The landscape’s burnt orange hues reminded me of either an alpine moose meadow in late September/early October or the rusty appearance of Kodiak Island on a fall bear hunt. The bare, rolling landscape resembled both the Arctic tundra and the badlands of southern Alberta. Yet, no caribou nor mule deer were to be found here; red deer, sheep, and grouse made up the majority of the fauna. Foxes, those grouse eaters, not so much. Though it felt and looked like home, we weren’t in North America. We were on the Suisgill Estate in the Scottish Highlands!
Peeking out of the bedroom window of our quaint and homey cottage, Philipp already spied red deer, everywhere. It was the first morning of our hunt. The previous day had been devoted solely to getting here. Travelling by coach, plane, and train, it was a fourteen hour journey from southern England to north of Inverness. Tiptoeing out of the warm bedroom into the living room, the warmth of the previous night’s fire had long left the building. We prepped our breakfast and sandwiches for a lunch packet while waiting for our 9 am pickup.
Though our guide, Klaus Olofsen, is Danish by birth, he is most definitely Scottish at heart and by accent. First thing’s first, we took a test shot. Above where Klaus was setting up the target, stood a stag, undisturbed by our presence. Only when the test shots rang out did he vacate the area. Klaus’ new, green edition 10×42 Geovids stood out in the front of the Hilux, and became a centrepiece for conversation.
Our first real steps on the moor reminded us why we were told to bring waterproof boots. This landscape is naturally saturated, and water plays a huge role in the ecosystem. River Helmsdale, next to which our cottage was located, is known for its exceptional salmon fishing. The small burns (watercourses) provided excellent cover for us while stalking. The wet moors cloaked in heather are an important grouse habitat.
Due to the high population of red deer, an unreal number of ticks also reside in the area. According to Klaus, the ticks are hosted by red deer and can be transmitted to people, pets, and grouse. Newly hatched grouse chicks barely stand a chance against the little nasties, that latch onto their eyelids and cause the chick to scratch itself bare, concluding in a lethal injury. Gamekeepers are guardians with the responsibility for ensuring optimal wildlife health, and thus red deer culling takes place to reduce numbers.
My first stalk concluded in a 260 metre shot at a hind, that was part of a larger herd with wary eyes. She dropped on the spot, and I had connected with my first Scottish game. Gralloching and photos followed. Later that day we approached an accompanied hind. Favourable terrain allowed us to successfully execute a stalk on all fours, after which I shot my first double. The hind was incredibly old, and had an unusual blonde colour.
On our way back to the larder we spied our first grouse. Its black head and red eyes stuck out of the white blanket of snow, and was easy to spot. Soon after we spotted the hen. Truly the most majestic game birds, it was easy to see why so many are enthralled with their beauty. At the larder the work continued, and we prepped the carcasses for the chiller.
Back at the cottage, we quickly forgot the day’s cold temperatures with the warmth of a wood stove and some Speyside whiskey. One of the many books on the cottage’s windowsill caught my attention; it was of the Scottish clans and their tartans. Having recently watched a television series of Scotland in the 1700s, I was fascinated by all things Scottish. From what little I knew of the historic events that had taken place, it was neat to be on Scottish soil at the epicentre. It was here that the Duke of Sutherland removed his tenants from fertile ground during the Highland Clearances to make a greater profit from sheep farming. Looking at the names of towns and influential people of the area, I recognised several surnames of friends and colleagues, as well as small towns back home in Canada. It seems their ancestry and heritage must have come from Scotland.
We could see another herd in front of us, but we would have to wait out the storm before attempting a stalk. So we reversed the Argocat and watched the windshield wipers throw away the accumulating snowflakes. As soon as the worst had passed, we popped over the hill crest and got into position on a herd of deer also hiding out of the wind. Timing the shot with a break in the gusts, a 200+ metre shot reached the chosen, lone hind.
Taking turns, Philipp was up next. We targeted a tight ravine that we guessed would hold deer escaping the wind. Crawling towards the lip of the ravine, Philipp and Klaus got into position over a hind and calf. Philipp turned back to me and smiled, it was obvious that he had not considered the upcoming recovery. The deer had dropped, but the fun had stopped. I documented the recovery of the two deer, until Klaus yelled up at me and shouted “aren’t you going to help?”
Day three greeted us with more sunshine than the previous day. Though it was still nippy, the blue sky was a welcome treat. Starting to get a hang of the stalking routine, the first herd we approached didn’t even know we were there. Belly crawling through the wet heather, we got to within 140 metres, and two shots at a tougher than expected hind resulted in yet another hunting memory.
Concluding Klaus’ season and fulfilling the management plan were two suiting specimens. The first, an elderly hind whose teeth were either missing or extremely worn. The second was a poorly young stag/calf. As Klaus returned to collect the Argocat, Philipp and I fell into routine gralloching the deer. It felt as though the three of us had done this together for a lot more than three days.
Thanks to the breathtaking landscapes, homey cottage, and friendly faces, we felt right at home in the Highlands.