Stalking Deer In The UK
Following a brief note from Len asking me to describe deer hunting ‘in my neck of the woods’, I have taken a few moments to do so. Whilst nothing I’ll describe here will live up to the long-range aspirations or achievements of others on this site, I hope it will give some feel for (my experience of) UK stalking. I’ll start with a very brief outline of the UK stalking environment and then move on to describe a couple of typical Highland summer and winter stalking days.
UK Deer Species
There are 6 species of deer in the UK: Red, Sika, Roe, Fallow , Muntjac and Chinese Water (Full detail HERE). My own stalking experience is limited to pursuit of the first three in England and Scotland. Such stalking falls into one of two broad categories: Highland and Lowland.
Characteristics of Highland Stalking
Highland stalking takes place in the mountainous Highlands of Scotland and is characterised by the spot and stalk pursuit of red deer (as well as sika). It tends (in my opinion!) to be rather ‘epic’; offering great mountain days –with the chance of a bit of shooting thrown in as well.
Little has changed over the last 100 or so years:
Once the stalker has set foot on the hill, he is just as dependent on his legs, his wind and his wits as were his Victorian predecessors. Like them, he is alone with the grouse, the ptarmigan, the eagles and the deer.
Like them, he finds in the Highlands an incomparable escape from the pressures of normal life.-Hart-Davis 1978
Characteristics of Lowland Stalking
Lowland stalking covers all that that is not Highland, taking place on moorland, farm land and woodland throughout the rest of UK. It is often characterised by the use of high seats (deer stands) and still-hunting with reduced opportunities for spot and stalk. Despite the fact that my stalking ‘career’ began in this lowland environment I have, over the years, found myself increasingly drawn to the challenges of Highland stalking….the draw of movement in rugged terrain combined with field craft and marksmanship providing (to me) the hunting experience I crave.
The hills are as steep, the gales as strong, the hale as fierce, the air as clean.
The smells are the same – of peat, wet heather, rain coming.
The sounds are identical – the thin singing of the wind in the grass, the gurgle of the burns, the scream of the eagle, the whirr of the ptarmigan, the go-back, go back, go-back of the grouse,
and, above all, the roaring of the stags.
Allan and Matt. Panoramic firing point
Equipment and Clothing
As my stalking tastes have changed, so too has my choice of equipment. The desire to be able to make longer shots soon led me to purchase a LRF (having found my ability to judge distance in the Highlands to be shockingly poor!). My choice of scope evolved from standard sporting models to more powerful BDC-equipped scopes. Similarly, my rifle choice evolved from standard sporting rifles, to heavy barrel sporters and, finally, a rugged rifle optimised for long range accuracy (although I must admit that taking an 18lb rifle to the Hill is not typical of the ‘Scottish Experience’!)…. a bells & whistles wind meter popped up somewhere along the way too.
As British stalking clothing seems to draw a stereotypical fascination for our colonial cousins, I’ll just briefly mention it too. Baseball caps, a camouflage shirt and jeans tend not to find favour. We’re also fortunate that blue-on-blue rates here are virtually non existent, so blaze orange isn’t required either. But what you will find is a broad span of attire ranging from individuals choosing the traditional all tweed –breeches, jacket and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat through to those who prefer the latest must-have camouflage suits (with matching accessories!). Personally, I fall between the 2 schools of thought; cotton windproof smock, breeches and flat cap –and goretex when necessary!
The Estate and Stalker
Generally, unless you own a Highland estate, stalking will take place as a “paying guest” of an estate that has chosen to let or rent stalking days and you will be accompanied on your day’s stalk by a professional stalker who will guide and advise you. These fellows have to deal with all types, from the fat London Banker who’s never held a rifle through to the competent and experienced field sportsman. Much of the quality of your sporting experience will depend on the rapport that you establish (perhaps over several years) with your stalker. The one-off visitor is well advised to remember the maxim ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’ and not attempt to talk-up his abilities to the stalker.
[floatright][/floatright]A Few Typical Days –Winter Hinds and Late-Summer Stags
Rather than bore you further with my ramblings; I thought I’d simply share my notes from a few typical stalking days (I generally try to keep a short diary of each trip I take).
A Couple of Days at Winter Hinds
This first example is of a couple of days taken from a trip late last century (!) after winter hinds, armed with a Sauer 202 in 308 topped with a Swarovski 3-12x50 sporting scope with TDS reticle; supported by the (then) recent acquisition of a Leica 800.
