For the hard-core and uncompromising stalkers willing to travel the extra mile, the county of Sutherland, in the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands, is a must and certainly won’t disappoint. This hidden gem, described as the real jewel in the crown of the Highlands is an escape away from it all to beautiful rolling glens, superb salmon rivers, large open spaces and massive blanket bogs holding substantial carbon deposits.
As a stalker passionate about my sport, I’m always willing to put in the extra effort to experience something truly unique, off-the-beaten-track, with sustainability in mind, so in mid-July this year I set off on a mammoth five-hours journey north, from my home in the Scottish Borders. Two hours into the drive, I was passing through classic red deer country in Perthshire, synonymous with the Highlands, yet had another three hours’ drive ahead of me to reach my destination, Dunrobin estate.
Situated 50 miles north of Inverness and the Black Isle, you know you’ve reached the right place when you have the watchful eyes of the 1st Duke of Sutherland looking down on you from the top of Ben Bhraggie. To your right, peering amongst the trees, the picturesque Dunrobin Castle, the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, which dates to the 1300s, sitting on the edge of the North Sea.
Set in Flow Country, it’s described as one of the world’s last wild places, a vast expanse of 400,000 hectares of blanket bog, forming a mottled pattern of peat and pools, where you’ll find amazing plants, rare birds and be inspired by the peace and space.
Arriving at my destination, I was welcomed by Robbie Rowantree, land manager and headstalker on Gordonbush and hunting guide on the neighbouring estates of Dunrobin, Dalreavoch and Ben Armine, partners of West Highland Hunting. Robbie a highly-experienced guide and secretary of the East Sutherland Deer Management Group, is very passionate about deer management and has worked on the estates for the past 29 years. Joined by Megan Rowland, assistant land manager and keen deer stalker, together they’re responsible for the habitat management and deer population across the estate.
Robbie and Megan are heavily involved in biodiversity work on the estate, they explained that managing deer numbers is only one part of an intricate plan, made up by a mixture of art and science. They currently follow the best practice guides and work hand-in-hand with Scottish Natural Heritage, a government-funded body which looks after Scotland’s nature and landscapes. Following set practices, Robbie and Megan use GPS to locate sites across their estates, which they examine for trampling, browsing, exposed peat and erosion. Land managers and stalkers carrying out these checks means we can effectively manage and monitor impacts for the future to protect our environment.
After introductions, we set off to check the zero of my rifle on Gordonbush. Owned by the Tyser family, they bought the land from Sutherland estates in 1921 and at that time employed 66 members of staff. Certainly to own such a highland sporting estate like this would have required deep pockets.
In the early Victorian and Edwardian times, estates like these in Scotland were purchased for recreation purposes, as a place to bring your friends and family for hunting and fishing and often cost more money to run than they made. In their heyday, Sutherland estates would have had around 60,000 employees on their books, all run by a quill pen, they brought a lot of jobs and investment to these remote places.
In 1979 to generate income, the Tyser family started letting the sport on Gordonbush. Nowadays there are up to four stalkers working on the estate and fishing ghillies are brought in when required.
Driving into the estate we passed over the Brora, a river Robbie described as one of the best for salmon fishing in Scotland. It’s said when conditions are good there’s some serious fun to be had – especially in the spring. Their best week last year produced 70 salmon to six rods.
Along the way we spotted a lot of deer. The four estates are part of the East Sutherland Deer Management group, a collective of local estates in east Sutherland. In the 250,000 hectares, there is said to be around 15,000 deer, which equates to approximately 14/15 deer per square kilometre. Over the next few years for sustainability, the stag cull on the estates will need to be approximately 200-300, with hope in the future that this figure will drop to 140 stags per year.
When managing deer it’s important to look at habitat and assess the levels of damage and impacts to see whether or not it’s sustainable. As we were driving, Robbie singled out one particular deer. Visibly you could see it wasn’t in great shape, quite lean, old and with a poor coat. He described how it’s important to remove deer like these to build a strong herd for the future.
