Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stalking a red stag

I’ve always wanted to experience the red stag rut in the wilds of Scotland, when male ‘stags’ compete for supremacy over the female ‘hinds.’ But I’ve never had the chance as it coincides with when I am busy painting originals for my Christmas exhibition.

I have seen red deer rutting in parks like Studley Royal, Bushey Park and Richmond Park. And while this can be quite spectacular, it doesn’t feel authentic. Then a customer in the gallery invited me to stay with him on an estate on the Glen Coe Range, owned by the family of the late James Bond author, Ian Fleming. This was a great opportunity to stalk deer with my camera. It is a very special area as much of the land in this region is completely wild, as there is no farming.

I headed north with fellow wildlife enthusiast, Jack Ashton-Booth, who helped me carry all my heavy camera gear up mountainsides and track the deer. We turned onto a single track road to Glen Etive. I could hear a stag roaring out of sight. We were surrounded by impressive Munro-s, the Scottish name for a mountain above 1,000m. That evening at the lodge the enormity of this challenge hit home! It had been such a mild autumn that most of the deer were still high up in the mountains and the rut was two weeks behind.

Early the next morning we spotted three stags high up on the hillside. We planned our approach, using the forest as cover. Between us we were carrying 34kg of camera gear which is quite some weight when you are climbing. We had to walk over cleared fell forest, stepping over spiky deep brash piles and cross a mountain stream to gain height.

We reached the edge of the trees only to be greeted by an old rickety deer fence. We couldn’t climb over it so we followed some deer tracks which led us up the hill and through a hole in the fence. Next we had to walk through dense bracken that was over six feet high. We used bracken and boulders as cover to gradually get closer to the stag. Once in range, I set up my camera and tripod and started to get some shots. But it was warm and sunny and the heat haze stopped my camera from focussing. The stag spotted my lens and started coming towards us, scenting the air to work out what we were.

The light was all wrong; I needed to be photographing the stag from the other side. So I set off again with the aim of looping around the stag unseen and hiding behind a large boulder which I had spotted. It took me two hours to do it! I headed up the mountain through bracken and into a line of silver birch. It was hard going as fallen trees and boulders were hidden beneath bracken. I fell several times, but eventually I was high up above the stag. Luckily, it hadn’t moved far.

I slid down a gully made by a mountain stream on my backside and made my final approach on my hands and knees. I peered round the boulder to see he was just 50 yards away. After all of this, I didn’t want to disturb him so was selective with the photographs I took. He sensed something wasn’t quite right and walked towards me with his head held high, scenting the air. I was getting fantastic head shots but it was quite intimidating to have him standing just 30 yards away. Finally, he settled down and I spent the next six hours photographing him.

By 7am the following day we had spotted him again. He had been wallowing in a bog overnight so he looked quite different with his fur shaggy and wet. You can identify stags by the shape of their antlers which have a varying number of points. This one had 10 points. He was so handsome, we nicknamed him George Clooney. He was lower down the mountain which was good, but there was a younger stag with him. He was much more flighty and headed up the mountain snorting in alarm as we approached, driving Clooney in front of him – and away from us.

I tried to get above the stags, using a stream gully as cover, but they were faster than me and gave us the slip. We looked for him for a further seven long hours, climbing up ever higher in the mountains but without success. We decided to call it a day by 5pm as we were worn out and hungry. But just as my vehicle came into view I spotted Clooney on the hill behind us. So we headed back to stalk him again. As we got closer he tussled with some grass, tossing a large clump into the air. Then he set back off down the mountain roaring before disappearing into the forest.

The following morning, we decided to look for a stag on lower ground, as we were ‘knackered.’ We spotted one roaming the valley bottom roaring. It was on the opposite side of a wide fast-flowing river. As I looked for somewhere to cross, I spotted another stag nearby. I couldn’t believe it: it was Clooney. I crossed the river and followed him upstream using the bank as cover.

I popped my head up over the bank: he was 150 yards away. To get closer I crawled over gravel and gorse on my belly. My camera got caught and the sound made Clooney put his head up and walk towards me snorting. I laid flat on the ground until he lost interest and then slowly crept forward again, using a small gully as cover. He spotted me just as I was getting my camera ready, but this time he looked straight at me with a look that said, ‘Oh it’s you again!’

By 9.30am I had spent two hours edging closer to him and he was just 50 yards away. He accepted my presence so I signalled Jack to join me. We spent the most amazing day following Clooney for about 11 hours like deer whisperers. We walked with him as if we were part of his herd. When he lay down for a rest, we did the same. He knew we were not a danger to him and eventually let us come within 25 yards.

It was fascinating to watch him wallow knee deep in a peaty pool. He was fired up by the other stags that were bellowing up on the hill behind. He began to tussle the bank with his antlers. He tossed his head up and sage grass, moss, mud and water went flying up into the air. Water streamed down his mane. He urinated in the pool, stirred it into the mud with his feet and flung it back over himself until he was drenched. It smelt surprisingly goat-y. He emerged from the bog proudly dripping with his new aroma and roaring. This stag eau de cologne must be attractive to hinds!

Jack recorded his roar on his phone. He played it back to check the sound, which really upset Clooney. He looked directly at Jack, holding his head high and roaring loudly in return. He started raking at the ground with his antlers. It was quite intimidating and we decided not to playback the ‘Clooney roar’ again.

The past three days were among the best that I had ever spent in Scotland. I was keen to get back to the easel and start a new painting of a stag that I had named after the actor George Clooney.

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