Red deer in the Scottish Highlands
“Like all the tracks in the neighbourhood this one was a relic of the golden age of stalking... The sun fell bright on the loch behind us. Away to our left, moorland swept up and westwards to the corries under the peaks of Corrour and Rannoch... It is well said of a Tchaikovsky symphony that it leads men to the edge of the Infinite and leaves them for minutes gazing into that. Something of the same could be experienced that morning in watching the swell of the far away moors lifting into the grey screen of an autumn haze that lay thick in the distance, and beyond that lifting again to the clear mountains, up to the last curve of one peak, and there vanishing, at the edge of the Infinite.”
These are the words of WH Murray, from his book Mountaineering in Scotland. Corrour Estate also happens to be the place, where we found ourselves that morning, stalking red deer.
Two years ago, Pieter le Roux, or Piet London as we know him, arranged a hunt at Corrour Estate in conjunction with his brother Sakkie and friend Sean Capstick. I saw pictures of that hunt; the scenery and stories had me on the edge of my seat. Corrour Estate is situated in the Scottish Highlands around Loch Ossian. It is a 23 000 hectare estate, with a very strong emphasis on conservation. The estate has a wide variety of birds, fish and wildlife. Walk and stalk is the only hunting method allowed on the estate and the head stalker, Donald, is a third-generation stalker.
Red deer are common in the area; the males are called stags and the females, hinds. Out of season, the stags stick together in the higher slopes while the hinds keep to the lower-lying areas. When the rut starts, the stags fight among each other and eventually break away to find a harem of hinds. When we arrived in middle September,
the rut had just started. Generally, the area is considered marginal for red deer, but the animals have learnt to adapt to the highland conditions.
A stag with antlers having 12 points is called a Royal and one with 14 points is referred to as an Imperial. We weren’t there for them, they are reserved for select English clients. We were after the smaller stags, the ones earmarked for the estate’s culling programme.
Fitness is key to hunting the Scottish Highlands. We all knew we had to be fit and started training way ahead of the hunt. The terrain is very steep and generally soaked due to the high rainfall. The stalkers and their gillies are known to make you work hard for your deer. On the first day, we walked 22km up and down mountains.
The next important issue is clothing. The locals wear tweeds, which repel water. Each estate has its own colours and these cannot be used by other estates. For this trip, we got special waterproof boots, gaiters, waterproof pants and rain jackets. Without these, it will be a very long, wet day in the moors and the mountains.
You can hire a rifle at the estate but we brought along our own rifles, two .30-06s and one .308. Stags weigh between 80 and 100kg when dressed (up to 200kg on the hoof) so these .30-calibres are ideal for red deer.
Generally the estate is not open to the public for hunting. Existing clients go back 30 years and the estate is basically always fully booked way ahead of the hunting season. Piet was just lucky to get a hunt for us. After his previous hunt he sent the estate a courtesy mail to which they did not reply. Then one day out of the blue, they contacted Piet, informing him that the estate had a three-day opening. We subsequently found out that a specific client had passed away and we were offered his spot.
Our team consisted of Piet, Sakkie, Sean, Charles, Graham and myself. We are all South Africans, apart from Sean and Charles who are English gentleman. We met in London and flew up to Inverness, about a two-hour drive north of the estate. Charles, who had arrived earlier, bought our food at a local convenience store and when we arrived at our cottage, called Sgor Ghaibre, he was busy preparing a lamb shank. What a warm welcome!
Before the hunt we regularly checked the long-term weather forecast. We were lucky, fine weather was predicted for the first two days (Monday and Tuesday) with some rains for the Wednesday. »
» DAY ONE
We met up with the stalkers who explained the estate’s rules to us and then we were off to the shooting range to check our rifles’ zeroes. After that we split up into three groups. Sean and I would hunt with Donald; Sakkie and Graham with Peter; and Piet and Charles with Allan.
We used an Argo to drive up the back of a mountain to our designated hunting area. Argos are eight-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicles and are essential for mobility in the rugged, wet terrain. Once up the mountain we walked to the highest point and glassed the valleys below. When spotting a stag, the stalker will check the antelope’s age and the quality of the antlers after which he will decide whether it is a shooter or not. For glassing, the stalkers use an old school 25x magnification monocular telescope. What a nice touch!
