Stalking arrives with the start of autumn, and coincides with the red deer rutting season. Since our ancestors killed the last British wolves in the 18th century (the lynx and other large predators in the middle ages and before), the deer have had no natural predator other than humans. The deer population in Scotland is 350,000 (very approximately - funds are dircted to more pressing deer management matters, such as road safety). Without some form of predation, deer numbers will steadily climb until they have damaged the ecosystem so much that their numbers will start to decline through overgrazing. It is necessary to control deer numbers, not only for our own interests and for the interests of the health of the ecosystems that we treasure, but also the deer themselves - overpopulation in deer numbers will mean overgrazing and a subsequent crash in numbers. Population control is all in the interests of preserving the cherished Scottish biodiversity.
There is a thought that the unusual summer was to blame for the lack of stags on the hill - it certainly goes against the grain, as Mark claims, “there are more red deer in Scotland than there have ever been”. Graeme Taylor from the SNH isn’t so sure, and thinks that the numbers are declining very slightly, but not so much as to be alarmed (he is eager to point out that without a costly proper count, we will never know the precise numbers. SNH actually do localised surveys in important areas, such as those where there are a lot of road accidents caused by deer, where a spike in numbers might require removal or a cull).
The stalking industry performs multiple roles; first it is a cull to create a manageable number and a balance, secondly there is demand for venison, and thirdly it is an excellent channel of money into rural areas, creating jobs and wealth.
With an increase in numbers of untrained amateur stalkers on the hill, there has been an increasing emphasis on competence in deer management - the desire to ensure people are trained whilst using powerful rifle on the hills is evident. Employed stalkers and gamekeepers generally have a good reputation - they also are willing to take up a high number of qualifications or courses. The British Deer Society have recommended that DSC (deer stalking certificate) level 1 is sufficient, although higher levels are encouraged. The Scottish Parliament has the ability within legislation to make these qualifications compulsory, but this is not seen to be required at this stage.
There is a sense of ‘fairness’ that appeals to those that stalk, that the stag could legitimately get away, but also there is the fact of shooting for food, not merely for shooting’s sake and for sport. That isn’t to say that the ‘snob’ element of shooting is not there – stalking is also considered the sport of privilege, as once again access can be prohibitively expensive, however it is performing a commendable role for Scotland.
I set out with Mark and three guests for what turned out to be a very long day on the hill – the previous two days were unsuccessful due to poor weather conditions, so he was keen to try for two stags to catch up with his quota.
The worst nightmare for a stalker is for the Deer Commission (now Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, the body that deals with wildlife management and licensing) to get involved in his estate. There are emergency laws in place enabling them to interfere if they think the population is out of control and likely to damage the local area or cause accidents on the road. There would be little care as to quality of deer, so the carefully managed local population might get heavily and indiscriminately culled. In fairness, there is a protocol followed here with heavy emphasis on cooperation with the relevant estate first, and it rarely comes to this. If the estate cannot comply for whatever reason, then SNH has the power to send in their own stalkers, or employ someone to do the job. It is not guaranteed - but this lack of control is something to be feared on your own turf.
Throughout my time with Mark, I got the impression that there is a defence of personal power over the land, that there is a fragile balance being maintained partially by Mark and by others, and he is keen to protect and control that. There is no quick replacement of a well-managed estate; it takes patience and a great deal of skill and knowledge. Any desire for a faster response from the land and you start to damage the prospects for other species.
After a great deal of ‘spying’ from the glen floor, Mark has chosen a direction to head. Like a lot of Scotland, the hills near the West coast are hard climbing, and we are heading up the steepest and largest of the glen. Mark can set a gruelling pace, earning him the nickname ‘Robostalker’. Get him to tell a story or two though, and he has plenty of good ones, and you can slow him down. As we near the top of the hill, there’s a keen sense of involvement as we are told every plan as it is made, and altered. Satisfyingly he tells us about any mistakes he has made, only serving to add to the skill we are witnessing (these mistakes are extremely rare in fairness to Mark; they are the exception that proves the rule that he is an expert in his work). The first stalk was relatively short, straight through marshy ground on our hands and knees, at 2pm. The second, shot at 6:20pm, took much longer but similar, and we are totally worn out, but he is happy with a haul of two stags. With four people in tow this is no mean feat on a hill with swirling and unpredictable wind, and little to no topographical cover (save streams and boggy ground).
A long, steep descent later we arrive back at the lodge, two stags in tow, they are taken to the game larder, where they will be prepared for the game dealer. The legs are removed below the joint and the genitalia are removed (a valuable part of the carcass at £2 a kilo - the Chinese demand is such that they will source their red deer medicine from even as far away as Scotland). A good healthy saddle of venison, the next most valuable part, will cost about £2.80 a kilo, but might drop to £2 for hinds later in the winter. These are the prices paid by the game dealer to the estate; the prices of selling on to buyers (especially as regards the Chinese) were not disclosed.
We returned to the lodge completely exhausted at 8:30pm, after a 12-hour day on the hill, looking forward to a rest and a bath.
For Mark it isn’t as simple. News comes that a fox has visited the pens the previous evening, so he has a quick dinner, and sets off into another long night.
The next and final post from this project, Afterword: Changing times, will be posted on Saturday 9th February, at 10.30am. To buy a copy of the book for £25, contact me.