Deer stalking is fun! I must have shot about a dozen or so, possibly more. But don't worry no deer were harmed in any way, it was strictly a shooting by camera adventure.
I spent most of the afternoon shooting hinds and juvenile males from a distance of about 30 metres or so which normally I would be perfectly happy with but if I had a camera with a decent sized zoom I could have had some great group shots. Instead I had to get in close to the animals to get any shots at all, which on a blustery day like yesterday is not so easy to do. Luckily I had a Ghillie to guide me, without his knowledge and help I probably wouldn't have got within 100 metres of them. On my own they probably wouldn't have heard me coming (I'm quite a quiet person honest) or seen me coming (I can be surprisingly inconspicuous when it suits me) but they would have smelt me before I even saw them. And it's not because I stink, honest I do wash daily, its just deer have a very powerful sense of smell and I had no real clue how to stalk deer before yesterday.
Although I go out on the Scottish wilderness as often as I can and consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to the countryside without expert stalking help I would have struggled. I knew before we started that you had to travel downwind but with the wind being so strong and the direction that it was blowing constantly changing I wouldn't have known how to stay downwind. If I had been on my own I would probably have got frustrated by the weather sabotaging my every attempt to stay downwind that I would probably have tried the direct approach by just walking straight towards them and would never have gotten even remotely close. Just as well Guides who stalk deer for a living are much more skilled and patient than I am.
The most surprising thing of the day was for me was what I enjoyed the most. It wasn't enjoying the deer in their own environment, after all Deer aren't all that rare in Scotland, there's around 300,000 of them of them living here. I can walk a couple of miles down the road and come across one if I'm quiet enough. It wasn't even being in the Highlands, gorgeous stunning awe inspiring landscape that it is. The best part of the day was just spending some time with the guide whose knowledge of the landscape and the animals within you just cannot buy. Well I suppose technically I was buying it, but shhh - don't be putting facts into this story. It's the intimate knowledge that the guide had of each animal's character and the stories that he whispered in my ear throughout the afternoon that made me forget that the rain was off and on all day and that I was as a consequence soaked to the skin. I didn't care that I was wet, I didn't even care that I hadn't been able to make this trip 3 weeks ago, when it was in the middle of the rutting season when I really wanted to go but due to work commitments couldn't. Ok so it might have been a bit more impressive watching the bravado of the Stags competing for the attention of the hinds in the hope of getting a years worth of sex in the space of a couple of weeks, but then again that might have just reminded me of my own unimpressive sex life and I probably don't need to do that to myself. The knowledge and the passion that the guide had for the work that he did was addictive, the more he told me the more I wanted to know, and the more I knew the more carried away I got.
But even the experts can get it wrong sometimes. All afternoon we had only come across one Stag and he was so far away that I wasn't able to get a decent picture, with the distance being out of reach of the zoom he was so camouflaged with the environment that he just blended into the landscape behind. That should have been my best opportunity to get the stag money shot if we had gotten close enough because after rutting season the Stags and all chance of sex has gone they are no longer interested in hanging around with other deer. So for about, I don't know, maybe about 2 hours we focused our efforts getting close to a group of hinds and young males and for another hour I listened intently as the guide told me, in his in his light-Highland accented whisper, the different characters of each animal when a faint a noise behind made me look round. And there was this impressive looking stag staring back at me.
The first thing I noticed was the antlers and how sharp they looked. The second thing was the distance between us, there was only about 5 metres between me and those antlers. Excitement was soon replaced by a 'what the hell do I do now' moment. For a while man and beast, that's me and big boy with sharp antlers, had a moment where we stared poker-faced at one another not sure which one us was going to move first. At this point I realised that the stag's approach to us must have gone unnoticed by the guide who was at this point lying on the Heather next to me but facing the other direction. I had enough wits about me to realise that I didn't want to spook the Stag by making too much noise. Spooking it could go one of two ways, it could run away or it could see me as a threat and decide to deal with the threat, me, head on. I knew what way I preferred but I wasn't taking any chances. So in an effort to try and get the guide's attention without making too much noise or strange movements I tried to make some obvious, but quiet, guttural noises in my throat. Unfortunately I think at this point my guide must have thought that I was just a typical city person who couldn't stay quiet for more than 3 hours at time without getting restless.
Realising this approach wasn't working, I tried the barely audible whisper
"5 o'clock, Stag, 5 metres ...... if that .... what ... the .... hell ....do ... I ... do???? "
The instant reply came back "Don't stare!"
"Bugger! Too late!"
"Ok keep you eye on him, but tilt your head so you aren't looking straight on."
And just at that moment the Stag scattered. I tried to get a shot off before he disappeared but in all the excitement I'd left the camera running and with the cold and the wet to contend with the batteries didn't have enough juice. I was clumsily fumbling about in my jacket pocket for the spare batteries when the guide pointed out the reasoning for the Stag running away, a Golden Eagle flying high above us. I've never had the pleasure of watching a Golden Eagle in the wild before and in all honesty I didn't really expect to see one yesterday. It was a spectacular sight. However I am just ever so slightly gutted. By the time I got the spare batteries in the camera the right way round both the Stag and the Golden Eagle were out of sight. But damn what a day! Who knew a cold, wet, dreich, wintry day could be so much fun....