Waiting game in the high country

Passionate hunter and conservationist Chris Rogers is deer manager on the 10,500-acre Euston Estate in Suffolk. Here, he recalls a red stag stalking trip in the Scottish Highlands.

In 13 years of working on Euston Estate in the English county of Suffolk I’ve done my fair share of red deer stalking, but the number of old stags has dwindled in recent years and, longing to go red stag stalking again, I booked a trip to a place synonymous with the species.

Red deer in the Highlands of Scotland are under pressure due to a long-standing program to recreate the Caledonian Pine Forest, a band of trees that once stretched from the west coast to the east but was deforested by man hundreds of years ago. Deer have been the primary target in the eyes of foresters and justifiably so. With no natural predators and little else to raise income from Highland estates, deer were historically kept in high numbers.

Nevertheless, watching huge red herds feeding across the Highland mountain sides is an impressive sight and while they should naturally reside in forest environments, the UK’s largest land mammal has adapted well to its tough existence. The Caledonian Forest is slowly growing again, largely thanks to deer fencing which offers protection from hungry mouths. It’s good for the trees but detrimental to deer seeking shelter in colder months as they should naturally be able to do and the knock-on effect is high mortality rates in harsh Scottish winters, something estates must factor into their cull planning.

Stag stalking on large Highland estates is extremely popular, so I was lucky to secure a booking with clients for six days near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. We rented two self-catering properties and top of the kit list I’d given to those who hadn’t stalked in Scotland was waterproof clothing - one certainty when stalking in the Highlands is rain.

On the first morning we met head stalker Steven and his team at the estate larder. A zero check was required for the two stalkers who’d be heading out, so they lined up on the hole in the iron stag’s chest 100m away and shot through it as instructed. A well-placed bag of chalk throws up a white puff as the bullet passes through the hole, a clang the result of a poor shot or of an un-zeroed rifle.

The day started dry but the clouds darkened and rain quickly arrived and wouldn’t budge. Of the two stalking parties, one had success with a fine old 10-point stag, the other drawing a blank, though the following day saw our American visitor take his first-ever red stag.

My turn to hunt finally arrived and having tagged along for the first three days I had a rough idea of where I was on the estate and where I could put to best use my Rigby Highland Stalker rifle in .275. We took the Land Rover as far as we could up a stone track before switching to an Argo all-terrain vehicle and heading higher into the hills to the drop-off point for our stalk.

The plan was to cover a large area of hill and we started down the side of a small burn - a Scottish stream - occasionally stopping to glass into open ground further down the slope as it came into view. Having walked only 300m my stalker spotted movement down the left-hand side of the burn about 800m ahead but, as there wasn’t much to see from the position we were in, we carried on slowly.

As the ground opened up on the right a herd of around 15 young stags sprang to life, startled by our appearance. They must have sensed they were not on our target list - we were looking to take mature or older stags - and they happily watched us carry on past them before eventually trotting off up the hill. Compared to earlier in the week we were having an easy day in the sun but as we edged over a heather bank there was no sign of deer, so we inched higher. Scanning further ahead Steven picked up a group of stags, hinds and calves bedded down in the sun but at 400m they were too far away for a shot. In the UK, even in open ground, a shot from more than 200m is frowned upon and in any case the group comprised mostly young stags.

Steven took one last look back up the hill and as I was preparing to move on he signalled me to keep low. Although we could see a smaller group of deer through the heather we needed a clearer view, and on inching higher we could see three stags sat behind a group of hinds and calves, eight in total, one of the hinds looking in our direction as we lay in cover.

I positioned the rifle on my backpack to give as much clearance over the ground cover as possible and Steven picked one of the three stags to take if it stood up and presented a clear chest shot. After what seemed an age the hind sat down but continued staring intensely at our position.

We were about 100m away but in the wide-open space of the Highlands it felt like being right on top of them. “Looks like we’re in for the long lie,” said Steven, and with that our patience test began. We had at least happened on a nice spot off the wet ground on a bed of heather and, with the sun warm on our backs, we lay for a good 90 minutes, occasionally checking the stag in question through the scope.

My concern was that when the stag eventually did stand up no shot would be available and, as if he’d heard me, he rose to his feet and presented his backside. I raised the rifle on my pack, waiting for him to turn side-on and with that he started scratching his left haunch with the tip of an antler before settling back into the heather. After another hour he hauled himself up, this time standing front on. I wasn’t going to give him a second chance and a shot rang out across the hill, sending the stag back down into the heather.

I reloaded, put the rifle on ‘safe’ and watched the other deer move off - we’d been there so long they had no idea where the shot had come from. They hadn’t seemed too bothered by the bang from the Rigby Highland Stalker, Steven explaining that as so many  hunters now use suppressors on the hill, deer are less panicked by an old-fashioned bang than the stifled crack of a modern suppressed rifle.

We lay and watched for a few minutes in case the downed stag miraculously sprang back to life, which he didn’t. We then focused on a group of around 40 deer heading directly to our position which Steven had been keeping an eye on all along and had spotted a stag with poor antlers picking on the rest of the group.

Although the rut was a week or so away he’d been throwing his weight around and generally being a nuisance to the younger stags. I locked on him through the scope and tracked him as he came closer, the soft crack of the Rigby ringing out again and, reloading, I watched the beast stagger a little, resist the bullet for a few seconds then drop like a stone.

We waited as the rest of the herd disappear with a little more haste than they had after the first shot before approaching the stags. Both were of reasonable size with poor antlers - good beasts to remove from the herd. Steven gralloched one and I the other to top off what had been a fine conclusion to a week which saw us take 12 stags in six days on some of Scotland’s finest ground.

I was impressed by the Rigby Highland Stalker which put the bullets in the right place at each time of asking. It’s a delightful rifle to stalk with and, as the name suggests, is right at home in the Highlands.

• Chris Rogers organises red deer stalking in locations across Scotland in addition to stalking at Euston, England. Email [email protected]. Pro-Tactical is Australian importer for the Rigby Highland Stalker.

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