After spotting a suitable herd of stags we stalked them but they managed to stay ahead of us out of shooting range for most of the day. Boy, did we walk! However, Donald’s persistence and patience paid off. He eventually managed to get Sean into a shooting position. It was a difficult, upwards shot and unfortunately Sean’s bullet landed too low, missing the stag.
Then it was my turn. We managed to stalk a stag that was bedded down right at the top of the mountain. After getting into position we waited for him to get up but when he did, long grass covered his body and I could not take the shot. Eventually the stag disappeared down the slope out of sight. By then we were very tired and decided to call it quits for the day. To be honest, I was dead tired, despite all the training – it was a very tough day at the office.
On our way back, we spotted four stags that were fighting. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was setting fast but we decided to stalk them anyway. It was Sean’s turn to shoot. This time we managed to get close and Sean shot the biggest one of the stags. The others did not run, so we held our position and waited for one to present a shot. Unfortunately there were some hikers behind the animals and in Scotland the rule is that the general public has the “right to roam”. Anybody can hike on the traditional trails on the large estates. Naturally, the stags took off before the hikers could get out of the way. Despite the missed opportunities, it was an unbelievable first day in the Scottish Highlands. Back at the cottage we learned that Piet also shot a stag high up in the mountains.
On day two we were paired with a new hunting partner and we also swopped stalkers. My new partner was Graham and we hunted with Peter. Sakkie and Piet hunted with Donald, and Sean and Charles with Allan. We hunted around Small Hill on Peter’s beat (his designated hunting area for the day). We spotted several herds of stags and hinds, but red deer have »
» keen eyesight and it was very difficult to get within shooting range. After several failed attempts we managed to sneak within 230m of a decent stag and Graham, whose turn it was, dropped the animal. It was his first red deer. We continued hunting but I did not get an opportunity to shoot.
Another highlight of day two was Charles’s stag. Charles is an accomplished wingshooter, but has never shot an antelope in his life. He managed to shoot a very nice stag and with this being his first, he had to endure the ritual of having his face smeared with a little bit of blood. He was a true hunter at last! Piet managed to get a magnificent 11-pointer and Sakkie shot two stags.
On day three I was the only one who still had to bag a stag. The team decided that Donald would be my guide. The problem was that the bad weather had moved in, covering the mountains in mist. Donald took me to a relative flat, low-lying area in his beat. Although the terrain was easier the rolling mist made for some challenging hunting.
We slowly drove along a track, passing an old, abandoned stone lodge. Donald stopped and we spotted a stag with a group of hinds. They disappeared into the mist, but we followed and managed to catch up with them. There was open ground between us and them so we had to circle around, using the lie of the land as cover. After a very long stalk and leopard crawling through a swamp, we managed to get into position. We could not see the stag, but we could hear him bellow. There were some very nervous hinds to our left and they started moving off. That caused the whole harem to move and the big fellow suddenly appeared from behind a small rise in front of us and moved with his harem. They all stopped at about 400m, so we circled around again, but the group moved on over the next hill.
We walked over to the hill and crawled up to the top. As we looked over the hill, we spotted the whole herd below us. The stag had rounded up his harem and was walking from one hind to the other. This was our opportunity. We leopard crawled into position and I got ready. The stag was 180m away and unaware of us. When he turned side-on I aimed for the heart/lung area and squeezed the trigger. The bullet flew true and after covering about 40m the stag collapsed. My hunt was done.
On Peter’s beat, Sakkie managed to shoot two more stags! In total, we got ten stags between the six of us over three days.
That night we invited the stalkers over for dinner. The Scots are a jolly bunch and we had a magnificent evening around the fireplace. We invited them over to South Africa for a “Karoo stalk”, where there are definitely less swamps and more rocky outcrops.
We concluded that stalking in the Scottish Highlands is not for the faint-hearted. After a couple of whiskies, Donald wryly admitted that the first day was indeed a tough one!
LEFT: For glassing the stalkers use old school 25x magification monocular telescopes – a nice touch.
ABOVE: Our hunting team, from left to right: Charles, Piet, Sean, Graham, Pierre (author) and Sakkie.
Piet with another good stag.
Graham managed to bag this stag. The real trophy animals are reserved for select English clients.
This stag was my first one. It took some hard hunting to eventually bag it.
Piet and Peter with Piet’s stag. This picture gives you an idea of the steep terrain that you have to navigate in order to shoot a stag.
Taking a break in the Scottish Highlands – the hunting was not easy.