Steep Stalking

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A view down the glen – doe bottom left, me on the right

Heading onto the hill on Saturday morning, the snow shone above us with an improbably dazzling glow. A friend had come for a look around with the rifle, and we walked into the heather with the easy freedom of a full day ahead of us. There was time to scan the hill, bask in the sun and watch the ravens rolling overhead. We could move between vantage points at a casual, steady pace while the ice and sunshine made the ground tremble and swirl in a silent, blurring haze.

After a couple of hours, we found and followed a doe deep into the recesses of a scree fortress where the sun was scorching and the North wind lay dead at our feet. Each footstep crunched dry stems of bracken and wood sage, and then at last she rose up like a cock pheasant almost within arm’s reach, bouncing away with her rump flared like a dish. In this broken hole of granite and bracken, the odds are always in the roe’s favour. It is almost impossible to see them before they see you, and the first indication that the game is up is a white flash tush and the quiet crackle of hooves in the heather.

Grouse called uphill as we regrouped and finally found a likely young doe, high up on a steep face of blaeberry stems and rank heather. She was with a young buck, and the two moved effortlessly along a contour several hundred feet above us. During the final approach, we nearly bumped into an excellent buck with his lusty old frame casting a blue shadow on the stone. His velveteen antlers were curved in towards one another like fingers clasping a ball, and his grey nose spoke of many comfortable years on this sheltered face. He peered at us myopically for several minutes before we felt safe enough to move, then we skirted round beneath him and closed in on our original target.

By the time we reached them, they had lain down in the heather and only the tips of their ears were visible. As we waited for them to stand, I cleared space for the rifle and in so doing snapped a twig or two of heather. Full alert. Both deer stood and bounced away, looking back over their shoulders. They paused for a moment and the rifle had the doe down on her side. The buck stood in confusion, then bounced away over the horizon in a handful of easy bounds.

We walked up to gralloch her, and we were so far from home that I butchered her too, leaving the skin and the badly shot ribs to feed the ravens rather than lug them home over several miles of moorland. A bone-cold burn provided water to wash my hands, and the joints throbbed and yelled at the shock of it. From this high vantage point, we spied for an hour as the sun cast shadows on the snows above and around us. Clouds sailed over the Solway, and windows of light poured through to the water and the Cumbrian coast.

Higher up we found piles of pipits in the snow, stacking themselves in gangs of thirty and more. They rose up like spindrift as we walked, catching the golden light on their bellies and creaking sadly. This must be part of their Northern passage, and some were inspired to head further into Galloway as we passed, buzzing away towards black-stacked snow clouds beyond Moffat and Carsphairn. A few grouse cocks challenged us with their wattles raging, and soon we were on the track home, finding mounds of frogspawn crisping in the ice of the wet ruts.

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