Red stalking with David Barrington Barnes

As autumn brings about the height of the red stag rut, David Barrington Barnes reminds us that it is an experience never to be missed.

Credit: Dgwildlife / Getty Images

I have never been reticent in writing about the sheer excitement of stag stalking. A week at the stags provides – indeed, guarantees – memories that will last a lifetime.

If the stag stalker returns to the same ground each autumn then his recollections will be coloured and enhanced. The extent of the ground and the vagaries of wind and weather will cause variations in the experience that will prevent familiarity breeding contempt.

These thoughts were on my mind last October as my young stalker, my follower friend and myself set out in the morning, past an old burial ground. Briefly, thoughts of mortality flitted through my mind. Although an evocative and peaceful graveyard, I felt no desire to rush into its embrace. Rather the contrary, I thought, as I felt the strap of the rifle bite into my shoulder.

With nothing on offer in the large expanse of open ground in front of us – in ‘The Bowl’, as my stalker described it – and with a strong to gale-force southerly wind in our faces, the routine way forward looked distinctly unpromising.

This caused us to discuss the possibilities of a less direct approach, and we decided to go for it, not least because we heard a stag roaring out of sight of us.

Instead of leaving the cemetery behind us, we struck out to the north, wending our way to the river bank that marked our march with the neighbouring estate. The river at this point made a shallow semicircle from west to east and, from the riverside we could spy into the sheltered hillside to our right.

Having never had any reason to come as far north as this, I was particularly interested to see the lie of the land and what deer it held. One feature was immediately and obviously plain to see: the rising ground to our right would provide all the local deer with a port in a storm. The absence of wind blow made it a really benign place compared with the Bowl, which we had put our noses into at starting.

Sure enough, we had not gone far along the bank before I spotted two stags tucked up at the bottom of a rocky outcrop. Readers unfamiliar with the ways of red deer will have to take it from me that as a species, they like to tuck up in hollows and, couched there, often have only the tips of their antlers showing.

These two were well bedded down uphill, and perhaps 300 yards from us. They could probably see us, although the fast-flowing in spate river immediately behind us disguised our movements.

Inspection revealed a couple of indifferent beasts. They were young-ish, but not so young that they could be bypassed as spikers and left in the rocks to contemplate such ruts as they might enjoy when they came into their prime.

The heads they had thrown were of no great account either, and that dreaded, misused phrase ‘good beasts to take’ came into my mind. Keeping in mind the estate’s policy of culling indifferent young stags, I did the decent thing and offered to take out one, or indeed, both, of these red deer.

While in conversation with Mac the stalker, we heard a great roar from the top of the hill. Our ears told us this soloist was a heavy stag, and it was not long before we saw him hurry over the top towards us, and throw himself down in a wallow, spraying mud, water and sphagnum moss in his haste.

He was undoubtedly a great stag, but initially he gave the impression of being too smart to shoot. We glassed him for a long while – he was a ‘royal’ 12 pointer. He was also bent of back, and weak and wasted in the haunches. He was old!

Mac looked from the stag to me, and gave me the nod. However, as this old fellow had a dominant lie overlooking us and the river, we decided to reverse out of our position and make a circular approach through the sheep fields.

The first leg of the stalk was in view, and we clung to the river bank until we  were out of sight. Once again, it was the running water bubbling behind us that saved us. Once out of sight, we circled the rough pasture until we came to a dry stone wall.

Heading out on to the hill, and using the river as cover

Here, we left my follower friend with instructions to sit tight until called forward. Mac decided that one could likely get where two could not, so I set out towards the stag’s position.

To get into any sort of firing position, I had to crawl over the grass and into the partial cover provided by the banks of a trickle of water. The stag was not in sight at this point, and I became convinced that he had moved.

He was, I should add here, quite silent. So sure was I that he had gone that I came close to standing up and walking back to Mac, who was watching events from the cover of the wall.

However, it was still just possible that he was resting over the false top beyond and slightly above me, so I kept going. My next problem was a sheep fence. The only solution to this was to stand and step over it without twanging the wire. I now became aware of a firing point a few yards ahead – a rocky bump – which I soon made it to, and prepared to shoot.

The ground was rising in front of me, and at the top right of it there was quite a steep bank which sheltered a flat area. In checking this out, it occurred to me that from where I was, this bank might provide a safe back stop provided the stag was at the bottom of it.

The flat area and the bank were within 100 yards. I lay there for some while, once more coming to think the stag had gone and that he had probably seen or heard me.

If this turned out to be the case, I had no doubt Mac would have a few words to say on the subject of my incompetence. I was close to giving up on this awkward customer, but the uncertainty kept me behind my wee knoll. Then, after some minutes, the scene changed in a way it so often does when at the stags!

Hinds emerged and crossed the flat area. They paused at the bottom of the bank, while the lead hind checked the situation. She was undecided as to what to do and stationary when, quite suddenly, the great stag came in over the false top and closed on the parcel.

There was, with his arrival, a great kerfuffle, like in a fast-moving motion picture. The lead hind was wanting to go, the younger hinds to stay, and the stag working himself up to a frenzy. If I was to get a shot, I had to take it when the stag was at the bottom of the bank, and he had to be clear of his hinds.

I was lucky now – very lucky. The moment came with the stag broadside and stationary, and with no hinds behind him. He turned to the shot, ran 20 yards, and tumbled over and on to the short cropped grass.

I lay there as the gamut of the experience ran through me: the stalk, the shot, the stag, the hinds, and all this in this incomparable territory. The loudest sound was the pounding of my heart.

And then Mac and my friend came striding up from behind me, hands were shaken and the moments of the stalk discussed. As we did so, I made a silent vow that so long as I could, I would have a week at the stags.

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