Jamie Merrill: The day I shot a stag
Would you have the stomach to shoot your own supper?
Thursday 29 October 2009
Lying outstretched on a rocky outcrop, with wet heather soaking my trousers, my elbows and knees in mud, adrenalin is coursing through my veins. I'm oblivious to the cold and discomfort, suffering from "buck fever" – the nervous excitement felt by a novice hunter at his first sight of game.
For below me, perhaps 140 metres away, is a red deer stag. And the majestic animal, complete with nine-point antlers, is at the centre of my rifle's telescopic sights. "Up just a touch, aye, that's it. He's a fine beast, just wait for him to turn broadside," Ally McNaughton, the Ardeonaig hotel's head deer stalker, whispers in my ear.
Then, after what seems like an age, the stag gently turns. This is it. I'm a city boy through and through, but I feel no hesitation, no compunction. I take a deep breath, bring the barrel of my rifle level with the stag's central mass, pause for the briefest of moments, then squeeze the trigger.
A deafening crack echoes across the glen as the gun jerks back into my shoulder, and I hear the unmistakable thud of metal smashing into flesh. The beast rears up, staggers, then subsides.
My ears still ringing from the report of the rifle, I turn to Ally grinning, knowing I've done something truly special, and that shrink-wrapped supermarket meat will never taste the same again. "Well done," he says, shaking my hand. "Good shot."
Still buzzing with excitement I look down the scope again. To my consternation the stag is still clinging on to life. "He's a big old stag, and he'll just take a few minutes to bleed out," Ally says, trying to reassure me. My heart racing, I slide down the incline, rushing to reach the stag before Ally. Approaching the dying animal it strikes me: until now the most interaction I'd had with a deer was swerving to avoid an errant muntjac on a country road. But when the moment came, I hadn't hesitated. I'd shot him down without demur and now he was "bleeding out" in front of me.
Standing alone over the stag he looks serene enough, but I'm suddenly unsure of myself. Ally arrives and interrupts my thoughts: "He's unconscious now, most likely not feeling too much pain," he says looking down at the now motionless beast. "How do you feel?"
Venison may be steadily increasing in popularity, despite the recession, but the actual killing remains controversial. In January, when Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton admitted she was looking forward to bagging her first set of antlers, the League Against Cruel Sports described deer stalking as "a barbaric and unacceptable pastime". But deer populations are increasing in numbers and geographical range across Britain, and supporters of stalking and several wildlife bodies insist deer have to be culled. In 2004 the Deer Initiative, a partnership of groups who want to keep a healthy deer population, estimated there were 1.5 million deer in Britain, but Peter Watson, spokesman for the group, admits that number "could be nearer to two million now", making deer more abundant and widespread now than at any time since the Norman conquest 1,000 years ago.
Around 350,000 deer are culled annually (the vast majority of which end up in the pot), but there are fewer than 1,000 stalkers, and few deer are culled outside of the season (which varies according to the six deer species, but can be said to run from July or August to October).
"We need to be shooting 25 per cent of the population to keep it in check, but even shooting 350,000 we are still behind the curve – they are breeding faster than we can cull them," says Watson. "Everything is in their favour. The warmer weather – especially the winters – and year-round crops are ideal for them and, without natural predators such as wolves, they flourish and can do terrible damage to forests and farmland."
My stalk had begun earlier that day when Ally collected me from my lodge at the Ardeonaig Hotel on the shores of Loch Tay in Perthshire, where an outing on the nearby Ardtalnaig estate costs £150 per day, or £375 if you successfully shoot a deer.
After a shooting test to make sure I'll be safe on the hill and able to hit a deer we head off into the 8,000-acre estate, first in Ally's Land Rover, then in an Argo – an eight-wheel off-road amphibious vehicle which has replaced the pony among Scottish stalkers.
