Deer Stalking at Mar Lodge
- Thursday, 15 October 2015
In the first of several trips to the highlands the Capreolus Club visits the much discussed Mar Lodge in search of Red Stag. Alistair Stobie takes up the story.
The Mar Estate, situated in the middle of the Cairngorms, Scotland’s most brutal, if not highest, mountain range. The “second” beat continues out to the Larrig Ghru, a properly remote mountain pass. The Estate sits on the Spey-side (think whisky) of the Cairngorms, but its neighbour to the west continues all the way across to the A9 at Blair Atholl – the Perth – Inverness speed trap masquerading as a road. The distances are vast, the hills all go up and if the rain is not falling horizontally, it is about to and what has already fallen is waiting in the spaghnum moss to catch the unwary (and those crawling). This was the destination of the Capreolus Club’s September trip to God’s own country to stalk the iconic Red Stag.
James Mott of the Club, Reg and I assembled in the Public Bar of the Braemar Lodge for a sandwich and tipple of choice (Speyside whisky naturally) late on a Wednesday evening, having braved average speed checks and British Airways to get there. After a bout of stories of wondering around flat southern English fields in search of Fallow and Roe, we retired to bed in preparation for the hills.
The following morning after a hearty breakfast, porridge for me harking back to my mountaineering days, we found the Gun Room in the old stable block of Mar Lodge where we met Chris, the head-stalker and two Cumbrian alumni of Newton Rigg College, James and Dan. After the obligatory demonstration of rifle competence we headed off to the hill; James with Chris, Reg with James and Dan and I. At the risk of starting a calibre debate: I was pleased that Dan’s standard issue Tikka T3 was in .270 and not the .243 that James was carrying. Surely 90kg beasts at 200m in strong winds calls for a heavier round with a flat trajectory?
Spying from a Landrover, we travelled ten miles down the track spying a few hinds and “white horns” (younger stags). Thankfully, above us and a couple of kilometres away (if you were a crow), wisely sheltering from an increasingly strong highland zephyr was a mixed herd of stags and hinds, including a couple of shootable beasts. A burn provided cover a 1/3rd of the way in and peat hags gave some cover until we could get into dead ground. The problem was that the wind was blowing over and round each shoulder of the hill effectively blowing our scent on to the herd if we tried to get in above them. The sign that read; “about to rain”, changed to “raining hard and horizontally”. We finally peered over the small ridge to where the herd should have been, to see… nothing. Convinced, after a short conversation with the Lakham (Hampshire)-trained ghillie waiting below, that the herd had moved round closer to the dead ground we had just vacated. In a manoeuvre worthy of the Grand Old Duke of York, we re-circled the hill. Carefully cresting each mini-rise and picking our way carefully through the limited cover, we completed our re-circlement. Nothing. A terse conversation followed from Stalker on the hill to Ghillie in the Landrover.
After a piece, we began that painful post-lunch walk deeper in to Dan’s beat – a straight line would have taken us to Blair Atholl. A short-ish stroll upwards put us in to a position to spy on the herd we had presumably pushed off the previous hill. Another riverbed traverse (over the top of the boot a couple of times) brought us out down-wind of a large group of hinds. It was now 16.30 and it was clear that the evening was closing in. Unfortunately, no big stags could be seen but there was a one-horner to be culled out of the herd. A 50m rapid crawl through spaghnum moss put me into a good shooting position. Waiting for separation from some hinds we lay in a stream of our own making. Then the rain arrived and the stag lay down, invisible in the premature darkness. Twenty minutes later the rain relented, the sun came out and with a safe shot he was dropped with a heart-lung shot at 85m. It was 17.15. An Argocat and Landrover extraction had us back in the gunroom by 19.30. Long day.
James had seen all the deer and had managed to drop one on a long shot with a .243 in the wind – so what do I know about calibres! He had also managed to climb a Munro, twice. Reg had been beaten by a capricious wind in the lowland (sic) forestry blocks.
An excellent dinner, bed and repeat breakfast had us back out on the hill by 09.30 the following morning. Chris took Reg under his wing (a terrible illusion), James joined Dan and I was paired with James. At 09.45 we saw a group of stags in a break in the forestry blocks. No need to walk upwards if the stags are at the bottom of the hill. Making our way rapidly up the side of the forestry block with the wind in our faces we were about 10m from the top when the wind swirled through 360 degrees and our stags were off. A short bark stopped the youngsters but the big beasts knew the score and kept going.
(Above: The famous Mar Lodge Trophy room)
As penance, we walked uphill for 90 minutes surrounded by fresh sign but no sightings. Once we reached the point of no-Argocat return, we turned round and had our piece in the comfort of the Landrover. Whilst James and Reg were enjoying their day in the sun on a couple of occasions we had stopped and turned our faces from the rain and wind.
The deer were as obviously annoyed by the rain as we were, and tucked themselves in to the cover around the forestry blocks. We were foiled twice more by the wind back-eddying through the blocks. At one point I had the cross hairs on a magnificent stag but with no separation from his hinds there was no safe shot.
And so having circumnavigated the final block we headed down through the woods. At some point we both became aware of animals moving around us, finally a brief sighting and then they turned and moved unperturbed towards the clear cut. Moving quickly to cut them off a Roe doe, who clearly knew what season it was, stepped out of the woods and surveyed all around her. Knowing that spooking her would end our stalk, we made our way back in to the deep woods. Finally, 50m to our front was an 11 point stag. Using an ubiquitous tree as an aid he finally peered hard enough in our direction and a neck shot dropped him on the spot, thankfully. it took the two of us to drag the gralloched animal 300m to the edge of the woods and away from the ******* midgies. I needed the rest in the sun as the Argocat was fetched.
Reg had also shot an 11 pointer and James had yet again clocked up the most miles for a blank. A dram or two and a viewing of the slightly macabre 2,400 head Mar Lodge ballroom (don’t go for the long cut) we headed back to the Braemar Lodge for an outstanding Grouse Pudding risotto, a goodly amount of wine and a goodnight dram.
The hills had been kind to us, Chris, James and Dan had been excellent company and we all came away having shot a good beast. The Braemar Lodge looked after us well. I suspect that I will be back.
Clothing: I wore: High boots and gaiters, Nomad UK waterproof breeks, a base layer to wick away the sweat, a shirt and Paramo waterproof smock and carried a small day sack. I could have done with another layer in my sack for when we were sitting around waiting to be extracted.
For more information about joining the Capreolus Club follow this link: capreolus-club
For more information about Stalking in Scotland click here: outings-scotland