Guest column: Robert Fuller
A wildlife artist stalks his material.
He walked “towards me, snorting. I laid flat on the ground until he lost interest.”
ILOVE WALKING, BUT usually when I pull on my walking boots, it’s to go and watch an animal I intend to paint. I rarely follow a designated path, because animals don’t tend to do that. Instead I track paw prints, or squeeze along a narrow trail through the undergrowth made by deer, badger or fox. It’s one of the joys of Scotland that you can almost universally tread where you will, and for a painter of wildlife – animals that are fleet-footed, unconfined and canny – that is a genuine blessing.
Recently I was invited by someone who liked my paintings to see the red stag rut on an estate owned by the family of the late James Bond author, Ian Fleming. The estate lies among the mountains of Glen Coe; it’s an exceptional place to see the rut. This remarkable spectacle, when males fight for dominance over hinds, takes place every autumn. It’s thrilling to watch and I didn’t hesitate to accept.
It wasn’t until I reached Glen Etive, the very valley that featured as Bond’s childhood home in Skyfall, that the enormity of the challenge hit home. The deer were located high in the surrounding Munros. To see them I’d be climbing for most of the day – while carrying 15kg of camera gear on my back.
I woke at dawn, dressed myself in camouflage colours, and heaved my rucksack onto my shoulders. As soon as I set off, the roar of bellowing stags echoed around the valley. I scanned the mountainside with my binoculars and spotted three stags high above the tree line. I planned to approach them downwind, with the light behind me.
My path took me over cleared fell forest. Stumbling over deep, spiky brash piles, I fell several times. After crossing a stream and following deer tracks through a hole in a fence, I found myself in dense bracken, towering six feet high. I parted the fronds carefully, and immediately glimpsed a stag, its rich russet fur glowing brightly against the dull bracken. Red stags are ranked according to the number of points to their antlers. This one was an impressive ten-pointer.
I slid down a gully made by a mountain stream, then dropped to my hands and knees. The stag was just 50 yards away. He walked towards me, his head held high, scenting the air. I pressed the shutter on my camera, the stag’s head perfectly framed in my viewfinder. I stayed there, photographing him, until sunset.
The following morning I spotted a stag at the bottom of the valley, so this time I headed downhill, wading across a deep, fast-flowing river. There in long grass by the river bank was the very same ten-pointer. I dropped to my belly, crawling over the gravelly river towards it. But my camera got caught in some gorse and the animal raised his head at the sound. He walked towards me, snorting. I laid flat on the ground until he lost interest, then I slowly crept forward again, using a small gully as cover. Again he spotted me, but this time he looked straight at me with a look that said, ‘Oh it’s you again!’
It took me two hours to slowly edge within 25 yards of him. There followed the most incredible day as I shadowed him as if I were part of his herd. When he walked, I walked. When he lay down for a rest, I did the same. At one point he wallowed knee-deep in a peaty pool and began to tussle the bank with his antlers. He tossed his head up and sage grass, moss, mud and water went flying up into the air. Water streamed down his mane. At last this was the pose I was after.
Back in my studio in Yorkshire I selected a palette of russets, burnt umbers and sienna as I contemplated how I would paint the portrait of the beast I had stalked. I chose to fix his gaze out of the frame, looking beyond me to the mountain horizon, to reflect the way this handsome fellow had accepted me into that wild Scottish landscape.
Robert Fuller is an acclaimed wildlife artist. His painting of the Glen Etive stag will headline an exhibition at his gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, from November 4th to 26th. Read his blog at www. robertfuller.com/diary