Eg Day One. 0900hrs start. Check zero@ 120m. 1 click left 1click down; stunning grouping. Stalking with P. Truck to head of track, Argo to Gr 443040. Weather clear in valleys, low cloud on tops –visability approx 300m. Wind E. Up to Gr 447040 to spy the slopes running NE. Spotted group of 12 hinds Gr 449039 stalked in and got to a fp @ 130m; just slipping off the safety when 2 beasts further up the slope winded us and the whole group took off in short order. Moved further NE along slope, spotted another group around Gr 455043, stalked into around 100m and shot 2 animals. The 1st fell on the spot; we lost track of the 2nd and, assuming it had run off wounded, scanned the now distant group for any signs of a wounded beast. I was concerned at the thought of wounding an animal and, mindful of my sight picture at the moment of shot release, could not understand how I could have pulled my shot. We closed in to around 50m when the 1st beast’s head could be seen peering over the heather. I knelt to take a neck shot to finish it. Next we started down the slope to examine a spot, where the departing group had temporarily halted, for any signs of the wounded beast. After much looking, no signs were evident. We started back up through the heather to the 1st beast and…….found the 2nd beast lying dead 15m from where it had been shot. Big relief.
We moved to Gr 457044 to glass the plateau to our E and have a cup of tea / bite to eat. The plateau is a large mass of peat hags & cuts. After some time, P spotted a single animal in a cut by the burn Gr 464046.
Making use of the ‘trench system’ provided by the hags we approached across the icily crunching peat to around 100m. At this point we could see 3 hinds and 1 young stag. We crawled onto a hag top at which point I took 2 hinds by the burn.
Hag Top Firing Position
The remainder of the group circled us at a constant distance to our 9 o’clock inquisitively looking in our direction. When opportunity presented itself, I took 2 more beasts in this area. The stag and (a previously unsighted) calf ran onto our 6 o’clock. We relocated 20m onto a peat hag in that direction where I was able to take the calf. Following gralloch, we headed back up the burn to the Argo and subsequently collected the carcasses.
Eg Day Two. Stalking with P. Drove along Gen Wade’s Military Road stopping to spy at several points (eg the viewpoint Gr 449104). Spotted 3 distinct groups: 1 moving up the gully Gr464104, another on the edge of the sparse trees Gr 458094 and a 3rd 1.5km further W. We paused to drop off the Argo on the heather in the area Gr 453106 and then drove on into the Forestry Commission wood and tracks, eventually parking around Gr475115. Moving subsequently W down a forest ride to the open ground. Movement was now onward and upward SW along the top / E face of the ridge feature. Early on we spotted a lone calf Gr468108 but, having stalked up to it, decided to leave it rather than disturb the locale. From Gr 465104 we spotted approx 10 animals in the area Gr 465098. We assumed these to be some of the animals (now relocated) spotted from the viewpoint. We attempted to stalk down from the ridge (wind NW) with stealthy slow movement. Unfortunately, the open nature of the ground meant we were spotted just before reaching cover! We sat still in the fruitless hope that they would settle. P surprised me by using his hands to animate his whispered conversation –the animals moved further away at each new point!
After this we regained the ridgetop and eventually spotted beasts ½ couched, ½ feeding in the area Gr 457094. We had an excellent approach, much retracing of steps and choosing of routes through the steep, rugged W ridge face. Eventually we were able to close the distance to 160m at which point I was able to take 3 animals. A rather epic steep drag ensued in the snow/sleet/rain down to the side of Loch nan Eun. We left the beasts here in order to collect the Argo and come back for them. Fairly epic day: very cold, very wet, boots sloshing with water.
A Couple of Days at Late Summer Stags
“Fast forwarding” the story by 8 years finds me after late summer stags, now lugging around an Accuracy International 308 topped with a 4-16 x 50 S&B PM2.
