Early Season Stags

Matthew Rogers heads to the Highlands of Scotland for some early season stags.

MR Highlands 1

Try as we might, it’s not always possible to fit stalking in with other plans; but that does not mean that all is lost. This year, events painted me in to a corner whereby the mainstream stag stalks would be out of the question. Rather than miss out on the pleasures of the munro's and glens completely, I decided to pack my bags and go it alone for some early season maintenance stalks at the Blair Atholl Estate.

Blair Atholl has played host to a number of County Deer Stalking visits over the past few years, and presented a fantastic opportunity to stalk up on beasts that needed to be removed from the herds before the main rut got underway. Such animals may not be the stuff of dreams for the trophy room wall, but life is also about the experience and in this regard, Blair Atholl always does well.

MR Highlands velvet

I took three consecutive days on the West Hand beat with Graeme, one of the senior stalkers. Entering the beat is an exciting journey in itself and really reminds you that this is a holiday away from the familiar town and city life. The adventure begins by driving past the historic Blair Atholl castle itself, the stuff of postcards in the highlands. The dark green Land Rover Defender thunders through the ornate manicured grounds with a sense of purpose and determination; you feel like you are involved in a special secret and somehow different from the gaping tourists taking photographs.

Flurries of turns later and about five miles of rough road sees you in the glorious unspoilt hills. Graeme explained that the deer would be further out in the hills at this time of year, unlike in the Rut or even later in winter when they are much closer to the Castle itself. This meant we would have to go out to find them…

For those unfamiliar with stalking in the Highlands, days follow a standard pattern, and even early season, this remains instantly recognisable. Insertion into the depths of the estate by vehicle is only part of the journey, and next is the highland walk to find animals to consider. In many ways this is the same as the woodland stalker down south, but over significantly enhanced distances and endurances.

MR Highlands Binos

Due to the distances involved, good optics remain essential. While many of us woodland stalkers have romantic and simplistic conceptions that binoculars are the tool of the wood, and telescopes the tool of the hill, it’s not as straight forward as that. Binoculars are still used extensively on the hill, mainly to find (note: find, not identify) the deer in the distant landscape. As reds are, of course, a herding species, their large numbers – sometimes close to a hundred animals – can be found through the wide but shallow view of quality optics. The telescope however comes into its own for identifying the animals, discerning gender, and selecting viable cull animals before you walk another two miles to a shot. The rule of thumb; the binoculars find the deer, the telescope identifies them and saves time!

The first day saw me take a mature animal, and while certainly not one for the wall, was most definitely the right animal to cull from the herd – it had only one antler, and likely since birth. The stalk, however, was incredible, with a backdrop comprising a number of other nearby estates including Mar Lodge (the setting for the capreolus-club visit later in the season). Stalking is also a challenge in the Highlands, with peat bogs, burns (streams) and heather all needing to be crossed to get within shooting distance. Equipment is everything.

MR Highlands Garron 2

If I had to choose a few lessons to preach parochially about my equipment, footwear would be the first. As much as I thought I had a winning boot and sock combination, the hill disproved that, and I had a fairly uncomfortable experience. Some weeks prior I had spent £250 on new boots with very high sides to make walking more supportive and keeping me dry when crossing burns. Did they work? Yes, apart from when I put my foot in too deep, and they got soaked anyway. Within half an hour they had dried out from walking, and I left myself wondering why I had spent the £250…

More positively, however, I found an ultra-lightweight waterproof jacket (mine was from Browning) was invaluable for keeping my upper half dry and windproof. The bottom half, interestingly, was another story. I chose my standard woodland stalking green trousers from 5.11 Tactical, which are not waterproof, but also tucked a pair of waterproof trousers from Craghoppers into my bag. While these were used on the third day (think torrential rain and hail coming in sideways), I was actually happier having normal trousers on. They dried out super quickly, didn’t make annoying noises and fitted perfectly. I wasn’t any the worse for them, even when crawling across peat bogs. At this time of year you don’t need many layers and certainly no thermals, unless you are planning on stepping out in a t-shirt.

MR Highland Red Stag

Days two and three saw me take a neck shot on a good representative animal, having had to stalk in significantly above it and descend down the side of a glen (that seemed ridiculously steep compared to my limited experiences elsewhere on the Atholl Estate!). This was an incredibly memorable stalk, just because it was both different and challenging. Graeme is a master of his art and its situations like this that experience just becomes so prominent.

The last day began with a difficult narrative; swirling fog, off-piste hill walkers, jumpy deer and bad stomach all conspiring to bring my holiday to a close with a fizzle not a bang. However, perseverance often pays off, and right when we thought it was over, we stalked in close to a group of around 40 animals on the edge of woodland, and there I found my animal. Extraction from this beat is by the traditional method of highland ponies; temperamental but immensely fun to be around, making up one of the thousands of parts that means highland stalking is so enjoyable.

I would like to extend a big thank you to Graeme, Mark and Andrew at the Atholl Estate, and highly recommend early season stags for those unable to make the big events.

If you'd like to read more about deer stalking in Scotland follow this link: scotland

Alternatively to read more about stalking at the Atholl Estate click here: deer-stalking-at-the-atholl-estate

To watch a short film about stalking in the Highlands follow this link: watch

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