Hind Stalking in the depths of Winter
By Lt N Bacon - A 'Friend in the Field'
“Still not sure what to wear to the living room, might not even go” among many others was one of the mildly amusing New Year’s Eve memes that found its way to me this year, it certainly was a New Year like none other and for all the wrong reasons. Normally I am extremely fortunate to have the privilege of spending Hogmanay in Perthshire. The Scots, some of you may be surprised to hear, are really rather festive and practiced at having a jolly good time however as a sportsman the real treat is being able to spend the last day of the year, if I’m lucky, in the field engulfed in the enchanting Trossachs and there is no better place for it.
Last year consisted of what turned out to be a viciously contested fishing match with my stepbrother to see who could plunder more wily Browns from the loch. If my powers of persuasion are strong enough though, or the family festivities have pushed him close enough to breaking point, I might just tempt the Stalker out on to the hill for a few precious hours before ringing in the New Year.
With fevered excitement the Gaitor delivers us to the bottom of the hill, towering imposingly above us, judging us, daring us to scale its bracken rusted banks and tumbling scree slopes, enticing us to discover the secrets concealed beneath the blanket of mist that lingers in the folds and burns which define its haggard face. Though the hill draws us in, daring us to rush its battlements eager to find our quarry, we know that patience is essential at this point in the day for the hill will defeat us if we do not make our study of it before beginning our assault. So, we glass. I love that word, “glass”, it incites a feeling of anticipation that sense of protracted excitement and expectation as you scrutinise every depression, every twisted tree stump, interrogating it until the twitch of an ear or the flicker of a tail catches your breath as it escapes from cold frosty lips, the expectation dissipating, a bubbling surge of adrenaline rushing to replace it. The game is afoot.
A good stalker will keep his nerve a little while longer at this point searching the remainder of the hill, considering the wind, the routes and searching for anything which will either aid his stalk or make pursuing this particular beast foolhardy. All being well he will now formulate his plan off attack which direction he will approach his quarry from, and which route he will use to get there. with these issues satisfied we can finally feed the hunger that has been building and begin our assault. At first however we must climb away from our quarry. Too much open ground sits between us and the small heard of Red hinds we have picked out and the stalker knows that the wind often gusts in the bowl that lies between us and them. We must start by defeating the hill, climbing up and over it, proving ourselves worthy of our quarry and gaining a more favourable angle of approach.
Our climb commences in earnest, just as a young boy climbs the stairs two steps at a time, my legs are full of energy and arrogance willing anything to apprehend their ascent and yet within the hour the hill will have knocked the pride from them, and I will be grateful for the stops we must make to glass and ensure that our route is clear. The mist that listed in the tops as we set off dropped now like a heavy quilt over the hill and our vision is limited. Up ahead we hear wings beating as a grouse or perhaps a pair take flight, otherwise the only sounds are gentle footsteps in the peat and the snagging of bracken on breeks. As we move through the fog the features of the hill emerging from it appear to move towards us rather than us toward them, all our senses are heightened, every movement is calculated.
The preliminary act complete we are finally in place to begin approaching our quarry. The fog and our route mean that we have lost contact with the heard for some time and as we descend from the tops out of the leaden smog, I am relieved to pick up the heard where we left them a few hundred meters traverse along the steep slope. We pick a deer track and using the hill’s undulations make our way cautiously toward our quarry. The hinds up ahead lie in the heather, intermittently standing to re-adjust their position or twisting their heads to relieve the niggle of a fly’s unwelcome irritation. They are aware of us, as all prey are constantly awake to their surroundings, their ears erect hunting for every sound, their wet noses exploring the freezing breeze for the tell-tale hint of danger and yet they are blind to our presence edging toward them. We are entirely absorbed in the moment, the realm of nature, playing our role as the predator in the everlasting theatre of hunter and hunted, removed entirely from the turbulent forays of the outside world.
I crawl up on to the mossy knoll rifle in hand my vision tunnelled into a shaft of concentration inspecting every movement of the animals eighty meters to my front for any hint that I’ve been spotted. Pausing a moment whilst a hind casts her gaze in my direction, I bring the rifle up to the shoulder and adjust my position until comfortable. This last movement has caught the attention of one of the closer animals who stands levelling her gaze at me and arousing suspicion in the others. The clock ticks, time slows, I block out the freezing wet ground inching through my breeks concentrating entirely on the animal in my sights and deafened by the crushing silence of focus. She twitches an ear and looks back momentarily, any moment now she will snort, turn and carry the entire heard around the hill in a scurry of staccato bounds.
My finger closes on the frosty trigger squeezing gently until I feel the pressure break and the silence is shattered, ripped asunder by crack and kick.
The heard scatter bouncing and fading one at a time into the fog. As quick as it dissipated the silence percolates back onto the hill, the haze of adrenaline and cordite clearing to reveal once again an inescapable quiet of uncertainty.
We approach the spot where the hind was stood, the stalker reassuring me that he saw her drop on the spot, I, my memory blotted by adrenaline, unsure. We reach the spot and find some blood, aerated and pale indicative of a good long shot. The hind lies only ten meters ahead rolled into a small burn, the mountain water washing blood from the wound in a simultaneously morose and fitting trickle back into the hill.
Once the gralloch is complete we descend, hind in tow, each step taking us further from the bewitching, captivating demesne of the hill and bearing us back into inconsequential reality. The spectacle of New Year seems trivial against the backdrop of the sport we’ve enjoyed, the natural world is so entirely removed from the hedonistic, frantic culture of our day-to-day life, only those lucky enough to be submerged in it will understand its insatiable allure.