Red stag hunting with David Barrington Barnes

David Barrington Barnes is on the hill, enjoying a triumphant day red stag hunting at Sutherland.

Credit: Dgwildlife / Getty Images

In the first week of October there is no better place to be than on the hill in Sutherland. That’s just where I was this time last week. Sun, blue sky and breeze after a clear, cold night enhanced the promise inherent in the moment and place. Beasts could be seen on the skyline and stags were to be heard roaring.

A last kit check had me ticking off the essential items – bolt, moderator, bullet pouch, spare correct calibre bullets, knife, piece and stick – and then we set out on the climb towards the shoulders of Cnoc Bhat.

Now and then we stopped and spied, taking our time on this approach which we knew, from sightings and sounds, held deer. Using knolls for cover we glassed every inch of the ground ahead and to each side of us.

In any of these we might have found a sleepy stag, or hinds which would, if spooked, clear the ground ahead of us. Great care and caution was required.

Cnoc and roll

On reaching an area of ground near the summit of the Cnoc, which was like a huge bowl with a distinct pan handle, we lay down, carefully keeping out of sight, and observed a thrilling deer fest.

There were, in different parts of the bowl, at least thirty hinds and calves. Some were grazing, others lying down, and still more watching with interest the activities of the three stags on their feet, energetic and above all aggressive and noisy in their roaring and grunting.

As thrilling as the spectacle was, there really seemed no hope of effecting a successful stalk. The open ground between us and the red deer and their thirty pairs of eyes did not give us a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching a firing point.

As we watched, the big stag – a huge dark beast – chased out a ginger stag which then slunk off obviously “out of the game”. He was no nearer than the hinds, although more isolated, as he sulked in the pan handle. And it was there we left him and slipped away, inserting ourselves further into the ground as discreetly as we could.

We had crossed two more ridges before we saw more deer. From the second of these we saw stags and hinds, some of which were around a big black wallow. In fact a young stag nearly submerged himself completely before emerging peat stained like a tribesman of old in war paint.

Another stag approaching the same location caused some disquiet for him which we saw was a ginger that we soon identified as the displaced stag from the bowl. This fellow came in from the north east of us and soon lay down on a shoulder of ground above the wallow.

The rangefinder put him at four hundred yards away, so much too far for a shot. If we could drop off our ridge unseen, not only by the ginger fellow but also by the hinds already on the shoulder just above him, then we could walk through the dead ground and try to find a firing point on the ridge nearest him.

Picture the scene

Our approach was fine but when we reached the ridge nearest to him we found a flat bare top at 240 yards – still further away than I wanted. I would like you to have a good description of the scene: we had come in over a significant ridge from which we had been able to look into the gully below, and what was in front of it.

We had dropped down at first very cautiously and then more quickly through the dead ground. Leaving my colleague, I crawled forward and up to some low rock outcrops.

Throughout this part of the stalk I was slightly below the stag and a few hinds which lay in that area. The danger of being seen by the hinds was more than the risk of being spotted by the stag. His head was up to be sure but he was lying down as stags typically do when they doze.

Amongst the hinds there was just one on her feet, and she was an old grey, grizzled animal. She never laid down and her head was in almost constant rotation between different points of the compass but, I was convinced, mainly towards me.

She was very, very wary and the way she stared at me or in my direction had me on edge. I felt that at any moment she might spook and clear the hill of deer, including of course, my quarry.

At 210 yards now, there was really no way of getting any closer undetected so I set my rifle up for a shot – short bipod, binos and gloves under the stock – in an improvised bench rest.

With my permanent neck complaint giving me hell I did not want to lie for long so, as the pain got worse, I signalled to my friend to roar. Just one roar had the ginger fellow on his feet.

He turned, stood right and I got the welcome sound of a solid strike. The stag and the hinds immediately above him ran 20 yards into dead ground behind a knoll. The hinds emerged and ran for it but not the ginger stag. He lay in the heather; an old eight pointer to take back.

The stag was run, with a darkly stained pizzle and an empty stomach. The shot was good. Taken with a 6.5 x 55 Swedish Lady rifle the bullet had raked the engine room causing the stag’s immediate demise. Dead on his feet he had gone no more than 30 yards in his death flight. Job done!

Catch of the day

Time enough then for each of us to eat our piece and chat. Time to recollect incidents from shooting, stalking and fishing together. Whatever was our quarry, I like to think we pursued it in a sportsmanlike manner and that we were never industrial.

Red fish were returned to the river long before “catch and release” became the norm. A bird or two from the grouse covey but never the whole covey and a young August covey was never followed up. At the stags, the regime of good management and selection was followed even on ground only occasionally visited.

Then, in the thickening light of the highland afternoon, the walk off the hill. Our route took us through rough grass and flow country bogs, myrtle and heather. We crossed small burns and finally followed the main burn down to the strath. It was a magical walk and way in which to end a red letter day.

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