The last few months have been challenging for us all, it seemed like with Covid-19 virus looming its despair over our head that this stag season would be a whitewash with travel restrictions and accommodation restrictions.
I have to admit life had not really stopped for me, working in deer management meant that I still had to carry on as normal as I could, checking the forest replants and protected areas was still a must as part of my job.
Covid-19 happened right at the start of my “off” season for deer management though which was a blessing in many ways, usually after March when the Roe Does finish I only do fox control for lamb protection for two months with the odd Roe Buck stalk thrown in just to keep the freezer topped up. Normally for me the 1st of July ( the start of the stags ) I am booking my family holiday for 2 weeks in the south coast of England, 2 weeks of NO shooting, No talking about shooting, No deer, No foxes, No rabbits and most of all No syndicate calls, but, this year all that had to be cancelled.
Due to the cancellation of my normal holiday I have been able to start my stalking early this year and it has been pretty fruitful.
The summer so far has been a mix of cooler weather with some warmer days and some very wet periods making the grass grow very well, the silage crop has really come up over the last few weeks and with the decrease in people traffic the deer have enjoyed their full, even though the crofters and farmers have not enjoyed seeing the deer on their crops. So the phone calls came in.
For Crofters, specially those smaller properties, the 2 or three fields of winter feed they have is all the food they have for their animals in the winter, so it is understandable when they get stressed over deer coming down and eating the crops they work so hard on.
The farmers stress just means more work for me though and with larders not open or the ones that are open giving rock bottom prices for, the work is ten times harder as I have to not just cull, drag and larder the deer I also have to skin all the deer I can get so it can be checked and given to the butcher.
At this time of year I rarely take guests for Reds or Sika, stalkers in general want trophies, they want “hard horn” antlers to take home and they want the fantasy of the rut periods in the autumn, which in my opinion means they miss an absolute majestic time of the year.
Early July sees some very long days in the Highlands, daylight comes in at around 3am with sunrise just after 4, and night does not draw until well after 10pm , giving access to some excellent stalking periods that at any other time of the year most miss out on. Early July also sees the Reds and Sika stags in very good condition, their summer coats now fully in showing the beautiful colours they are made famous for, the Sika stags normal Dark coat and evil look turns into a blast colour showing its summer spots and softer features and the Reds almost ginger looking coat across their backs and beautiful white contrast on their lower half. The Roe bucks also showing full colours at this time of year getting to their peak condition. All the deer at this time of year are looking like “Royalty”.
Although the stags are not in hard horn at this time of year this does not bother me, I am not a trophy hunter and all my deer goes into the food chain in some way or another. Game dealers, Butchers and Chefs will all tell you that, for them, the deer are better at this time of year for them. The deers condition is fantastic and full of good feeding and fat, replenished from the previous rut and long hard winter. The deers coats are softer with less parasites and the deer in general are less “smelly”. So for meat dealers this is the prime time of year for their venison. Apart from that though, the deer are still in velvet. The red stags antlers, although in most cases fully formed in size, will have the soft “velvet” over them and their antlers will be very soft and easily broken.
Another point about early season stalking for Reds and Sika is that it gives you a chance to see what deer are in good condition and which ones are not. The stags will be seen in small herds all feeding together still as they do over winter. As their summer coats come in and their antlers forming you get a good idea of what is going to be good and what is not for season ahead.
On the evening of the 1st, I attended a property and had a long conversation with the owner. The owners croft and their neighbours is not big, it comprises of around 150 acres of hill ground with some protected hardwood within it, the property is situated near a large forest on one side and a massive expanse of hill ground on the next with their valley in between.
Over the years it has been an absolute magnet for deer coming down to shelter and feed. Running through the middle of these crofts is a river, majority of the summer this river runs at a trickle and is very easy to cross, but, with heavy wet weather periods and thaw from the hills above this river turns into a completely different beast, beast being the right word. This past few months the river has changed course a number of times and has completely changed the landscape in the valley and threatens the homes that are are built alongside it.
To combat this problem the crofters have planted Willow on the river bank to act as a natural flood prevention, but the deer have destroyed it. So the numbers do have to be kept very low in this area.
Over the months of the year I tend to keep control of the numbers of deer, allowing 2 or 3 Roe Does to maintain a home there still attracting the Bucks to breed in the Summer, as far as reds go they are usually fair game as well as the Sika. The landscape in that area cannot sustain the damage caused by large numbers of deer so with the crofters blessing I manage as I see fit. The issue with this valley is that all the neighbouring grounds have large numbers of Red and Sika that rarely get culled so causes a major over flow of deer at certain points.
After my conversation on the night of the 1st i had a spy about to see what deer were about, I spied a number of Reds grazing on the neighbouring estate property close to the fence-line and a couple of Roe Bucks heading down towards the wooded area on my permission on one side of the valley and on the other side I saw a group of 3 Sika hinds and calves and my usual two or 3 Roe Does (all not in season). So I made a plan to get the smaller one of the two Bucks.