Stags Day One Slightly grey sky with sunny spells –mild 14-15 deg C. Arrive [Estate] approx 1130hrs for leisurely RV with A. Down to 100m range to check zero. Quite amusing when my 1st round lands absolute dead centre and the 2nd about 1cm from it; I hand the rifle to A who fires a shot …his shot joins my 2 shots into one ragged hole. Back to A’s for lunch; soup and oatcakes with cheese. After lunch, up ‘PL’ track; several hinds running to our W with 1 or 2 stags. Approx ½ way to ‘plantation’ track, A spotted a stag couched approx 350m to our W with around 5 hinds (of which 2 couched). We moved another 200m N and several 100m E of the beasts, stalking in through various patches of bracken; final crawl prone and then attempt to find a shot out of the bracken. Ended up kneeling and resting bipod on A’s rucksack….which was resting on his bent legs…not an overly stable set up! Range 182m. POA, high heart. Animal fell as though spine/neck shot –quite decisive. Hinds moved off, but not panicked (silencer). Moved over to stag, took a few pics. Quite sunny/warm by now. Retrieved with argo. (subsequent larder work showed shot to have hit both shoulders and spine). Returned to base; ribbing A that (following his similar performance the preceding 2 years) he had now set a 100% first afternoon hit-rate standard to be maintained! Invited around for supper.
Day One With Bracken Stag
Stags Day Two Overcast. Wind fresh Southerly. 0900hrs RV. Bad weather forecast for tomorrow; fingers crossed that it won’t arrive today. Following quiet cup of tea, truck and argo up PL track, dropping argo at 1st turning spot, then truck on up to high saddle and on over to approx the same spot that I shot the 250m hind by the small hilltop loch last year. Southerly wind made planning a little tricky. We had seen many deer in large groups (like reindeer herds) out on the flats to the S of the ridge (not taking obvious shelter from the wind – I realised the next day how deceptively broken nature of the flats meant that the herds were more sheltered than was apparent). Decided to stalk the ridge top heading W from our location, checking the sheltered gullies of the N face. Having spied 3 beasts heading onto the ridge, we moved carefully; expecting to bump these beasts at any moment (the lead beast was very dark, almost black, and very shootable). After 5/600m of careful movement, spotted a single stag moving away from us unaware. At one point he posed for us à la ‘Monarch of the Glen’ on a small promontory with the Achlain Hills as a backdrop – would have made a great photo. We stalked on when he dropped out of sight. Rounding one rocky outcrop A spotted a stag couched on the N face lying on a steep rocky ledge. We glassed for some time, crawling forward onto our own rocky ledge vantage point. After some chat with A, decided to swap sides in order that I could set up for a shot. The range was 231m. As I set the rifle on its bipod, my (silhouetted) movement caused the beast to stand and stare at us directly face on. I was dialled for the shot, but (because of the nature of our ledge) found my right elbow to be unsupported in ‘free space’. I whispered to A to pass me something on which to rest my elbow. He passed me my binos, I was instantly ‘bench solid’…..but at that moment the beast departed. We decided to cross the ridge and check the beasts to the S. Because of the convex nature of the slope, this involved a lot of low (wet!) crawling. We achieved a vantage point overlooking (left to right) a small group at 450m based on a young stag, A large group (around 20 hinds) based on one dominant stag and 2 satellite stags at 6/700m and one couched lone stag at approx 500m. We were absolutely trapped by the nature of the slope and no further movement was possible. We eventually retreated and then moved E along the ridge (out of sight) and tried several more damp crawls onto the beasts; each time being unable to close the distance. Beaten, we moved E back along the ridge and stopped to put on a brew and hot lunch. Whilst we ate we glassed the Northerly slopes lying to our E. Spotting 3 distant groups each with 1 or 2 stags. Making best use of ground we moved up and along the ridge; frequently having to retrace / re-plan our route to remain in cover through a series of rocky gullies and heather-covered spurs. Finally, ground dictated which group we moved on. One group in ‘overwatch’ on higher ground forced us down the slope to close the distance on a harem being held by a stag roaring at the valley below (silhouetted from our perspective on a spur top).
Spur top firing point with stag location marked
The wind, howling down from the hillside from our right was impossible to assess with any certainty; the broken spur top offered shelter whilst the gullies channelled fast moving blasts of cold air. As I find the Highlands so often trick me, the animal looked long distant. The laser revealed him to be 244m / 267yds. I took the wind to be 20-30mph full value. Set up appropriately and took the shot. The beast collapsed from view; appearing to tumble at least once as he went. After crossing the large intervening gully and gaining the stag’s ridge, we found him dead some 30-40m down the steep slope. This proved to be my most satisfying stalk of the trip…..very demanding and enjoyable field craft/stalk and shot!
With Spur Stag
In terms of British Deer Management Qualifications 'Brown Dog' holds both DMQs 1 and 2 and is an Accredited Witness. He has also passed the British Deer Society Deer Management Course. He has served for over 17 years in the British Armed Forces.
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