Ghillies and garrons

Amid the hills of Glen Prosen in Angus, a traditional method of red deer extraction is still very much in use

We are in an age when many countryside traditions are being lost, and to see Highland ponies carrying red deer across the hills is a rarity. What made this occasion particularly special was the combination of an old tradition and the use of a rifle that may be modern in its build, but is true to the traditions of Scottish stalking: the Rigby Highland Stalker.

This stalk was the culmination of years of dedication and hard work from all sides: the ghillie, who had trained and cared for the ponies carrying the deer, the stalker, who carefully managed the herds roaming the hills of Glen Prosen, and the Rigby team of gunmakers, who had conceived, designed and built the rifle. 

This story starts at the moment that ghillie Eric Starke won the Fred Taylor Memorial Trophy for Working Hill Ponies at the GWCT Scottish Game Fair in June 2017. Eric was surprised that five-year old mare Mia beat the 19 other entrants, saying at the time: “I had no idea what the judges were looking for, and the standard of ponies was really high.

I knew Fred Taylor, so to win was a huge honour.” The competition, named after the late head stalker at Invermark estate, sees working Highland ponies presented by the ghillies who use them, and is sponsored by John Rigby & Co, the London gunmaker. The prize: a Highland Stalker rifle worth £12,000.

After receiving the prize, in .275 Rigby, an outing was arranged to see the rifle in action. Eric, who has been a ghillie on and off for 30 years, is a keen stalker himself, but decided that he’d rather be with his ponies, Mia and Cally, than out stalking, so he demurred and handed that honour to Bruce Cooper, estate manager, head keeper and head stalker.

Approaching the selected shooting spot. Bruce has more than 15 years’ worth of experience on this ground

Bruce, who has worked at Glen Prosen since 2004, remaining in situ when the estate changed hands in 2010, knows the place like the back of his hand – and he had done his homework, planning the morning’s stalk to perfection. With a scattering of snow on the ground, this winter had been mild compared with the previous year’s, and as we set out in darkness, he told us a little about how the cull had been progressing. 

“It’s a large area of ground we have to cover – we manage 21,000 acres between myself, three beat keepers, two trainee keepers and a handful of seasonal ghillies. And the estate isn’t just about stalking – we’re very well rounded here.

“Our main focus is driven grouse, but we also run grouse shooting days over pointers, and we have a herd of blackface sheep that roam the hills, so while we do have a full-time shepherd, we all have to pitch in with that from time to time. 

“This year, we’re working hard on the cull – Scottish Natural Heritage has asked that we take at least 250 hinds, plus calves, where previously our cull numbers were around 100. We let 50 stags a year, and the people that come love the use of off the hill – much better than with a machine.

It feels more natural, it’s less invasive. There are places where you just can’t get a machine to as well. It’s about the tradition, but it’s also about the silence, about not disturbing the hill. And of course the guests love it!” 

During the late summer, the ponies are used to take panniers up to the grouse-shooting guests, then loaded up with the grouse shot in the morning, before they start their real work during the stag season. Eric keeps his ponies outside, bringing them in first thing in the morning to get them ready, and waiting until he is called on the radio for a pick-up. “Sometimes, if they have shot a stag at the far end of the estate, we’ll put them in the trailer to cover the ground more quickly, but that’s pretty rare.” 

Eric trains all the ponies himself. At the moment he has four working ponies: Mia, Cally, Miah and Gillie. “The ponies aren’t fully grown until they are around five years old, so you don’t want too much weight on their backs before then.

I start them off around three years old with skins on their back, so they get used to the smell, then I move on to letting them carry calves, so they build up strength for carrying weight slowly. With a young pony that’s starting out, I start by taking them out with an older one, so Mia always went out with Cally to start with. It takes between two and three years from start to finish to train a pony, so they’re ready at around five years to really go to work.” 

The ponies make light work of their load today, as we headed down towards the track. Bruce peels off to retrieve his vehicle, while Eric and Ali continue with the ponies to take the deer to the larder. It’s clear that Eric is fond of his animals, and particularly proud of Mia’s win. “The Fred Taylor Memorial Trophy needs supporting. The use of ponies is a dying tradition, and it’s something that needs to be preserved. It’s great that I’ve got Ali, who is 25 and local to Glen Prosen – not only to help but also that she is learning the skills involved.” 

Mia, Eric tells me, is a brilliant pony. “She’s always keen. Actually, they all are – the moment I head out to bring them in, they come up to the gate, particularly if they see the horsebox.

They love their work. Mia is great. She’s got the typical calm temperament of a Highland pony. The only fault she has, I suppose, is that she follows me about everywhere like a very big dog!” 

Bruce lines up a first shot as the light comes up

We had, by now, arrived at the larder, and the deer were swiftly hung, with log books filled out and two more added to the winter cull numbers. Eric and Ali tended to the ponies, Eric finding a moment to talk about the rifle he’d won.

“It’s really lovely. I like all the detail on it, and it’s pretty special to me. But I also feel that the estate should have some benefit from it – so it’s a nice thing for the guests to use. Something a bit special, and a bit traditional, rather than a plastic, modern-looking rifle. It looks the part with the ponies.”

And there is, indeed, something fitting about the pairing of Highland ponies and the Rigby Highland Stalker: traditional looks and skills celebrated, but, at its heart, a workhorse for the hill. 

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