Country Matters: Wet, all in a muck sweat, but content

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NEVER mind that I have sliced off the tip of my left-hand index finger in the course of butchering venison. This is no time for self-pity. Frost has silvered the mountains overnight; the Day of the Roaring - 20 September, traditional start of the Highland red deer rut - has come and gone. The stags are beginning to break out in pursuit of the hinds, and we must away to the hill.

Breakfast is a serious business. Even if our appetites cannot rival that of the Victorian writer who recommended 'one half of a rizzard haddock' and plenty of jellied sheep's eyeballs as a minimal foundation for the day's exertions, we still can put away a good deal.

On to the porridge, besides sugar and cream, goes a dose of Altaiski Balsam, a herbal liqueur distilled in the mountains of Siberia. Fried eggs, bacon, sausages and tomatoes are bolstered by rounds of black pudding. After toast and marmalade, coffee and a few stewed apricots, we are ready for the fray.

Davy, our professional stalker, has the engine of the boat running, and we are quickly off down the loch. Out on the water, the scale of our surroundings really comes home. Under a rainy sky the loch strikes through the hills like a sword, gunmetal grey, half a mile wide and 18 miles long. Huge, rocky faces sweep upwards from either shore. Remnants of oak and birch forest cling to the lowest slopes, but above the trees there is only rough grass and stone.

Eight miles down, a glorious glen slowly opens out and reveals itself on our right. Here is a secret, private world, a world on its own, majestic in its grandeur and desolation. Mountains and water surround the hidden valley: no road leads in or out. Here live only deer and eagles, the odd fox and badger, a few ravens and hoodie crows.

Davy steers the boat in to a wooden pier. So wild and wet has the weather been that this is his first visit in a fortnight, and the water-level in the loch is so high that we have to splash ankle-deep the last few yards to the shore.

A tin shack houses the Argo - an excellent all-terrain vehicle, like a powered plastic tub, which rides on eight fat tyres. We drain the rainwater out of the back, blow up two flat tyres, connect a new battery with jump-leads, and the engine roars into life.

Soon we are growling up the peaty floor of the glen. On our left, a river boils in spate, and above us on every side burns tumble from the hillsides in white cascades.

Flat, black, many-legged insects known to the locals as 'keds' land on our faces and try to sidle crab-wise into our hair. As Davy remarks, nothing clears a crowded bar faster than one of these beasties emerging on to one's forehead to take stock of its surroundings.

Until the 18th century, 300 humans lived along the banks of the river, and the community in the glen was prosperous enough to have a resident tailor. Now a single dwelling stands on a knoll, and even that is used only as a holiday home. The other houses have vanished.

Leaving the Argo, we spy the hills on our right with binoculars and telescopes (spying is one of the day's most agreeable activities, since the need to know what lies ahead provides a cast- iron excuse for repeatedly stopping, sitting down and indulging in extended speculation about any deer in view).

Our object is to find and shoot a mature stag - if possible one that is 'going back', or past its best. Soon Davy spots a group of hinds, high up, with several stags in attendance, and after discussion we decide to go for them.

Uphill, then - and how] For two hours we climb remorselessly, first through deep, treacherous, tussocky grass, then over shorter turf, finally through boulder fields. Everywhere the ground is running with water.

Temperature control is the problem now: such ferocious exertion puts us all in a muck sweat. For as long as we are out of sight of the deer, I keep my grey-green jacket off, to let steam out. Then, as we come up to the level at which we saw the group, I replace my camouflage.

Canny, now: we turn into the wind, still climbing, but slowly, as we ease upwards to peer long- necked over every outcrop of rock. Suddenly, high above us, we see brown dots moving fast. Curses] Another herd, which we never saw, has caught our scent and gone charging into the wind.

The disturbance, though distant, alerts the group against which we are manoeuvring. Our own deer start to pull out in alarm, trotting round the face of the hill, half a mile ahead. As they go, we get a good view of two old stags, one of which we identify as a desirable target.

Davy reckons that the deer will stop somewhere round the shoulder. To let them settle, we sit down and eat our picnic lunch. Rain starts to fall. We pull on waterproofs and huddle miserably in the lee of a rock, wet with sweat inside, sodden with rain outside. Is this a way to spend a holiday? Is this what each of us is paying pounds 1,000 a week to enjoy?

The storm passes. We stand up, shake ourselves like dogs and move on. Wonderful sights reward our effort in climbing so high: a golden eagle soars out below us; two hinds rear up vertically on their back legs and box with delicate forefeet; a stag wallows in liquid black peat freshened up with his own urine, to give himself that final touch of personal attraction.

Another extensive manoeuvre brings us over the top of the hill and stealthily down, straight into the wind, towards the point at which we hope our chosen stag has stopped. Our difficulty now is an excess of deer. There are hinds to the right of us, hinds to the left of us. If any one of them sees or smells us, it will start to run, and our operation will be finished.

Creeping, crawling, threading his way through gullies, Davy skilfully works his way down - and there at last is the stag we want, lying stretched out with his back to us. To be sure of killing him cleanly, we need to stalk to within 100 yards, or 150 at most.

We are still at least twice that far off. What is worse, our cover has run out. We have worked on to a rib of serrated, sharp-edged rock, not good for knees and elbows. In a quick, whispered conference, we decide that speed is now of the essence. When we move farther forward, no matter how carefully, the hinds are bound to see us. Our best hope is therefore to hustle on into a firing position before the stag picks up alarm signals from his harem.

I take the rifle from its canvas cover and bring a round up into the breech. On we go, scrambling rapidly down over naked rock. Sure enough, hinds on our left begin to move; but the stag is still lying. Fifty yards to go. A few more seconds will do it. Bump, slip, scrape. Thirty yards to go. I trip, half fall, grab an outcrop to balance.

We lose sight of our quarry for a second, behind a knoll. The next time we see him, he is on his feet and galloping. Our chance has gone.

Six hours of violent effort and discomfort have come to nothing. It is too late to start another operation: we are soaked, exhausted and miles from the boat. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed every minute, because I have seen sights that I could never have seen on the low ground, and because I have spent the day in the deer's domain.