Red stag stalking with Chris Dalton

In Ayrshire, Chris Dalton takes an apprentice on the trail of elusive red stags.

Credit: Catherine Clark/ / Getty Images

Of all the stalking I do these days by far the most enjoyable is when I am working with newcomers to the sport. Kris is one such newcomer and is serving his stalking apprenticeship with me having initially come on an ‘introduction to stalking’ package.

He has been on number of accompanied outings, successfully negotiated his DSC 1 and manages a small block with his pal Brad for us. Usually they come together and there is naturally a bit of banter and rivalry between them – Brad had shot a couple of hinds with me last year but as yet Kris had not managed to shoot a red deer. 

Kris isn’t always the best at early starts, and he’d come down this time with his girlfriend – but as he was going with me I knew he would be up.

Sure enough he appeared bleary-eyed but ready to go. I had decided to stalk a small farm not far from the house. When I first took this block on, red deer were seldom seen here, it was almost exclusively roe.

The ground extends to circa 500 acres and was hill pasture planted under a grant scheme over 15 years ago. It is an attractive block; no farm stock on it but lovely valleys and glades coming down from the hill, planted with a mix of broadleaf and conifer including larch so it’s really pleasing to the eye.

I started to see red deer on there around 10 years ago. I left them be and now we have a good number in the valley. I started to shoot a few younger males and females around four years ago, but have however recently noted some hard damage, mainly to the ash saplings which were doing very nicely before, but now lower branches were being trashed by stags cleaning velvet.

Action was needed here to reduce a few of the mature beasts before it became an issue. I had briefed Kris accordingly and so we pulled up in the truck before first light.

I find woodland reds are the very devil for vanishing into the trees just as the sun rises and so where possible I like to be in position before dawn breaks. 

Plan made, we left the car well back and walked in under cover of darkness, quietly and into the wind. I don’t have interior lights on in my truck at all and allow my eyes to become fully accustomed to the dark before we set off.

It surprises me how many stalkers wear head torches at this time while getting kitted up. By doing this, and having car lights on, you’ll completely ruin your night vision for around 20 minutes.

Zosia knew we were among the deer before we could even see them

Better to use no light and you will be amazed how much you can see. It also gets the senses tuned in to your surroundings – getting back to being hunters, it is in our DNA but you have to tune in to it.

The wind was perfect so we were are able to walk in quietly. Zosia was working in front – my eyes constantly checking her to gauge any reaction and the odd hiss to remind her not to get too far ahead. At well over three years old now she still tries it on if she can.

All went well and we worked down an overgrown grass ride between a stand of beech trees and conifers. I was working into a small stream valley, lined either side with the ash saplings which were being thrashed.

Halfway along, the dog picked up and started to pull forward with her nose in the air – so we have deer but where? We slowed down even more, senses on high alert now.

The pace was dead slow ahead, no noise or sudden movement, we just inched forward. We did this for another 15 minutes until I was stood in the stream and peering up the sides of the valley into the trees above me, it was still only just becoming light.

Zosia, my GPS, was above, nose twitching almost on point. I knew there were deer in front but couldn’t see anything. I hissed at her, so she came back and stood to my left, slightly above me on the stream bank, but looking intently in front.

Suddenly I could see the large back of what was clearly a red deer. But it had its head down feeding, so I called Kris forward, got him to set the sticks in front of me and waited.

When the head came up I could identify her as a mature hind and then I caught the movement of other reds to her left which were no more than 80 yards from us. They were unaware, browsing happily. I could make out some calves and another hind but couldn’t see a stag.

I had seen this group before and there were two older stags with them – one very promising 10 pointer with another older beast, around the same size but not such a good head. Nevertheless his large body means he is definitely on the menu.

We waited and after a brief moment a stag appeared from the right walking purposefully toward the hinds. I was quickly able to assess him as the poorer of the two stags and told Kris to track him – the stag was on a mission and was approaching a gap directly above and in front of us where he would clear the trees.

I told Kris to cover the gap, he re-set the sticks and as the stag stepped clear gave him a loud bellow. He stopped dead in his tracks, fully broadside and looked down in our direction.

The retort from the rifle made me jump as I had the Meopta binoculars locked onto the stag. I didn’t see the strike but clearly heard the tell-tale crack of a shot which sounded good, indicating to me a heart-lung strike.

The stag ran left and disappeared, I was sure we had a good shot but you never know. We waited. Kris regained his composure and I asked if the shot felt good. The shooter seems to instinctively know the answer to that but he did not see any reaction and was beginning to wonder if he had missed.

After the standard 10 minute wait we moved forward. I fully expected to have to go 80 yards up the valley and then track left with the dog and suspected we would find the red between 40 and 100 yards on that line.

Zosia popped left from me and 30 yards forward on an angle and there he was, dead. He had actually run down the hill, dropped, and obviously kicked and rolled down the hill almost back to us.

Now you do not appreciate the size of a big red stag until you have actually stood over one, pictures don’t seem to convey the actual bulk of the beast and you definitely don’t appreciate it until you have dragged one for hours!

Choose your cleaning water carefully – this was flowing fast and looked clear

I enjoyed Kris’s reaction as he stroked the deer, checking and savouring the moment. Yes, a living creature had died, but it had done so for a reason and had not suffered.

It was going to be food and its demise had improved the situation for the rest of a small group of reds in this forest which are thriving and will continue to do so.

Kris’s face was a picture after helping me drag the stag downhill for 150 yards, commenting on how difficult that was and then realising we had ¾ mile to get back to the vehicle most of which was uphill.

All that was left was me to take the mickey out of his bleached white teeth, which glowed nicely on the initial photo in the half-light with his first red stag. He did not make it out of bed for any other morning stalks that week.

More stalking stories from Chris Dalton

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