“Its still alive,” said Tommy. It was. As I approached the shot hind I could hear its heavy, wet breaths. It made a pitiful sight as it lay dying, blood at its mouth and a large wound in its chest.
The previous night I’d been drinking in the Old Forge in Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula, part of the “Rough Bounds” of NW Scotland. I was chatting to Tommy, the postman, (as well as mountain rescue and community ranger,) and he’d asked if i’d like to “ghillie” with him the next day.
I had jumped at the chance to join a deer stalk without really stopping to think about the stark realities of the day’s activities. To be honest I had no idea what “ghillying” entailed. What I was to learn is that it entails blood, guts and and awful lot of work. But also a genuine respect for the animals you kill and a feeling that you owe it to them to ensure they die well.
We’d met just after a spectacular west coast dawn, the sun’s pink rays colouring the snow and ice on the mountains surrounding us. It was February and it was cold. I was given instructions to supplement those from the previous night which had been “dont talk too much” and “dont bother with a flask, we drink from streams..”
Ghillie duties, it turned out, included carrying the rifle for the stalker and removing the deer from the hills once they had been gutted. Having collected the guns and a suitably tough looking small dog we jumped into a landrover and headed off to the deer.
The stalk I’d joined was part of a program run by the Knoydart Foundation. It has managed the Knoydart Estate since it was bought by the community in 1997 and much of its work revolves around improving the peninsula’s biodiversity. At the moment red deer numbers are too high to allow the forests regenerate naturally, hence the program, (which runs along side the commercial hunting which is so vital for the local economy. )
Walking through the heather we’d spent hours trying not to be seen or smelt or heard by animals who excel in seeing, smelling and hearing. As we moved carefully around the hills the warning barks of deer echoed of the rocks all around us. I felt as any predator must, straining my eyes and ears for prey whilst also being extremely aware my movements and of the noises they made. I felt far more in tune with the environment than I am used to,
I have to confess it was exhilirating.
Eventually we surprised a group of hinds. As Tommy and I lay flat under the ridge, Ian, the stalker, fired. I jumped – even with the silencer the cracks were surprisingly loud, with a sharpness that surprised me.
Four beasts had been shot. (I noticed that nobody called deer “deer” once we were hunting, they were “beasts.” I wondered aloud whether it was easier to kill a beast than a deer but the men didnt think it was anything but a traditional term. I’m unconvinved.)
And so our hind lay dying.
If I was a Hemingway type I’d try and extract some poetry from the fact that as she did so she could see the Black Cuillins on Skye, their jagged, snow capped, peaks looking beautifully menacing. I’d perhaps talk about the birdsong, stopped momentarily by the shots, restarting around her. But in truth, it was simply horrible to watch such a handsome creature fading away.
But I didnt have to watch long.
After Tommy’s shout Ian had bounded over looking concerned. I had expected another shot but instead he produced a knife and severed the top of its spinal cord. The result was instant, a shudder and it was over. I respect that reponse. To hold the animal and kill it as quickly as possible involves getting bloodied. It’s not a nice, clean, way to do it but it is honest and effective.
This encapsulates the attitude of those I stalked with: it is an absolute point of honour to them that none of the animals they shoot suffer unduly. During the stalk the deer’s well being comes second only to safety: injured deer are followed for as long as it takes to ensure they are finished off. The dying are helped on their way. If a stalker can’t reasonably expect a clean kill he wont proceed. This code of conduct reflects a love and respect for the animals who’s lives and deaths play such an important to Knoydart’s community.
Straight after the death came the gutting, or “gralloching” as it is known. I held the body in position as Tommy worked with his knife, deftly removing the guts, organs and windpipe. Although the body had felt cold to me the warmth from the insides lifted the smell to our nostrils. It was like a farmyard, but concentrated and with higher, metallic notes of blood as well. Despite washing it stayed on my hands and sleeves for the rest of the day – a reminder of the death at the heart of a successful stalk.
We left the innards where they lay – for the ravens, buzzards and golden eagles. I couldnt help but think of it as a blood sacrifice to the rough bounds themselves – to the life all around us.
Then came the hardest part, dragging the carcasses off the hills. We roped them up and tied them to our hazel staffs which we pulled from behind our backs. I pulled two deer, about 12 stone, through the heather and rock and marsh for two hours. Their dead weight and the fact that they caught on bushes and between boulders made for heavy going. We stumbled and fell, heaved and strained. Showing my inexperience and general softness I would pull for as long as I could and then have stop to give my arms and back a break.
It seemed to take forever; as Tommy and I struggled on and on the day changed; dark clouds rolled in above us and a soft rain began to fall.
Eventually we made it to the foot of the hills and forded a river mouth, next to which we’d been told the hanging tree lay.
We rested for a while, hearts beating, the rain now falling harder.
Our final ghillie duty was to hang the animals. These deer were to be butchered the next day; left overnight until a boat could pick them up as we had walked miles from the landrover to a part of the coast without tracks or roads. We the tied their legs, threw the rope over a branch and hauled them out of the reach of foxes or pine martins.
We then walked back to the landrover and drove back to the village in the dark, the vehicle foggy with sweat, rain and the smell of the deer. It had taken ten hours.
I missed the butchery – I had a ferry to catch – but I was happy in the knowledge that the venison would be sold and eaten locally, a delicious, sustainable meat with less than 8 food miles under its belt. You may be against hunting. That’s fine. But for me a wild animal dying quickly at the hands of people who care about their welfare is preferable beyond measure to the processes by which most of our meat is produced.
And having tried it, it I can assure you Knoydart Venison tastes fantastic.
Last week the University of East Anglia announced research showing Britain’s deer population is at its highest since the last ice age and that culling on a large scale will be necessary to protect the trees and vegetation they feed on.