Deer Stalking at the Atholl Estate Scotland
Just how accessible is highland deer stalking? Peter Jones takes the sleeper train from London to the Atholl Estate in Scotland in search of Red Hinds.
There are some natural landscapes that have such stark and wild beauty that when you set eyes upon them you feel they can hardly be real, surely these landscapes exist only in film or art?
The highlands of Scotland must surely be amongst one of these natural wonders.
As a woodland deer stalker in the south east of England I feel privileged to be able to spend my working life amongst some pretty countryside. Scotland in November however is not this, it is wild and beautiful.
(Above: Richard & David scan some truly spectacular countryside in search of Red deer)
For some time now I have craved a more rugged landscape and Deer Stalking in Scotland allows you to experience hunting in one of Europe's most wild places.
To experience this though, it must surely be; a) too expensive and b) too inaccessible? If like me, your hunting is predominantly confined to woodland stalking, just how easy is it to make the trip? I thought I’d find out.
The Atholl Estate is one of the largest Scottish Highland Estates. The hill stalking here extends to 90,000 acres spread over five beats. Yes, you read that right, ninety thousand acres! To put that in perspective the beat over which I was lucky enough to stalk was 50 kilometres across, and that is just one of the five. Not to mention the fact that this fifty kilometres is over some pretty up and down countryside.
So you can tell I was impressed, but how did I get there and did it cost me an arm and a leg?
Well at 9pm Sunday evening I found myself at London Euston Rail station boarding the Caledonian Sleeper. The overnight sleeper provides you with a restaurant bar and lounge and your own small cabin. After a wee dram or two, most, like me are off to bed with a promise from the attendant that you will be woken at your chosen stop, in my case Blair Atholl at 0628.
(Left: the Caledonian Sleeper, London Euston to Blair Atholl)
With breath taking efficiency the train arrived to the minute, and after a short 200 yard walk I found myself at the ‘Atholl Arms Hotel’, I was informed the previous night by telephone that the latch would be kept on the 'snub'. Not wanting to appear ignorant I assumed this meant that the door would be unlocked and sure enough it was.
8am and I was having breakfast, porridge followed by kippers in the main dining room, a room that harks back to days gone by. The walls adorned with suits of armour, giant claymore's and head upon head of past Monarchs of the Glen.
(Right: Harking back to days gone by - The Atholl Arms Hotel)
9am sharp and David, one of the Ghillies from the estate, had picked me up and we were on our way up the hill to meet Richard the head stalker on the Woodland Lodge beat. Broad smiles and hearty handshakes and without further ado a short drive up the track to take two shots at a deer silhouette to insure we were on target.
Then with light rain and mist gradually clearing to reveal pockets of blue sky, we were off. For those who are a little out of shape, be warned, stalking in the highlands is hard work, Monroe's (mountains to you and me) at this time of year are snow covered and rise to nearly 4000 feet. Put simply the stalkers are not there to humour you, they are there to find deer, where ever they are, and if that means a climb well that's what you're in for.
The next couple of hours passed with a few sightings of deer way above and beyond our reach, the terrain revealed itself in one inspiring view after another, with every curve in the hillside opening out into another photo opportunity and stunning vista.
Then the serious stuff began. With the wind in our faces way below us about half a kilometre away, we glassed a herd of red deer moving steadily in our direction. Making use of the countless burns and folds in the landscape Richard led us expertly and steadily toward their position. A final belly crawl had us just 250 yards from two stags who's grey faces gazed steadily in our direction. A wait and a chance to draw breath before thankfully the stags withdrew their vigil and moved obligingly over the crest of an adjacent hill.
(Above: Deer Stalking in Scotland can be hard work, Monroes at the Atholl Estate rise to nearly 4000 feet - In the distance the Cairngorms)
On a further 20 yards at a crawl and I found myself nestled comfortably in thick Heather, the butt of the Tikka .243 tucked snugly into my shoulder. 230 yards out the object of Richards hushed remarks, a red hind. Small adjustments for wind and distance, a squeeze of the trigger and I watched through the scope as our selected beast folded on the spot. An inch or two too high maybe? None the less she was not going anywhere and a genuine feeling of elation, anything now for the rest of the day would be a bonus.
Ghillies have perhaps the toughest job on the hill and so it was that after a swift ground ‘gralloch’ David prepared himself for the long drag and extraction of the carcass whilst Richard and I pressed on.
Another hour passed with us bumping several small herds of deer until once again I found myself lying in the wet Heather, this time with a small number of hinds and stags above us, the animals clearly on edge as they spotted two heads peering over the Heather.
No shot yet, minutes passed, things did not look promising. Then against the odds and with perhaps curiosity getting the better of her, to our mutual amazement a hind made her way down the hill toward us and to the left. Frantic repositioning of the rifle insued, and with only seconds to spare before we were well and truly clocked, my shot rang out against the hill side. My second red deer of the day and my expectations of what Scotland had in store for me this November were well and truly exceeded.
(Above: As the mist clears Richard the stalker shares a joke with Ghillie David)
The Stalkers at Blair Atholl are required to cull a staggering 600 - 800 hinds every year and so with this small contribution to the larder and the early evening cold now creeping steadily into my bones, we made our way down from the hill.
Huge thank-yous to Richard and David for a great trip, then back to the Atholl Arms Hotel at 5.30pm for a pleasant dinner. Local venison with a fantastic South African chocolatey Pinotage, Oliva Serie G Cigar and a Glenfiddich 15 yr Old in front of the fire to top off a perfect day!
A few hours later, 10.33pm the same day, and I found myself back on the sleeper train to London where with heavy limbs I collapsed into my bunk, sleep not difficult to find as the movement of the train whirring along the tracks rocked me off to sleep.
Arriving back at 07.45am in London, (again to the minute) I was once again amongst the hustle and bustle of a thousand commuters. How many inconsequential days pass by without incident or discernable memory? The last 36hrs would not be counted amongst such times. The Blair Atholl Estate had met all my expectations and more and I look forward to returning again next year.
(Left: David makes swift work of the Gralloch)
What did I wear? ‘North Face’ waterproof smock and cap. 'Musto' Trousers (On a less than perfect day these should be waterproof) Water proof walking boots and Gortex gaiters ‘Seeland’ shirt and jumper, ‘Sealskinz’ gloves and some truly excellent ‘icebreaker’ thermals (can’t recommend these highly enough!).
What kit did I use? Tikka Rifle model 595 in .243 Calibre with 100 grain ammunition and Scmidt & Bender telescopic sight. Swarovski SLC 8x42 HD Binoculars and harness.
What did it cost? The Caledonian sleeper 1st class return was £320-00. Standard return tickets can be purchased significantly cheaper but you don’t get your own cabin. Plus the days stalking (you’ll need to speak to the estate to get their best rates dependent on time of year and what you are after).
If you'd like to read more about Deer Stalking in Scotland follow this link for more information: outings-scotland