Friday, 16 December 2011

Storm Troopers

Since my last blog, the weather has turned a lot We've had frost, we've had snow and we've had wind. Lots of it. On the top of Cairngorm (about 30 miles as the crow rapidly flies) they recorded a max. wind speed of 165mph.

Through all this, I've been stalking hinds. More often than not with a guest. This week we've been host to a group of army snipers. Each day I've had two of them out with me. It has meant full-on days, trying to get a shot for both. On the plus side they've certainly been more help than hinderance. They know how to spot, they know how to stalk and they know how to shoot.....and I took it upon myself to teach them how to drag!

And despite the inclement weather at the start of the week, they've managed to bag over 40 hinds over the 4 beats. Good going guys

It's one of my great pleasures introducing rookies to what I consider to be the most challenging- and rewarding- of fieldsports. And I make no excuses for the enthusiastic 'bloodings' I gave them. As with everything that was asked of them, they were well up for it.

But for now, my rifle is cleaned and locked away; my gear is drying out and my radios are charging. And I've got all weekend to summon the energy to do it all again come Monday.

So if you'll excuse me, it's time to throw another log on the fire.

Monday, 12 December 2011

A Fresh Pair Of Eyes

You may remember that I recently had a young lady out stalking. It was her first time and I thought it might be of interest to all you out there to hear what she thought of the experience. So here you are!

A week or two ago, Andy invited me to spend a day stalking. As a meat-eater who is also determined to choose the ethical option – I buy free range and wild food whenever I can – I was really interested in this. At the same time, I didn’t know how I would feel about shooting an animal. But I know the deer population in the hills has to be controlled, mainly because we no longer have top predators such as wolves to curb numbers.

I had never used a rifle before, so Andy and I started off at the range. He showed me how to use the sight and explained that I’d need to squeeze the trigger gently. I was surprised at the lack of kick from the gun. I aimed at the deer target amongst the trees, hit it first time, so I was ready to head up the glen. Andy explained that, if possible, we’d be waiting for a beast to stand side on, which gave the best margin for error. I was worried I might miss the target area, and maim the deer. But Andy assured me that if this happened, he would take the rifle and shoot it properly.

We drove to the top of a hill, leaving Eric to collect Fergus the pony. Another ghillie, Angel, came with us, then went back down with the Land Rover. Andy and I set off with Ed the dog. The weather that day (swirling mist), was less than ideal for stalking, but it lent a certain atmosphere to the occasion. As we walked off, Andy explained the principles of stalking – you have to imagine where the deer would be on that day, and then try and approach them so they don’t know you are there. One of the most important factors is wind direction, because you don’t want the deer to smell or hear you coming. So we set off upwind to where Andy thought they might be. We found some very fresh deer droppings on a path, and so decided to follow their tracks. As we rounded a corner, we stopped and waited rather than push on in the thick mist. The tactic paid off as, a minute or two later, it lifted just enough for us to make out shapes on the next ridge.

Andy signalled to me to drop down, and we crawled through the heather towards them. The mist was swirling about and kept blocking our view, but then it would clear again. The deer didn’t seem to know we were there. Andy set the rifle in position for me, and showed me which hind would be a good target. He picked one grazing, side on to us, with no other beasts around it. I got into position and looked through the sight. It took me a while to ready myself for the shot, and in that time the mist had come back in, so I had to wait for it to clear again before I could shoot.
Then, when I could see properly and the deer was in place, I squeezed the trigger. Andy was a bit unsure of the shot so he took the rifle and shot it again. The gralloch (removing the stomach and intestines) revealed that my shot had hit the liver. Andy assured me it was a killing shot but with the poor visibility, he had erred on the safe side.

As I had never shot an animal before, it was now time for my “blooding”, which is a ritual performed after shooting. Andy drew blood across my cheeks as a mark of respect for the dead animal. We then radioed Eric with the pony and set off down the hill with Andy dragging the hind. As it was still morning, we dropped off the beast on the pony path and headed back up the hill for lunch. After sandwiches and thermoses of tea on the side of the glen, we set off again to look for more deer.

This stalk was much longer. It had been far too easy in the morning! But, eventually, as the light was starting to fade, we found another herd, and we crawled into place. This time I was quicker at getting into position and readying myself for the shoot. I squeezed the trigger and shot the hind. My shot was much better and the beast went down first time because I had hit a major blood vessel in the chest. Again we gralloched the animal, and then dragged the beast down the hill, this time through a burn! We met Eric and Angel on the pony path, loaded the hind on to Fergus, and walked out as the sun was setting.

All in all it was a very interesting experience. I am a keen hill walker and mountaineer, so I was doing something new in a very familiar environment. I realised stalking is a special skill and I couldn’t believe how close we could get to the deer (a necessity on a day with such low cloud) without them knowing we were there.
I certainly didn’t get any kind of thrill from shooting an animal, but I have a great respect for the skill involved in stalking, and I feel that if you are going to eat meat, wild, organic meat is the most ethical choice.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Old Dear

Yesterday was the first clear day we've had for ages. It was so useful to be able to spy my ground from a vantage point and see where all my deer had been hiding.

While I was doing this I spotted a single beast lying in a tiny hollow on a face a mile distant. Unusual.

However I made a mental note of it and carried on with Plan A. Eventually, after Plan A had mutated into Plan F, I returned to the land-rover with a couple of beasts. When I spied back across the glen, the single beast was exactly where she had been. Highly suspicious.

Although there was only about an hour of light left, I decided to go and see if I could get this beast. I was pretty sure that if I did, I would find that there was something wrong with her.

Three-quarters of an hour later and I was crawling around on that hillside, trying desperately to find a place from where I could see into the little hollow. Fortunately for me she stood up and presented me with a shot.

When I went up to her, I could see she was a big hind in seemingly good condition. I checked her legs, body and head for damage- nothing. As I gralloched her I found nothing untoward apart from the wall of her rumen was so thin that my fingers went through it as I tried to remove it.

Puzzled, I looked at her again. She looked rangy- big framed but a bit thin. I could see from her coat that she wasn't old but I decided to have a look at her teeth anyway....and all became obvious.

Her teeth were worn down to the gums. It turned out she was one of the oldest beasts I've shot in a long time.

I have to say, I felt a huge admiration for this old dame. She had been a huge hind in her day and was still in incredibly good strip for her age. But, more, she'd managed to give me, my predecessor, and probably the stalkers on two or three of the neighbouring beats the slip for about 14 years. The only reason I'd eventually caught up with her was that she was so done in that she could no longer keep with the herd.

There is a real sadness to shooting an exceptional beast like her but it would have been far worse- in my eyes- to have left her to a lingering death in the depths of a winter storm.