Optical exclusive

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An elite group of Scottish stalkers is putting top-quality Zeiss scopes and binoculars in the hands of more stalkers. We find out how the Pro Stalker scheme works

There’s no truer test for the stalker and his gear than on the hill in Scotland. The muscle-stretching, lung-burning ascents are well documented; so are the ever-present showers and gales. But there’s also the terrain’s uncanny ability to confuse you. You think you have the lie of the land and have worked out a few reference points; two minutes’ stalking later, everything appears to have completely changed and you have no idea where you are. To make the most of the meagre opportunities nature hands you in such surroundings, you’ll need a few things lined up to tip the balance in your favour. The first is an experienced stalking guide. The second is a quality set of optics.

Enter the Zeiss Pro Stalker scheme, which makes both those things accessible to the stalker in a handy package. As part of the scheme, which Zeiss has now run for several years, the newest Zeiss optics get put in the hands of professional stalking guides – and their clients – for a truly authentic field test. It’s good for Zeiss, who get knowledgeable feedback on their
latest releases, and it’s good for the stalkers, who get the backing of an international optics giant and some of the world’s best kit to boot. This isn’t an all-comers scheme – it’s open to a select few stalkers and ranges across the UK, each of which, owing to the scheme’s exclusive nature, gets a wide variety of kit to test and put into their clients’ hands. North of the border, two pro stalkers and one centre of excellence fly the flag.

Stalking at Innerhadden

Stalking at Innerhadden

One is Lachie Smith, a sporting agent and stalking guide based at Beauly near Inverness. “I’m a massive Zeiss fan – I use them day to day,” he says. “When I was a youngster I had a cheap pair of binoculars, and they failed me. I swore blind I would never let it happen again. I bought a pair of Zeiss, and I’ve been converted for a very long time!”

Infectiously enthusiastic about the Pro Stalker scheme, Lachie is keenly aware of the way the Highlands can show the stalker no mercy. “A cheap pair of binos will let you down; a good pair, even second-hand, won’t. I try to get everybody on to that way of thinking – and working as a Zeiss pro stalker in the field gives me a chance to show people the principles and use the optics for themselves. It’s one thing looking through some optics in a shop; but when you’re out on the hill and the rain’s dancing off the side of your head and you can still see through your optics, that’s when it really hits home.”

Lachie manages the deer on a parcel of land on one edge of the Monadhliath mountains. These hills lie on the western side of Strathspey and reach a summit of more than 3,000 feet at Carn Dearg, 16 miles south of Inverness. The land is scrubby and unprepossessing – ideal for roe. At the other end of Scotland, in the Galloway Hills and on the Solway, Colin Lockerbie operates on more varied but no less challenging terrain. “I am head stalker at Forrest Estate, managing 12,000 acres. We do reds, roe and goats. I also have my own grounds down at New Abbey – around 15,000 acres for roe and wild boar, most of it overlooking the Solway estuary.” Then there’s wildfowling on the foreshore, decoying on the fields, flights over duck ponds – enough to keep him busy, that’s for sure.

Lachie Smith is a long-time user of Zeiss optics

Lachie Smith is a long-time user of Zeiss optics

Colin was one of the first pro stalkers picked by Zeiss back when it started the programme – and his experience speaks for itself. Now 50 years old, he has been stalking since he was 20, and guiding clients full-time for 15 years.

“Days can be very varied – it depends on what’s in season and who I’m stalking with,” he says. “Often the day begins with a morning’s roe stalking, and we then move on to wild boar later on. This morning I was out for a 7.30am start, but at the height of the buck season I’m usually up at 4.30am and not back until 11pm.”

It’s at those early and late hours that Zeiss optics can come into their own, with their premium glass and lens coatings making for a sight picture that almost seems brighter than daylight. Zeiss’s latest Victory SF binoculars quote a 92 per cent light transmission figure, but no amount of number-crunching can compare to simply looking through them. Every one of the pro stalkers has a story about a friend or client looking through a pair of Zeiss for the first time and not being able to believe what they saw.

