best I could, hastily pushing my knife though the blocked drain holes and releasing the rapid influx of water building around my feet. Stephen drove the Argo like his motorbike, fast but careful, and in no time at all we were tackling the first section of the day,

After a bumpy ride I was glad to get out and take in the view. We were on an old sheep track, the river so swollen with floodwater that it was impassable. We would have to continue on foot.

We had met Stephen at nine that morning. He had already been on the hill since before dawn, and had identified several herds of deer sheltering from the weather in burns on the sides of the hills. It was to these spots that we were headed, and it wasn’t long before we spotted a lone stag standing on open hillside. He had caught us by surprise and there wasn’t a very good approach available, but he was a shootable stag. “A good one to remove,” said Stephen, looking through his binoculars, “It’s not if we can get him, it’s how.”

Stephen scrambled away to gage the situation, leaving us hidden in a burn. “It’s doable,” he said, edging back to us, “but it’s a 300-yard crawl just to be in range.” There wasn’t a chance I could have done that, and I quickly volunteered my French colleague Christophe for the first stag of the day.

Together we tackled the steep burn. This was to be the only cover we had, and the water was knee-deep in places. Thinking it wise to sit tight and wait – one less set of feet to alert the stag – I huddled in tight to the wall of the burn and watched them disappear over the edge. An hour later I was beginning to regret this decision, as my limbs slowly froze. An hour and a half passed before I heard a faint rifle shot. When no more followed I looked out over the edge of the burn: two figures were just visible in the distance. I jumped up and made my way towards them. As I grew nearer I began to make out the faces of two very despondent stalkers.

06_Brian Phipps-1408It was my turn now, and with the light running out, the mountains would be our next plan of attack. I could just make out the white tops towering through the mist. Stephen had decided to pick up the pace, and we marched upwards along the familiar zig-zag paths of the Scottish Highlands.

As we climbed higher the rain turned to sleet, and the sleet turned to snow. The summit was covered by six inches of snow, but the land was boggy beneath it, and we had only tackled this mountain to get a view of the next!

The opposite face looked steep and unforgiving, but held plenty of deer. There they were, just as Stephen had predicted, hiding from the weather. “There’s sure to be one or two stags in that group,” Stephen smiled, pointing at the distant brown blobs. “The rut is still underway.” It was a long slog this time, and Stephen wasn’t keen to stop. We had to get above the deer and move down, meaning twice the climb: you could have heard my gulp.

My watch told me I was 3,500 feet above sea level already, and I took the strain off my legs for a few minutes by leaning on my stick. It had travelled many miles with me, and I imagine the Somerset hazel and Quantock red deer antler would never have dreamt of being in the Highlands.

With orders given, we pushed on, descending back into the mist and rain, and then climbing out onto the other mountain. The stalk, although invigorating, had exhausted me. We had already unsuccessfully stalked one stag today, and climbed up and down one mountain – this was getting too much. “We can rest at the top,” said Stephen, urging us on. We climbed the rear face, resting in a shallow burn while Stephen went to scout the situation. When he returned half an hour later I was glad of the break. “The deer may have spotted us and moved back down towards the base,” he said. “But there’s plenty of them – several stags too.”

We set off once more, the ground becoming steeper and steeper below our feet. I was concerned, and rightly so. Stephen knew the face would be steep, but now it was also coated with snow. We had to go down, but how?

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Christophe stayed put, and Stephen and I began to slide forward on our stomachs. I had on a new pair of Harkila Pro Hunter gloves and was thankful for their hard-wearing properties; my hands were serving as anchors, and were the only thing stopping me from sliding out of control.

We headed for a crag about two thirds of the way down, and Stephen passed his Leicas to me. “Go and have a wee look over the grass and see what’s happening,” he said. Gathering my breath I peered out over the top. I could hear deer roaring before the glassware touched my eyes: we were much closer than I had thought. In front of us were four stags, at distances of just 60-80 yards. One of them had his harem, and the three smaller stags were doing everything possible to distract his lady followers.

This bigger stag was a superb 11-pointer, but unfortunately we were looking for cull stags and I would have to have one of these chosen for me. All of them were in shootable positions, and I moved back down and explained what I had seen. Stephen had been getting his Sako 75 ready, wiping the Schmidt & Bender scope ready for use. The equipment had come through a good amount of snow and rain on our slide down.

Peeking through the binoculars, Stephen gestured for me to load – a 130-grain Hornady SST homeload – and join him at the top. Heart pounding, I clambered up after him. Stephen removed his eyes from the binos once more and gently pushed the barrel of the rifle away from the three stags, and towards the 11-pointer. “He’s been around for a long while, this wee beastie,” he said, “he’s been a good stag but he’s old, perhaps 11 years, and starting to go back. I know it’s the rut, but he’s thinner than normal.”

Smiling from ear to ear, I settled the crosshairs over my target. “Wait,” whispered Stephen. The stag stopped for a moment, his back to us, and roared into the glen, issuing a warning to the others. Stephen roared back, watching the stag’s ears prick up and his head turn. The second roar was the decider: the stag turned towards us and bellowed. This was my chance.

07_Brian Phipps-1809His legs folded beneath him, dropping him to the ground in a heartbeat. Breathing a sigh of relief I chambered another round, my eye never leaving the scope, my sight fixed on the fallen beast I hovered a finger over the trigger. “He’s going nowhere,” said Stephen.

I flicked the safety on and we crossed over to the beast’s resting place. I felt privileged to have taken the last stag of this great hill – and not a small one either!

He was indeed an old stag, and topped off with a fine spread of antlers. It would have been horrendous to drag him down to the Argo, so Stephen decided to walk back on his own and drive the Argo to us. It was left to me to drag the stag down the remainder of the hill.

It would take me around 30 minutes to drag my stag to the meeting point – plenty of time spent resting! I saw a small speck of brown slipping and sliding down the mountain towards me: Christophe was on his way.

Turning back, I took in the view: the mountains, the glen, the age old tracks with stories of centuries past. The golden eagles soared above my head, the rivers cascaded at my feet, the deer roared and the grouse flew.

I hadn’t thought of asking for a rope or strap and had only the antlers to grip on. Numb, wet hands don’t offer much grip, but at least I couldn’t feel the beam cutting into my fingers. An hour later the three of us were lifting my stag into the argo. Yet again I assumed my position in the back, sitting on him like a cushion – well, a damp cushion that smelled of deer urine – but I was as proud as punch. It was a good hour’s drive back to the farm. I had the best view, staring into the glen that had just given me the stalk of my life as it slowly disappeared into the distance.

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