Ardtalnaig is split into three glens and Ally, a third-generation stalker, decked out in tweed with a Mannlicher hunting rifle and leather telescope case slung over his shoulder, soon spots deer on the heights of one. We set off on foot, staying downwind and out of sight, to make our approach over the last three or four miles. As we tramp along I manage to snatch fragments of whispered conversation with Ally. "What sort of reaction do you get from someone like me on their first kill," I ask.
"What do you mean someone like you?" he replies.
"Well, someone from the city who's never killed before," I reply between pants. "We get all sorts of people up here now," he says. "So you never can tell exactly how someone will react, but I did have a chap cry on me once."
With this weighing on my mind, I remind myself why I'm here – to shoot my supper. Unlike food critic A A Gill, who recently upset animal welfare activists by shooting an "entirely inedible" baboon during an African safari, because he "wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone", there is a purpose to my stalk – to provide meat for the Ardeonaig hotel kitchen.
We press on, Ally moving like a sure-footed mountain goat, trying hard not to spook any sheep or dislodge any scree, both of which would quickly alert the nearby deer to our presence. The final approach involves a tiring and damp crawl. Finally, after almost five hours, Ally thinks we are near enough to set up the rifle, and I take my shot.
My stag is around nine years old, and, according to Ally, weighs around 90kg. The bullet enters behind the heart and lungs, slipping between two ribs to smash into the beast's liver at over 900 metres per second.
Drawing a small but sharp blade, Ally skilfully cuts the beast's throat, before moving down its body to gralloch it – removing its stomach and intestine in an unavoidably bloody procedure. His hands covered in congealed blood, he turns to me and shakes my hand before rubbing my face with the warn, sticky liquid.
I've been "blooded", a traditional rite of passage for a hunter's first kill. I'm shattered but elated, even proud of what I've achieved. Though, as Ally loads the beast onto the Argo, I can't help but feel disconcerted by the brutality of what has just happened. I feel no guilt or remorse for what I've done – it seems as natural to me as instinct itself, but nonetheless I feel a sadness. When I mention my feeling to Ally he seems to understand my mixed emotions – he felt them with his first kill.
The next day, in the far more clinical environment of the Ardeonaig hotel's kitchen, Gottgens, originally from South Africa, prepares a venison loin for me. The plan had been to eat the liver of the beast I'd felled the day before, but my marksmanship put paid to that. Instead, Gottgens produces a dish from an animal Ally had shot several days before (here's one I made earlier...), served with a simple but delicious jus from the bones, a little garlic and olive oil. Gottgens is evangelical about venison, a meat which is very low in fat, but he treats it in an unorthodox manner compared to some other chefs: "I don't believe in hanging for days on end, as I want the meant to taste as it was supposed to taste. Ageing is effectively rotting.
"You have to have respect for the produce, both as Ally does on the hill and here in the kitchen – so that means no wastage and serving it fresh. It was once a living thing and all of Ally's skill has been require to bring it to the table, so we have a real impetus to honour it in the kitchen and on the plate," he adds.
The meat is delicious and fresh, nothing like the venison I've tasted before. And, as I think back to the day before and the stags roaring and rutting for dominance, it all makes perfect sense. Their deep, primeval roars, a lust-crazed claim to sovereignty over my stag's now leaderless herd, are part of the same natural order as man hunting beast. Many will disagree, but for me, in the wilds of Perthshire, shooting my supper seems as natural as popping down the local supermarket.
Cooking with venison: A chef's tips
Keep it very simple. Venison should be eaten as nature intended, in its prime condition. The less you do to the meat the better.
The animal already has flavour, so all you need to do is add salt and pepper when frying or searing. What the animal has eaten in the wild gives it its flavour.
If you do want to try a sauce, use blueberries (a berry common in the Scottish Highlands). That's what they eat on the hill on our estate so we often marry the two back together in the kitchen.
If you can't trace where an ingredient or meat cut comes from, don't buy it.
To stay and stalk at the Ardeonaig hotel, visit Ardeonaighotel.co.uk. For more information on planning a break in Scotland, go to Visitscotland.com/autumn
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