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Therein lies the overarching question: what does society want our landscape to look like? We seem to be moving toward a future where, in the name of “rewilding,” people are disassociating with the land.
Byron Pace & Tyler Sharp
The conversation of the clients — sitting about a hundred meters behind me — drifts on the swirling wind and annoys me slightly. Seven hundred meters below, the stags I have been looking for quietly rest in the morning dew. The short distance between the clients and myself is the difference between discomfort and jovial conversation.
With Jack, my ghillie (the gaelic word for boy, which is used for any apprentice deerstalker) next to me, we lie on our bellies, craning our necks over the skyline to keep ourselves hidden from the deer while casting a critical eye over them. These moments are crucial for Jack’s training. Teaching apprentice stalkers how to age and assess animals on the hoof is incredibly important for highland deer management. We discuss the possible routes of approach, the fitness of the clients and their ability to follow instructions.
The telescope I peer through was made by Ross of London in the early 20th century for an estate owner’s son from the west coast of Scotland. He carried it on the hill, spying stags as I do now, and later during his service with the First Life Guard Regiment in World War I. It returned home and was carried by two generations of his family’s gamekeepers before being passed down to me. One hundred and twenty years later, the quality of its hand-polished glass still shows the details of the stags grazing nearly a kilometer away. The angle of their hips and backs, the details of their faces, the indicators of age and condition are all acutely visible.
There are nine stags in the group — the same nine animals I spied three and a half hours before as we left the pickup truck down on the valley bottom. We have stalked them all morning, taking a classic long swing to make sure we have a good approach with the prevailing wind direction. It’s a stalk that’s been repeated a few thousand times in the last 200 years.
The estate where I work has been a deer forest for about that long. There aren’t proper records of when people started to use it primarily as a stalking ground, but it was somewhere around the late 19th century, after the highlands had been cleared once for sheep and later for deer. The professional deerstalker emerged soon after, and in many ways, little has changed since. Even our tweed suits — issued as a sort of dress uniform by the estate one works for — carry
the same historic woven pattern they always have to act as the perfect camouflage for the particular flora of that piece of ground. The idea of picking animals to cull based on improving the herd and conserving the best genetics is still at the heart of our practice. Estates today, as then, exist on the backs of owners who have an interest, not in profit, but in preserving a lifestyle they value.
However, the modern Highland deerstalker would scarcely be recognised by their predecessors. As the deer forests have changed, so too has the job. In our era, we are more than a caretaker for a stock of huntable wildlife.
For the gentlemen out with me on this day, they expect much the same experience as they did a hundred years ago. A day’s stalking for a guest is a mixture of exercise, excitement and learning. Often, “the hill” is a new or rarely visited environment for them, one where they have planned to visit for many years but may only see once.
We are faced with new challenges throughout the stalking season. The ever-increasing government regulations in deer management, combined with a desire to better understand our ruminant populations, has translated into an average of 35 days per year monitoring the ecosystem impacts of herbivores. We count the deer on high hills with telescopes as well as with helicopters and thermal imagery. All of this data, gathered by stalkers and ecologists all over Scotland, is fed into “Deer Management Groups” — collectives of neighbouring estates that share transient red deer population data.
At this collaborative level, which often represents hundreds of thousands of acres, we discuss herd management practices, target populations and cull figures.
This system is broadly successful in managing healthy ecosystems by bridging the gap between on-the-ground workers and government officials from NatureScot, the organisation responsible for managing Scotland’s natural heritage. While terms like “collaborative working” are fairly recent, the idea of deer management groups dates back to the 1950s. Perhaps the long history of collaborative groups is a clue to the importance of working together in deer management.
In 2013, Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) commissioned a pilot study on public perceptions of wild deer management. They found that an average of 51% of people thought deer were important in some way, and 42% thought deer stalking was important. In the nine years since the study, it’s curious to consider if the outlook of the average person in Glasgow or Edinburgh has changed.
Many people recreating in the hills north of Inverness are increasingly aware of an apparent “overpopulation” of highland deer. Often, these opinions are closely followed by an almost fanatical reiterance of how wolf reintroduction would provide an answer. This idea, that deer are a habitat-destroying menace of the highlands, has been promoted in the media.
In my career, I have never known a Scottish government without a strong anti-deer agenda. My old mentor and Head Stalker recounts how a BBC film titled Deer, the Plague of the Glen, released in the late 1970s, fueled the Nature Conservancy Council and Red Deer Commission’s stance at a time when science in our sector was very much in its infancy. He credited this as the turning point of the public’s perception of deer in modern times.
Conservation researcher Frank Fraser-Darling has had lasting impacts on environmental management across the world. His career in research and wildlife started in Carnmore in the Fisherfield Wilderness of the Highlands with a study that led to publishing “A Herd of Red Deer” in 1937. He insisted that the impact of human intervention on the natural environment was so vast that areas must be returned to wilderness — something he later advocated for again during his work in North America and Africa. Without this, the health of our planet was at stake, he proclaimed, and along with it, our own species’ survival. However, key phrases from that book, including calling the Highlands “a devastated landscape” and “a wet desert,” have become fodder when laying blame for this environmental damage at the feet of the native deer populations.
