‘A day I will always remember’ - Veterinary Practice
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‘A day I will always remember’

ANDREW COE spent an enjoyable day in the countryside and ponders on the rights and wrongs

I WAS tempted to write about shooting by one of Louis Theroux’s documentaries on the TV the other night. He went to film big game shooting on game farms in South Africa and gave a very balanced view of the “industry”. It raised a number of questions as to the rights and wrongs of the practice.

In the first of a two part series I thought I would tell you about an experience of mine nearly a couple of years ago. In some ways it couldn’t be more different to what went on in Mr Theroux’s programme; in others it couldn’t be more similar.

Stalking stags

Back in 2006 when I hit 50, a friend who is also a vet gave me a very special birthday present. In the first week of September he took me up to the Scottish Highlands, somewhere 50 miles or so to the west of Inverness, for a day stalking the stags. It’s a day I will always remember.

I’d done a fair bit of roe deer stalking with my friend in the Scottish Borders. He did the shooting and I did the observing and that suited me just fine. He was brought up on an estate in the Highlands and deer stalking was in his blood.

He’s a great stalker, a good shot, and he can make you think you’re going to see something even if the weather is completely against you.

The morning of the great day arrived, and after a full Scottish breakfast, mainly designed to soak up the last drops of the amber liquid consumed to excess the night before, we set off for a look at the hill we were to stalk.

There was a thin drizzle falling, a low cloud that threatened to engulf any land more than a few feet above the road and it did not look promising. We pulled off the road and my friend had a “spy” of the hill with a small telescope. He picked out a group of five or six stags at a distance that looked to be about a mile away.

“Right Andy,” he said, “we need to head back down the road and then make our way up that gully.” He pointed. “That way we can keep below the skyline and the wind will take our scent away from them.”

So far so good. We spent the next two hours creeping with knees sorely bent, disturbing early on a group of hinds that ran off in the direction of the stags we were stalking.

“That’s not good,” said my friend.

When we reached the brow of the hill we were able to spy over into the next valley and to our delight saw another group of some 30 stags grazing happily, probably about a mile away again. Back to square one, but the wind was right and the contours of the land would give us good cover.

We set off again and at least it had stopped raining. Eventually we came to a point where we could see the stags about 600 yards away to our right. There was some good cover leading up to them in the form of small undulations and hillocks but to get to that cover we had to cross about 150 yards of open ground where we would be in full view.

There was only one thing for it. We would have to crawl, on our bellies, the whole 150 yards through a soaking wet peat bog.

About halfway across I was beginning to regret finishing that last large whisky of the night. My head was pounding, my neck was killing me and I was all for standing up and to hell with it. But my friend was steadfast and I had to follow his lead.

When we eventually reached the cover of the hillocks we lay on our backs to catch our breath and whispered excitedly. We had done the hard yards and were soaking wet.

A few minutes’ rest and we were on our way, now walking stooped, in silence, peering carefully round each corner of land, catching the occasional glimpse of the stags who had now settled down on their briskets to chew their cud. Perhaps, perhaps, I thought, my friend was going to get a shot.

Eventually we crawled up a slope and, keeping our heads against the earth and easing them over the brow, we caught our breath: 120 yards away the whole group was resting peacefully.

My friend took his rifle from its cover and slowly and quietly fed the bullets one by one into the magazine. He took out some binoculars and scanned around the group.

Pitting his wits

My friend isn’t interested in trophies. He stalks for the enjoyment of being out in the fresh air and for pitting his wits against the animals. He also sees stalking as an important management tool.

The stag he selected was a large beast with a particularly poor set of antlers. “That’s the one I’m planning to shoot,” he said. “We just have to wait for them to get up now.”

We waited in near silence for about 20 minutes, watching the stags dozing and flicking their ears. I felt a mixture of peaceful bliss and excited anticipation. And then, slowly, slowly, one by one the stags began to rise, graze a few mouthfuls of grass and then amble away. Our quarry stayed stubbornly lying down as though he knew by doing so he was safe.

My friend took up his position for a shot. We waited, and we waited and I thought it was all going to go wrong as the grazing stags moved closer and closer to the brow of a hill.

When he finally stood he was huge. He faced us and my friend lay still and I thought he had sensed our presence and I could imagine him turning tail and sprinting away and leaving us with nothing after all our hours of hard work.

And then; then he turned side on and my friend stopped breathing and there was a huge crack and the stag stood stock still for perhaps 10 seconds and then he fell and all the others ran over the hill and our three hours or so of stalking and waiting was over in a split second.

Was it cruel? I don’t think so but know others will think it was. The stag had the life that nature intended for it and it had a quick and unexpected end. Plus, we worked hard to get in a position for a shot with the risk of detection at any stage and no guarantee of success.

Third heaviest

We gralloched our stag on the hill, rich pickings for the foxes and buzzards, and then the argocat arrived to take the carcase back to the larder where we weighed it and found it to be the third heaviest stag recorded from that estate.

Celebrations all round. The meat would be sold as venison and the income from that, along with the stalking fee, would help ensure the survival of the estate and indeed the whole way of life in the Highlands.

Did I enjoy my day? Very much so. Do I ever want to shoot a stag? Not at all, as I am quite happy to leave it to someone who is a “professional”. Would I like to go stalking again? Quite simply … yes.

Next month I’ll contrast this with game farm shooting in South Africa.

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