Preparing for the Hill

Are you heading to the Highlands for a rutting stag this autumn? Be warned, says Dominic Griffith – your lowland stalking skills will only take you so far

The lowland stalker has a relatively easy life. Roe tend to be inactive in cold, wet and windy weather and so stalking is best left for better days. They can be approached comfortably from the upright position and are easy to handle post cull.

Yes, the standing shot needs to be practiced and perfected, and yes, you have to adapt to restricted sleep and very early starts, but generally the art of roe stalking is one of a gentle approach made under relatively benign conditions. Fallow offer their own challenges – they are just too big to handle comfortably alone, groups can be easier to approach in atrocious weather conditions, and they can frustrate the stalker through constantly changing behaviour. Nothing of this, however, prepares you for the rigours of a day in the Highlands for red.

Although red deer come down from the hill at night to feed, the tradition on many estates is to set out in pursuit well after they have made their way back up the tops. So stalking starts after a leisurely breakfast but thereafter relaxation is replaced by many hours marching relentlessly up perpendicular mountains, or patiently enduring the rain and midges whilst lying face down in a bog waiting either for a particular stag or hind to get up or for a stubborn bank of mist to clear. An ill-prepared guest may find this a punishing experience, so how should you best prepare for what in the round is simply one of Scotland’s finest experiences?

Preparing for the mountains is made easier today by the wealth of excellent kit that is available. But the choice is almost too big and the prices so high that it’s not easy to experiment and find the right compromise between comfort, durability, water resistance and warmth. Setting off from the south on a mild late September/early October day, you might find it difficult to adapt to the temperature drop that can be experienced at 2000ft or to just how debilitating a 40mph wind with biting showers can be on a mountain side.

Once you reach the top of the hill, the exertion will seem but a distant memory

When I worked as a pony boy in the early 1980s we would go to the hill in dubbined leather boots, which would remain water resistant for perhaps an hour or two, tweed breeks whose turnovers would trap the worst of the water and keep it away from your skin, and on our backs would be a waxed Barbour jacket with a spare woollen jersey underneath it wrapped around the waist. The idea, as so it remains today, is to avoid getting too hot and sweaty going uphill but to have something spare to put on when you get to the top, all covered by a waterproof outer. Of course the jacket wasn’t really waterproof, the boots leaked like sieves and you simply got used to ending your day soaked and chilled, but with a warm glow of satisfaction from having battled the elements and come through on top of things.

Today there is really little excuse for suffering such discomfort. Gore-Tex lined boots such as Meindls mean that you start and finish your day with warm dry feet. All the major manufacturers produce lightweight warm and waterproof stalking trousers like my old Deerhunter Deer-Tex, which have kept me going for many years but have no doubt now been replaced by something even better. And again there is an enormous range of waterproof smocks and jackets with lightweight fleeces for back-up warmth. With gloves and hats of similar performance, there is really no need to be uncomfortable for the majority of occasions. That said, it wouldn’t be Highland stalking if you weren’t challenged a bit, and whatever you are wearing you will still get cold and miserable lying in a peat hag in the rain for an hour. And don’t forget midge cream and a midge net – the Scottish midge can ruin a day quicker than the rain! Nowadays it is quite usual to carry a small daysack with your piece (lunch), spare clothes, dragging rope and other essentials or emergency items. But above all, a day without binoculars is a wasted day and each member of the stalking party will get so much more from the experience if they have their own pair.

All this kit won’t help if you don’t prepare yourself as well. Before you visit try to get hill-fit by walking locally and stretching those calves, hamstrings and Achilles tendons. Mountain men find it just as uncomfortable going uphill as you do, but they have learnt that it is easier to ascend if you don’t stop. So they will put their heads down and plod away on flat feet until they reach the summit. A good guide will keep his pace down but as the season progresses there is an inevitable increase in speed as they strive to get the climb behind them. Just be aware that frequent stops make the climb more difficult, so try to get a plodding rhythm going and keep up with the guide. Once the top is reached, the day becomes so much easier and you will soon forget the rigours of the ascent.

Stay fit and prepared, follow the stalker’s instructions, and you stand a good chance of success

Red deer have an acute sense of smell and extraordinary eyesight. The desire to get a look at the action and poke your head over the skyline can be irresistible but terminal. The rule is to try to keep lower than the guide at all times and, quite frequently, the first time you see the chosen quarry may be when the stalker passes you the rifle and crawls you up to the firing point. There can then be a few frantic moments as you locate the indicated beast which has by now probably seen something and may be alert. The shot however should be reasonably straightforward being from the prone position and supported, either with bipod or rucksack.

A day on the hill involves incredible scenery, pure air, a wealth of wildlife, and a great walk. A successful stalk requires patience, fieldcraft skills and a steady nerve at the firing point. From the moment that you first spot your selected quarry in the morning, a good approach will keep it out of your view for most of the stalk.

For the final approach, expect to crawl for long distances and then settle yourself quickly for the shot and be prepared with a dragging rope to help if necessary with extraction. Dragging a 20-stone stag even a short distance through rank heather, dying bracken and rocky burns can make that earlier ascent seem like a pushover.

Finally, never leave anyone back at the lodge because after a busy day doing nothing they will inevitably decide to have a prolonged and leisurely bath at about 5pm and thereby deprive the returning tired and soaked stalking party of the limited supply of precious hot water…

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