The best of it

David Barrington Barnes says some of his best memories have been forged on the hill in search of a stag – but wonders if future generations will get the opportunity to do the same

My October diaries speak for themselves. Outing after outing is recorded in them. Each and every one records a day on the hill, and as such is a red letter day, regardless of the outcome. Flicking through the pages for late September and early October trawls up recollections of times and places long since stalked. All make happy memories, which could fill many a scrapbook.

My own first stag, nearly half a century ago, is the first of these. An early autumn day above Loch Assynt had me on the rifle with the late, great Charlie Ross as my stalker. We lay on a knoll about 80 yards from, and slightly below, two stags lying in the heather. The right-hand beast was facing us and Ross instructed me to shoot it through the base of its neck. At my shot the stag’s head dropped. Ross offered me the second stag, which had not gone far, but I declined it. In truth I was shaking with excitement and relief at having this time made a successful shot (I had missed a stag a day or two before.) Ross started a smoky heather fire to call up the pony man.

My son’s first stag at Borrobol had us walking across a wide, flat characteristic of the hill in East Sutherland. Eventually approaching higher ground, we eased round a shoulder and saw a stag, which we stalked via a burn. The elderly stalker, wearing stout shoes, knew the burn so well that he did not get wet feet. After a routine stalk, the stag presented well, standing broadside, and my son shot him.

The stalker had an open cut on his hand and apologetically asked me to gralloch the stag, telling me that in the rut the blood and guts of a stag can be very poisonous for anyone with an open wound. When I had finished the old stalker invited me to take a wash, waving me towards the burn in a good-humoured manner.

The spectacular landscapes and traditional quarry of a Highland stalk have filled many of David’s stalking diaries

Both of those stalks took place many years ago. All three essential ingredients for a good day’s stalking were there in them: spectacular landscape, good exercise, and a worthy quarry. To these I would add a fourth: good stalkers, keen to induct tyros into their very own arts. On another October day I set out alone to stalk the so-called Ministry ground. When first viewed this had all the appearance of a massive featureless flat. However, previous experiences had informed me that, far from being flat, there were gullies and knolls and dead ground, all of which could and did hold deer on their day. I set out along the south side of the river, which was running well after rain. Taking my time, I stopped at intervals, as more and more ground came into view, and glassed. At last, several hours later, I spied a grand stag holding hinds on and around a knoll only 350 yards from where I was. He was too far away for a shot and difficult to approach, but approach him I did by slowly leopard crawling through waterlogged reeds.

After a long, wet approach, exacerbated by my having to pause frequently when the hinds were looking towards me, I made it to a firing point 150 yards from the beast. Although my shot should have been fatal, the stag made to follow the hinds as they went out so I fired again… he fell. He was a fine stag! My local friend was to kindly recover this stag with his Argo the following morning so, having gralloched the beast, I pulled it on to the top of his knoll where I thought it would be readily visible. Not so! Jim had a job to find it, that part of the hill still being in morning shadow while he was searching.

In another, more recent year, one 10 October I spied a stag by the walled cemetery, a beautiful old animal on his own. Crossing the river and using the broken ground to our advantage, we emerged at our intended firing point to find the stag had disappeared. Luckily, as we lay there wondering where he was and why he had moved, the stag jumped back over the old stone wall in front of us and stood for a shot. He weighed 15 stone 8 lbs and was very old. As he was culled with minimum disturbance to the rest of our ground, we continued stalking, eventually approaching the ruins of a long abandoned bothy.

The wisdom of generations of stalkers has traditionally been passed on to those who come into the sport, but changing land use means the practice is in danger of becoming limited

We spotted a stag holding hinds there and got in to him by crawling through the bracken, which had over time infested the land around the bothy. There, borrowing a large fallen stone as a rest, I took my second old stag of the day, this one weighing in at 14 stone 3lbs.

Stalks like this show that days on the hill are as exciting as ever and that hill stalking for red deer stags is a fantastic field sport. Sadly, many more of my entries relate to days on great, historic estates that are no longer open for stalking. These have been acquired by wealthy fellows who are adherents of rewilding the Scottish Highlands. Holding hands with environmentalists and wildlife specialists, they like nothing better than to shoot out the red deer and remove the hill sheep.

Their activities and their self-appointed roles as guardians of the Highlands have no respect for the work done over many years – lifetimes, in some cases – to manage upland deer and sheep. Now and then in smart, urban, coffee table magazines one will find articles eulogising what they do. The deer management groups, which recognise the movement of stags and hinds across marches at different times of year are disregarded, and these wilders not only slaughter the deer of the region when they are on their own land but also wreck their neighbours’ stalking. The long-standing participants in stalking parties, who have pumped their money into stalking holidays year after year to the benefit of the local economy, have been turned out, and shepherds, stalkers and pony men made redundant. A wonderful, historic resource has been and is being wrecked at the whim of these cranks. One only has to add to this the hostility of the Scottish government and its quangos to deer and deerstalking estates to come close to despair.
That’s why it’s easy to say and backup: “We’ve had the best of it!”

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