VERN’S GOLDEN HINDS
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.