By Linda Mellor
Scotland is a land of mountains, glens, and lochs, and is inhabited by four species of deer; silka, fallow, roe, and red. The wild deer thrive and roam over thousands of acres. On Highland estates the deer attract stalkers worldwide to test their mettle against the mountainous wildernesses in pursuit of their quarry.
Since Victorian times, the wilds of Scotland have been promoted as the land to hunt one of the most iconic and widely recognised species on a hunter’s target list, the majestic highland stag. The novice or the seasoned stalker follow in the centuries-old footsteps of previous sporting men and women to take on nature in her purest form and Scotland’s largest native land mammal.
A stalk will involve setting off in the morning and depending on the estate you could be walking for up to 10 miles, starting at sea level and heading up five or six hundred metres into the mountains. Once a stag has been found, the stalker, reads the wind direction then leads the stalk, climbing into the hills to make a stealthy approach before closing in undetected. The shot is taken either with your own rifle or an estate rifle, then the beast is gralloched (disembowelled) before it is taken down the hill to the larder.
Years ago, transporting the deer carcass was done by a highland pony. The popular image of a highland pony carrying a red stag off the hill is a classic Scottish deer stalking scene recognised globally. For more than 170 years, the sturdy ponies have taken deer and other game off the hill, using specially designed pack saddles. A highland pony or garron (a Gaelic word) with its flowing mane and tail is able to traverse the varied landscape. Red deer stalking can involve crossing a difficult and uneven terrain, it is exciting, and physically challenging requiring stamina and patience so a surefooted, stocky, and strong highland pony companion carrying a heavy stag back down to the larder is a must.
A number of well-known Scottish estates continue to use highland ponies. Blair Atholl, Balmoral, Invercauld, Glenartney, Knoydart, Letterewe and Eishken all use highland ponies during the deer stalking season to transport deer off the hill. The traditional manner attracts discerning stalkers from all over the world who prefer to participate in a customary stalk without the inclusion of the machine. An outing on the hill is a full day, carried out at a relaxed, steady pace. But who is in a rush? On foot it is a day to be savoured, from the rich plant life, the abundant wildlife to the ancient marker stones hidden by the heather on the old paths.
‘Our clients are active throughout the hunt,’ said Gordonbush Estate deer stalker Megan Rowland, ‘when we take clients out they can expect to see environments and habitats typical of the Flow Country (one of the world's last wild places) and peatlands. We regularly see golden and sea eagles, hen harriers, merlins, peregrines, ravens, sparrowhawks; alongside passerines like meadow pipits and dippers; and waders, like golden plover and curlew. We'll see lots different groups of deer, and the client will be talked through how we manage them, and why.’
Some estates have embraced technology, and from the late 1960s onwards landowners replaced ponies with all-terrain vehicles. Land Rovers were one of the first, and nowadays the quad bike and Argo; an eight-wheel off-road amphibious vehicle, are the most popular machines seen on Scottish stalking estates. These vehicles made estates more efficient as they enabled stalking guests to kill a larger number of deer each day and transport the carcasses down from the hill quicker than a pony could. A vehicle is single-manned and capable of taking a number of carcasses.
Vehicles can give Scottish shooting guests more options. The stalking day can start later as the Argo can cover most ground faster than a pony. On a pony-only estate the stalking outings may be limited but with a vehicle, the days can be limitless. If the weather comes in, and in Scotland, that’s not just a possibility it’s more of a certainty, you can zip up the hood on the Argo and take shelter from the rain or escape the midges (tiny biting insects). It has lights so you can travel back down the hill in poor light although, as any stalker will tell you, this is not ideal but if you have to find a wounded beast, you have no option.
Highland ponies are synonymous with Scottish deer stalking. They are one of the most prominent figures in country sports, and the romance and the sentimentality may appeal over the efficiency of the machine. But in this ever-changing world we all appreciate options, there are plenty of estates using ponies and there are many offering stalking with the convenience and speed of a machine.
On the Duke of Westminster’s Reay Forest estate in Sutherland, in the north west of Scotland, they offer deer stalking with ponies or with Argo. The estate is recognised for its outstanding natural beauty and is home to over 3,000 deer. Head Stalker David Allison told me a good network of paths and hard ground cry out for using ponies.
The Scottish stalking experience will take you into the wilds of our ancient, rugged lands immersed in history and rich with wildlife. Scotland welcomes all stalkers, if you are young or old, fit, and active or prefer a more sedentary pace you have a choice of how you wish to stalk.
Red deer stags measure 107-137cm at the shoulder and weigh 90-190kg. Hinds (adult females) reach a height of 107-122cm at the shoulder and weigh 63-120kg.
The stalking season in Scotland: stags Jul 1 – Oct 20, and hinds Oct 21 – Feb 15