Exploring further into the estate we passed Struan Lodge on the northern shore of Loch Brora, a luxury eight-bedroom fishing lodge with impressive eco credentials. It was built using locally sourced timbers and features geo-thermal heating and solar panels. On the loch we spied a rare black throated diver.
In the distance we could see two wind farms. Robbie described how, in all the time he’s worked on the estate, their biggest development has been their drive towards renewables and better impact management. For instance, the two windfarms funded projects to remove non-native timber plantations and re-plant native Scots pine and birch.
Following the river, we soon arrived at Dalreavoch lodge, a late-Victorian sporting lodge and old haunt of Dukes and Earls, set in forested hillside. The lodge accommodates twelve guests and is a very popular stay for guests trying to bag a Macnab. Roughly twelve parties come annually to this lodge on the Macnab quest. A fascinating read within the lodge is an old game book dating back to 1922, which originally cost just £12.
We stopped to zero the rifle in the heart of Gordonbush estate. In the distance we could see the evening light bouncing off Ben Armine lodge, set on heather-clad hills. The walls of the sitting room in Ben Armine are covered with historical graffiti, recording triumphs with rod and gun, where prominent historical characters such as Churchill and Wellington stayed. Using my Rigby Highland Stalker rifle, it was commented that this would be the first time a Rigby returned to the estate for almost 100 years.
After three shots lying on the heather, a puff of smoke indicated that my .308 Rigby Highland Stalker, topped with Leica Magnus 1.5-10×42 riflescope, was indeed zeroed, striking a rock at 200 yards and settling any pre-hunt nerves.
Ahead of the morning’s stalk, Robbie explained that fieldcraft is extremely important for hunting in Sutherland, where there’s not always a lot of cover. A good standard of fitness is required but as always, your guide will assess fitness and experience prior to the stalk.
I woke the following morning to the dawn chorus at 4:15 am. Driving into Golspie Glen on Dunrobin we spotted all three deer species residing on the estate – red, roe and the elusive sika. After a wind check and glass of the hillside using my new Leica Geovid 10×42 HD-B 2017 edition binoculars, we planned our stalk and just before we set off I loaded some .308 Hornady American Whitetail 150-grain cartridges under the bolt, indicating I was ready to go.
We spotted a group of stags grazing on the other side of the glen, basking in the morning sunshine. Stalking down a line of trees, we followed tracks to an exposed heather hillside. To obscure our position, we dropped to our hands and knees and sneaked to a vantage point before commando crawling the final few yards, from where we would take our shot. I was very glad I was wearing my Swazi Tahr XP anorak. It kept me warm and dry and didn’t make a sound as I crawled across the heather.
Following close behind Robbie, I used his outline to conceal mine. Robbie slowly moved the rifle and slipped into a rest. Once in position, I was signalled to move forward, slowing creeping up to the rifle, eyes already fixed firmly on the target. My heart was beating fast and I could see three stags in front of me, downhill at 200 yards. Calmly, Robbie whispered instructions, his dulcet tones helped settle my nerves. With my eyes fixed firmly on the scope and Robbie eagerly watching through his binoculars, the stag turned and presented itself. I lined up my crosshairs and took the shot, reloading and ready to take another if required.
Shortly after hearing the shot, Megan, who was waiting patiently, joined us for the retrieve. The stag had a switch head and was perfect for the cull plan, ahead of the rut. Together Megan and I dragged the stag to a point where it could be collected and readied for the larder. On average, the stags on the estate weigh 15/16 (210 to 224 pounds) stone, much more than the Scottish average of 13(182 pounds).
I felt a sheer sense of pride in bringing the Rigby Highland Stalker back to its birthplace in the Highlands and using it for the purpose it is designed for. I had a lot of respect for the beast we removed to meet the estate’s habitat management plan, which I knew would provide some excellent venison.–Liz Brodie