Lachie Smith is particularly inseparable from his pair of Zeiss Victory RF 10x42s. “I’m not into gimmicks, but I find that having a rangefinding function in your binos really makes a difference,” he says. How so? First, you can get your client spying the same point as you much more quickly – “Can you see that rock?” doesn’t compare to “Can you range that rock at 197 yards? Now go three o’clock, about 50 yards…” Once the beast is on the ground, a rangefinder is a valuable tool to ensure swift carcase retrieval. “You might be shooting over really rough ground – peat hags, or forestry – and when you walk off to get the beast, pinging back to a reference point will make you far surer of your progress. Often, no matter how experienced you are, you’ll find that you are 20-30 metres short of where you thought you were.

“For those who can afford rangefinding binos, I’d go for it. It’s not a trinket, it’s something I really rate.”

Bringing the whole scheme together is the Highland Shooting Centre. At Lairg in Scotland, an hour north of Inverness, the centre employs custom-built facilities including Scotland’s only indoor underground 100m target shooting range. All mod cons are laid on – CCTV enables shooters to see their fall of shot without wasting walking down to check targets, and wi-fi connection even means you can log in and watch the progress live on the range.

Marcus Munro, the director, is a fourth generation gamekeeper with decades of experience on shooting estates in Scotland and the UK. He is a fully qualified range conducting officer, has professionally accredited qualifications in deer management and has been trained to work for SNH with Approved Hunter status, as well as being a Zeiss pro stalker. Heading a team with more than 25 years’ rifle shooting and deer management experience, he knows the value of a quality riflescope and pair of binos – especially when the Highland Shooting Centre takes clients of its own out in the north-west Highlands, after red and sika.

The Highland Shooting Centre

The Highland Shooting Centre

Here we can most clearly see what the Zeiss scheme is all about. Novice stalkers can get some valuable range time in, getting to grips with a range of different riflescopes and realising what benefits they offer, and benefit from the team’s advice in the process. More experienced marksmen can head on to the hill and make use of Zeiss optics’ low-light performance for themselves.

Of course, Zeiss wants to sell optics too, and each pro stalker works with a local retailer – meaning every section of the local sporting community gets to benefit from the scheme. It’s a serious purchase – Zeiss’s new flagship range of Victory V8 scopes, from the 1.1-8×30 driven model all the way up to a massive 4.8-35×60, normally retails somewhere north of £2,000. This is quality stuff – one Zeiss rep described the sight picture as being so good that it’s ‘like being in a video game’ – but it comes at a price. Then again, times have moved on and you don’t need to spend a fortune to be a Zeiss owner – the entry-level Terra line makes it possible for closer to £400.

“Zeiss have got so much stuff now – and some of it is actually very affordable,” explains Lachie Smith. “The more sophisticated stuff, the top-of-the-range stuff – that cost comes in lightness. Some of the cheaper models won’t be so light, so you’re having to carry a bit more in the field. But you can forgive it that, seeing as it functions really well.”

Whatever your wallet or tastes extend to, you need to ensure you’ve got the kit to cope with the rigours of the hill. Thanks to the Zeiss pro stalker scheme, that’s now just a little bit easier – and it means you can be on the hill, doing what you enjoy most, just a little bit longer. Colin Lockerbie has the final word: “I really enjoy taking novices out for the first time. Giving people who haven’t done it before their first taste of success – that’s what I enjoy more  than anything.

“Apart from that, the stag stalking is some of my favourite sport. We don’t have huge trophy reds in the area, but it’s thrilling stalking nonetheless. The main reason I do this job is because I enjoy it.”

GET OUT THERE
Book your next stalk with one of Zeiss’s pro team

Highland Shooting Centre – 01549 409129, www.highlandshootingcentre.com

Colin Lockerbie – 07789 792325, solwaystalker@aol.co.uk

Lachie Smith – 07836 313608

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