As the Bucks were grazing slowly down towards the plantation of hardwood I could see that if I waited too long the deer would be in to the heavy “Bracken” at the foot of the hill. The deer on this property are ALWAYS above you. The hill face is near vertical going upwards at points and the Bracken at points is near 6ft high so it is difficult terrain to stalk into. I stalked for around 150yrds to s a suitable spot at the base of the hill still being able to see the Roe Bucks above the trees and ragned where they were. I still was 205yrds away from them look straight up so not the easiest of positions to be in.
I sighted into the bucks and chose which one I was going for, laying prone neither one knew I was even there. Watching them the smaller Buck was starting to walk down towards the thicker Ferns and then stopped and looked at his mate, the whole deer was now broadside showing its right shoulder, I aimed in and took the shot and the young Buck went straight down and rolled for a few feet down the hill. I lay still looking at the shot deer for a few minutes, occasionally panning to see what the older Buck was doing, no surprise the older one was not even bothering about what just had happened and carried on grazing along the hillside. I waited until the older Buck was out of sight before retrieving.
No wind, temperature around 14 degrees C and midge net over my face made for a very hard climb and retrieval but was worth it.
Over night I had some pest control and security checking to do on a couple of properties which took me a couple of hours, saw a fox around 2am while I was clearing a few rabbits and managed to get him. By the time I was done I could see that the sun was coming up in the distance so I made my way to another stalking ground.
I walked up, still dark, to a spot on the croft where I could see the top edge of the property, I was around 300yrds from the march (boundary) fence standing in some trees with my .243 Abolt on the Tripod.
Anyone who has ever been out all night will know that it is almost always light before the sun comes up. Standing and spying before Dawn is always fascinating. The birds were in full morning song and the midges were biting in the dampness of the morning dew. It was warm even though it was about 10 degrees C and I was enjoying the morning. Relentlessly I was spying the grounds in front of me for any signs of movement, distracted by the large number of stags on the Estate a long distance away.
The red sun I could see was just over the Eastern horizon looking down the Glen. There was no wind and the midge jacket I was wearing was a god send as I was watching my hands getting blacker and blacker with every minute by the amount of midges having a morning feed off me.
Looking up in front of me I noticed a young stag rise up from the heather, he was around 180yrds away and on my permission. His head looking majestic in the morning light, the dew glistening off his Velvet in the morning red sun and the light shining off his very red back almost reflecting the sunrise back at me. I took aim through the scope, not wanting to risk the stag running on I went for a neck shot, the terrain he was in would make it hard to find if he decided to run as well as him only being around 100yrds from the march I just could not risk him going over on to the neighbours ground, I squeezed 2lb trigger of my Browning Abolt .243 mounted onto my tripod via the Pig Saddle clamp and sent the 100gr Prohunter bullet into the neck of the Red Stag peeling at the bushes in front of him, I heard the impact and the stag stumbled forward about a foot and dropped into the deep purple heather, Result. The sun was now almost fully into view and the morning was stunning.
After the success of my morning stalk on the red and managing to get another couple of Roe Bucks I decided that evening, evening of the 2nd, to go for another look at the croft again. This time I had my oldest Adam with me. We were sitting being unpleasantly eaten by midges when we spotted two Red stags walking through the Willow at the top of the property, I ranged them at 450yrds and they seemed quite settled. The time was 2220 and I knew I only had around a hour of daylight and sunset was at 2230 so I had to make a plan quick if I wanted to get at least one of them.
I stalked for about 120yrds before realising that if I went any further I would not beable to see the deer, due to how the terrain flowed. Adam beside me I made the decision to take the shot from where I was. I handed Adam the thermal to keep an eye on the deer and I ranged the bigger one of the two deer, he was also the easiest shot, and he ranged at 324yrds. I checked on my Kestrel how many clicks that would be and dialled 10cliks on my scope aimed just behind the right shoulder and squeezed the trigger, the head of the stag raised quickly on impact and he started to run forward, I knew I had hit him so I waited and kept him in the scope, he rand for around 20yrds to the right then turned and started to head down towards for another 20 or 30 yrds before dropping flat onto the heather, his friend had bolted for a short distance down hill towards me not realising what was going on, I clicked the scope back to zero and too shot on the second stag at around 100yrds into its neck dropping him on the spot, result 2 deer in the space of 15 minutes, now for the task to get them out which was not as easy as you would think due to not being able to gralloch or larder on this property, but thats what the quad and the extra body is for I guess.
So as you can see the start of the stag season for me has been quite an exciting one, with the travelling and accommodation restrictions now being lifted I am looking forward to hosting my first guest on the 16th of July for Roe Bucks so we will se how that goes as it should be right in the middle of the Roe rut and it will be my first rut on this property I am going to so challenging for me as well as the guest.
I am regretting however not being able to go on my usual family holiday, I shoot almost every day of the week all year round and fatigue does settle in and what should be fun becomes a chore, so those two weeks in the summer I take for my family is always a welcome break.
I have some plans for new projects during the coming weeks, I am hoping that the reviews will start back again but in the meantime have a look at my other articles on this site and the “Journey of a Rifle” where I have been talking about my own rifles and set ups. I will also let you know how things went on with next weeks guest days.
Thank you for taking the time.