Stalk­ing at Glen­shiel with Scot­land rugby coach Vern Cot­ter


Vern Cot­ter was barely out of short trousers the first time his fa­ther first handed him a ri­fle and pointed he and his younger brother Jeremy in the di­rec­tion of the woods flank­ing their sheep farm on New Zealand’s north is­land. For some peo­ple shoot­ing is a pas­time; for the Cot­ters it was a ne­ces­sity. Hunt­ing was ei­ther to con­trol pests or to gather food and those woods con­tained – and still con­tain – packs of feral pigs which would wait for spring lambs to drop and then im­me­di­ately de­vour them, ‘leav­ing noth­ing but their lit­tle black boots to sug­gest that they’d ever been there.’ For the Cot­ters, it was a zero sum equa­tion: blast Babe or wrap up the ranch. So they shot the pigs.

Fast for­ward al­most half a cen­tury, and when the 55-year-old coun­try­man isn’t coach­ing Scot­land’s rugby team he still spends much of his spare time climb­ing hills look­ing for wildlife. ‘Tell me to walk all day with a pack on my back in wind and rain I’d say no thanks, but give me a ri­fle, tell me there is a chal­lenge and the pos­si­bil­ity to bring home food, I’m your man,’ he says. Back in New Zealand, when he wasn’t sea fish­ing he hunted boar, deer, moun­tain goats, pos­sums, Wapiti and chamois, with only the fa­bled Tahr still on his bucket list. In two decades play­ing and coach­ing rugby in France, he shot boar from the Pyre­nees to Paris.

Yet be­fore Cot­ter heads back to France after the Six Na­tions, he wanted to fi­nally savour an ex­pe­ri­ence that he had spied en­vi­ously ever since he ar­rived here – hind stalk­ing in the High­lands. Cot­ter has shot more than his fair share of deer, and dis­patched six wood­land stags on the fam­ily farm dur­ing a short trip home at Christ­mas. He has filled his fridge with roe deer stalked in the Borders and pheas­ant and par­tridge shot near his East Loth­ian home, but he had yet to make the pil­grim­age up north.

So in Jan­uary, three weeks be­fore Scot­land beat Ire­land at Mur­ray­field, your writer ac­com­pa­nied Cot­ter and his pal Screm to Glen­shiel, a ver­tig­i­nous 16,000-acre es­tate in Wester Ross. Just 15 miles short of the Skye Bridge, this is not stalk­ing for t he faint­hearted. Con­tain­ing 16 mun­ros, no glen in Scot­land is home to

‘ Just 15 miles or so short of the Skye

Bridge, this is not stalk­ing for the weak or faint­hearted’

more peaks over 3,000ft, but at least the re­cent snow kept the usual gag­gles of bag­gers away.

As we wound our way through the glen the moun­tains tow­ered above us on both sides. To our right were the fa­mous Five Sis­ters of Kin­tail, the steep­est deer for­est in Scot­land which is now owned by the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land, while on the other side were the hills we were go­ing to stalk: less cel­e­brated but equally rugged, a mir­ror im­age of the craggy sis­ters.

We stayed the night 20 min­utes to the north in the fish­ing vil­lage of Plock­ton, one of the most beau­ti­ful spots in the High­lands. Over a hearty evening meal, and as the beer and wine flowed at the Plock­ton Inn, our chat moved through his fas­ci­na­tion with Har­ley David­sons, rugby, life in France and his life­long love of hunt­ing to the next day’s stalk. Satirised as ‘Stern Vern’, the Kiwi turns out to have a wide hin­ter­land which in­cludes a love of fine wines and food: in fact he is help­ing his wife Emily to write a book of game recipes – his con­tri­bu­tion is the clas­sic French recipe of shred­ded hare and foie gras.

It also be­came clear just how much this New Zealan­der has taken to liv­ing in Scot­land. ‘Liv­ing here has been a real priv­i­lege in so many ways,’ he says. ‘It’s helped me un­der­stand my own coun­try so much bet­ter be­cause so much of New Zealand, and es­pe­cially the south is­land, was set­tled by Scots. What I’ve found in ru­ral Scot­land is the same breed of in­tro­verted, hum­ble and hard-work­ing men that I grew up with in ru­ral New Zealand; men who don’t say much but who re­ally mean what they say. They may be over 11,000 miles apart, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two coun­tries are star­tling.’

There are, how­ever, some ma­jor dif­fer­ences be­tween stalk­ing meth­ods in New Zealand and

in Scot­land, and Vern seemed bam­boo­zled by sev­eral bog-stan­dard Scot­tish prac­tices. The first was the fact that most es­tates won’t sim­ply let you wan­der out onto the hill and stalk where you like. The idea of fol­low­ing a stalker seems al­most an af­front to his man­hood, but I as­sure him he’ll learn a huge amount and silently thank the lord we won’t be go­ing out with a twen­tysome­thing blowhard. And then there’s the con­cept of drag­ging the car­case off the hill; New Zealan­ders are of­ten dropped in by he­li­copter, so ei­ther cut off the best cuts and leave the rest, or re­move the head and legs and turn the deer into a sling so that it can be car­ried out on the stalker’s back. The idea of drag­ging is greeted by eye­brows raised so high they threaten to dis­ap­pear off his head.

