If Walt Disney had to set out to invent a deer, he might well have come up with the dik dik that Prince William recently speared. Hardly larger than a domestic cat, dik dik are pretty little creatures with big eyes and playful movements, perfectly designed to appeal to animal sentimentalisers everywhere. So Prince William's exploit has been reported in shocked, hurt tones; how could he have been so cruel, and what would his mother have thought?
Even by silly season standards, this is nonsense. In the first place, there is no reason to believe that the late Princess of Wales would have disapproved. She herself had been deer-stalking in her youth, and Prince William killed his first stag while she was still alive. Indeed, the Prince had been due to go stalking at Balmoral in the week after his mother's death.
As a girl brought up in the country, the Princess would have understood that dik dik do not live on a Hollywood film set. Their habitat is the African bush, where they are far too numerous for any anxiety about conservation. That is just as well, for dik dik are an important part of the food chain.
There is also something admirable about a prince who can converse in Swahili with Masai guides, and we should admire his skill with his spear. It is not easy for anyone to learn how to use a hunting spear, and it was sensible of the Prince to choose a dik dik as his first target. With such a small buck, he would either miss or kill. With a larger antelope, there might have been the risk of a wounded animal. As the party was hunting without rifles, there might have been a long chase before it was released from its sufferings. As all hunters should, the Prince would have regarded it as his duty to ensure that his quarry had as quick a death as possible.
Once dead, it would have been eaten, though probably not by the Masai guides, despite some reports to the contrary. The Masai, who venerate their cattle, derive a lot of their protein from blood that is drawn from living cattle and mixed with milk. They also eat goat, but most of them consider game as an inferior foodstuff only suitable for lesser breeds who do not enjoy the Masai's rich endowment of cattle herds. The Masai, who regard themselves as heaven's first born, believe all the cattle in the world belong to them. Their attempts to turn this aspect of Masai theology into practice can cause problems with their neighbours.
Given the Masai's views, the dik dik would have been left for the visiting whites, and jolly tasty it would have been. The Masai are sufficiently secure in their own superiority to treat other tribes' habits with tolerant condescension, except when it comes to the matter of cattle-ownership.
There was a hunt and a kill, for food. Vegans are entitled to object to the choice of diet; anyone else would be hypocritical to do so. Not that this will deter the Bambi-huggers, to whom hunting is on a par with child-molestation.
One can imagine such a hypocritical household; let us call them the Tiggywinkles. The battery chicken is in the oven. In a vain attempt to give it some taste, it has been larded with bacon from a porker which spent its entire life in a pigs' concentration camp. As the bacon cooks, it is dissolving into grease and water.
Asleep on the hearthrug is Tiddles, the family moggy. As it is wrong to anthropomorphise animals except in children's literature, one must not say that he is dreaming of the nestfull of blackbird fledglings that he had scoffed during the night. We have no such insight into Tiddles's mental processes. We are only justified in concluding that he is recuperating his strength for tonight's cull of the songbird population.
Shortly afterwards, the flavourlessness of the battery bird is overlooked, as the family join forces to commit assault and battery on Prince William for his atrocious, ferocious behaviour.
There would be no point in suggesting to the Tiggywinkles that perhaps he understands nature better than they do. Of course they understand nature. The Tiggywinkles have read the Beatrix Potter books and they have all watched Bambi, several times. They might even make the ineffable comment that I once heard from an anti-hunt protester: "What has hunting got to do with nature?''
But hunting is not only natural. It is a way of enhancing man's understanding of nature: man's harmony with nature. Prince Charles, who brought up his sons to hunt on horseback and with a gun, is a case in point. The Prince of Wales has devoted as much thought to environmental questions as anyone in Britain. He has communed with books and with experts. But he would be the first to insist that there is no more valuable form of environmental communion than the many days which he has spent on Scottish hillsides, stalking red deer.
I have shot one buck in South Africa, on a mild autumn day. It was a gemsbok, and its liver was delicious that evening with a salad. The rest of it went to the game larder for later consumption. But that gentle hunt was no introduction to the rigours of Scottish stalking.
In one respect, deer-stalking is like Wagner, in that it rarely leaves anyone neutral. Wagner operas either enter the bloodstream, leading to an incurable addiction, or else they leave the hearer baffled, repelled and determined never to go through that again. The same is true of stalking.
The climbing is bad enough, especially if you are unfit as I am. But the final approach to the stag usually involves a crawl. As I once said to a friend who was stalking for the first time: "This will remind you why we all learned to walk.'' Frequently, the elements are on the stag's side as well as the landscape. You can find yourself crawling through a sopping peat-hag, the water soaking up while the rain lashes down. You would prefer a dry day? So would the midges. On a sunny day, the west coast midge is a tormenting predator, especially the sabre-toothed midge of Jura, which descends on you in swarms of a billion.
As if being knackered, drenched and midged is not enough, there is always the prospect of humiliation. You might miss. When that happens, the professional stalkers are usually quick with words of comfort. This is unavailing. You know that they would not have missed, even from a hundred yards further. There is no refuge from self-disgust.
It might be thought, therefore, that anyone proposing to stalk for enjoyment should instantly be certified. Yet I know a lot of people who regard it as life's second greatest pleasure. It takes place in magnificent scenery. The professional deerstalkers whom I have had the pleasure of meeting are not only wonderful men; they are splendid company, and their knowledge of the ecology of the Highlands is unrivalled. They see so much; they can explain so much. To them, a Scottish hillside is like a musical score.
A red deer that dies naturally dies slowly of hunger and cold, during the long rigours of a Highland winter. Moreover, there are far more deer in Scotland than Highland grazing is able to support. On the island of Rhum, they have been seen eating seabird chicks. Deer need to be culled, but that is not why I go stalking. In a few weeks' time, assuming that I can lug my carcass up the hills, I hope to be crawling towards that magical moment when the rifle comes out of the slip, the eye moves to the sight and, I devoutly hope, the bullet smacks home.Reuse content