But for some, the root of these environmental problems is instead a function of our sheep farming legacy. Estimates of the deer population in Scotland, which are often contested by ecologists and data scientists, put their number between 600,000 and one million
— the vast majority of which are in private forests and on farmland. By contrast, there are 6.73 million sheep in Scotland. On the hills I am employed to ward, we are still recovering from a sheep flock removed nearly 30 years ago. The damage done by their concentrated grazing is disappearing, and the vegetation is returning as a healthy mixed mosaic. We continue to have a healthy population of red deer.
The last decade has seen the ownership of land change dramatically in Scotland. Not with land reform to community-owned estates, but instead as a result of a huge inflation in land prices, especially for agriculturally poor, sporting-rich estates. This new wave of owners — branded the “green lairds” by the media — are buying estates for the first time based on the amount of carbon that can be sequestered in the peatlands or in future afforestation with native woodlands, rather than as previous landowners did based on the numbers of salmon caught, grouse shot or stags stalked. Neither of these in themselves are drastic issues, but what comes with land inflation and green lairds is the slow erosion of the fabric of highland estate life — which represents not only a cultural shift, but also a fundamental rewriting of our ecosystem and land management. Therein lies the overarching question: what does society want our landscape to look like? We seem to be moving toward a future where, in the name of “rewilding,” people are disassociating with the land.
The deer are, once again, painted as a plague. Their travel and eating habits are labeled responsible for denuding blanket bog of its plant coverage, thus releasing precious and valuable carbon into the atmosphere. Indeed, one environmental organization published a paper stating how many more road miles the Scottish public could drive per year if deer culls were heavier, due to the reduced amount of methane emitted by our largest wild land mammal.
The oil companies, pension funds, brewers and other mercenary businesses jumping on the craze of compensating for environmental damage through land ownership seem to care little for the people in this landscape. The meanings of place names, the niche understanding of weather patterns specific to a certain glen or corrie,
the importance of a certain stone to local folklore — all of these are lost when the people are removed. When the stories of the land are not told, they will be soon forgotten; what is the majesty and magic of the Scottish Highlands if it isn’t this?
The group of nine stags grazing below me and my companions on the bluff know none of this. As I lead my party of visiting sportsmen across the hills, I am sad knowing I may be one of the last people lucky enough to do this for a living. If the laird here were to sell, or his children decide to change the direction of their estate management, the corrie where the stags shelter may likely be planted with native woodland. It would presumably be planned in a way to give the impression that it was planted by forces greater than a government-grant-funded scheme by casual laborers with spades.
There would probably be alder trees in the wetter areas, birch and rowan dotted among Scots pine, and perhaps even some oaks on the drier south-facing slopes. Perhaps they would erect a deer fence around the forest. The heather, no longer grazed by the deer or conserved by prescribed muir burn, would grow woody and rank, providing plenty of cover for grouse but little of the sweet green growth they thrive on.
Over time, as the trees and heather grow, so too would the risk of wildfire. In this escalating tinder box, a carelessly tossed cigarette or an excited hiker’s camp stove has the potential to unleash terror. It would not be the first time. In April of 2019, I fought a 20-square-mile wildfire in Moray — the largest wildfire in Scottish recorded history. Thirty gamekeepers, all with our own specialist firefighting equipment and all-terrain vehicles, were the first line of defence. While we battled the blaze, the local fire brigade kept our water tanks full and brought us sandwiches and drinks, as they were not allowed to leave the safety of the tarmac road unless homes or human life were endangered.
The stags are on their feet now, grazing into the wind, as my client and I crawl through a seam of dead ground in an otherwise open, heathery face. How much easier our approach would be with some of those trees. The oldest stag in the group is over 10 years old, his
hair light in color and curling with age. His coat has none of the dark color of health and thickness that tells me it will bear the hard weather in the coming months. His back stoops like an old man, and as he walks, his neck never raises higher than the line of his back. All of these characteristics are measured against his eight friends, all much younger than him and a couple with similar characteristics — good stags I am proud to have on my hill and show to clients as breeding stock. Despite his age and condition, the wonderful quote by A. A. Gill, the famed restaurant critic and lesser-known hunter, still rings true;
“… He moves with the sure-footed lightness of a boxer and the stateliness of a king. He carries, cupped in his bony head, the weight of his artistic, mythological, poetic and heraldic heredity with an elegant, imperious assumption…”
The rifle loads silently, half in and half out of the worn canvas slip. I explain in a hushed voice which stag we will shoot. The muffled crack and the thud of a taut drum skin breaks the peace of the hill. The old warrior, this Highland king, lurches forward his last few paces and stops, a long second or two passes, and he falls silently. The mechanical coldness of the bolt action breaks the moment, and I tell the gentleman to keep the rifle on him in case he decides he isn’t as dead as he appears.
The younger stags, confused and lost-looking, half run, half walk their way out of the corrie, probably wondering whose wisdom they will look to now. The poetry is gone for me, but the client will have a moment with his stag before the gralloch.
I am thinking of a safe route for the pony to get to our carcass. Will the ghillie take his time and avoid the wet spots, or should I radio him to mention it? My moment with the stag was before the shot, when I chose him as the beast to kill today. Now that he’s dead, he’s a logistical challenge that needs to be bled and processed.
With the changes afoot in our small world of deer stalking, I am given solace by the knowledge that the deer will always win. The rewilding crusaders’ scrub woodland is a perfect habitat for a hidden deer population, and if I have learned nothing else in my career, it is that nature abhors emptiness, so the deer will eventually thrive again.
Fire & Fear on the Middle Fork
Hope Dies Last