The next morn­ing we meet stalk­ers Colin Camp­bell and Paul Ma­caskil at the Glen­shiel Lodge, where Vern is due to prove his com­pe­tence. Colin and Paul are craggy-faced fiftysome­thing High­landers and ar­che­typal stalk­ers – men of few words who are vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to im­press. Yet both nod en­thu­sias- tically and even stop puff­ing on their tabs when Vern un­veils his pride and joy. ‘It’s a cus­tom ri­fle with a Swarovski Z3 scope cus­tom-made for me by Joel Dor­leac, the best ri­fle maker in France,’ he says. ‘It’s got a Lothar Walther bar­rel, a Jewell trig­ger, McMil­lan stock and re­fined Rem­ing­ton 7 ac­tion us­ing 6.5 Creed­moor car­tridges. This is my per­fect ri­fle for tough coun­try, light and ac­cu­rate, the one I’ll have ‘til I die.’

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Vern man­ages to hit the large iron stag 150 yards away, and we’re all set. Within min­utes we’re driv­ing up and down the road look­ing for deer. At this time of year we’re after hinds, whose sea­son lasts un­til mid-Fe­bru­ary. For many hard-core stalk­ers, hinds are a greater chal­lenge than stags be­cause they tend to be more skit­tish and travel in groups so have more pairs of eyes to guard against dan­ger.

Fi­nally, we pull over and be­gin to walk up a rough path to­wards the hill. Screm heads off with Paul and we won’t see him for hours, so Colin, Vern and I climb slowly but surely, and after nearly 2,000 feet of as­cent are fi­nally in po­si­tion. There are sev­eral lone stags wan­der-

‘ All of a sud­den I re­alise that I’m out on a hill with Stern Vern and Cer­ti­fi­able Colin. Glory be...’

ing around the hill so we wait for an age un­til they move so that they won’t see us and spook the group of eight hinds we’ve iden­ti­fied.

As we wait, we tease Vern about his shiny new top-of-the-range gear bought spe­cially for this trip – Lak­sen jacket and trousers, plus Meindl boots, I jeal­ously note – and then quiz Colin about his back­ground. He was born nearby and has been on Glen­shiel for 18 years. ‘I was head stalker on Sheikh Mo­hammed’s es­tate, In­veri­nate, for 18 years be­fore that but moved here be­cause it’s the tough­est stalk­ing around, and that’s what I wanted.’ Out on a hill with Stern Vern and Cer­ti­fi­able Colin, glory be…

Sud­denly Colin beck­ons Vern for­ward and quick as a flash he is into one of the hinds. A shot rings out, then another. But by the time we cover the 170 yards to where the deer had been stand­ing, there’s only one car­case. The other hind, hard hit, had stag­gered round the top of the hill and we head off in hot pur­suit des­per­ate for it not to make it over the nearby ridge. We found her a hun­dred yards away and she’s not go­ing any­where, yet the shot takes an age to come; when it does the dead hind rolls 200 feet down the hill, com­ing to rest in a burn. It turns out that Vern had been stymied by a freak ac­ci­dent: when he took his sec­ond shot and emp­tied the cham­ber, the spent bul­let cas­ing pinged up into the air and landed back in the cham­ber the wrong way around, then got stuck. It took some se­ri­ous knife­work to re­move it.

If Vern thought it was over, he soon found out he was much mis­taken. If you’ve never dragged a deer, even a hind, it is ex­haust­ing. Vern was de­ter­mined to drag one of the hinds the whole way and as he went red­der and red­der, the veins pop­ping out of his head, at times I feared his maiden drag could be his last. As Colin, I and pho­tog­ra­pher John took it in turns to drag the other hind, Vern even­tu­ally found that drag­ging on a mile of flat land is much harder than head­ing down­hill. It was a relief when we got back down to the road.

‘That was in­cred­i­ble,’ he said as we watched the hinds be­ing hung in the deer larder. ‘An amaz­ing coun­try, an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence – one to re­mem­ber for­ever.’

Top left: Get­ting ready to fire. Bot­tom left: On the look­out for deer. Left: Wait­ing for the stags to wan­der off. Above

(l-r): Colin Camp­bell, Vern Cot­ter, Richard Bath.

Above: Vern do­ing some drag­ging. Cen­tre top

right: Glen­shiel head stalker Colin Camp­bell. Top

right: Load­ing the pick-up with Vern and Screm’s three hinds. Cen­tre below

right (l-r): Stalker Paul McAskill, Screm, head stalker Colin Camp­bell, Vern Cot­ter, Richard Bath.

Below far right: In the deer larder.

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