This is a timely moment to touch on my developing addiction to antlers. More specifically, I am becoming fixated on roe antlers. Not in the swaggering, pseudo-scientific allocation of “scores” to specific heads, but more in the marvellous, almost spell-binding variety of shapes, patterns and oddities which help to elevate the humble roe into the realm of the demi-god.
Readers may remember that I shot my first “proper” roe buck in 2014 after years of does and little spikers, and the stubby, broken old antlers are mounted in pride of place above the noticeboard in my office. I took them to the BDS tent at the Scottish Game Fair a few weeks after the triumph to see if they could tell me anything about my buck, and they replied that he must have been the oldest boy on the hill. Both his back points and one of his top points are all broken off, and the antlers look more like badly melted candles than a proud set of six, but that head means more to me than any of the twenty or more bucks I’ve shot since then, almost all of which I have kept.
In fact, I increasingly find that I am drawn to keep heads discarded by stalking friends, and I’ve even stopped on the roadside twice this summer to salvage interesting heads from traffic collisions. Perhaps it makes for a maudlin collection, but the range and variety is simply staggering. On the hill where most of my bucks come from, no two heads are even similar. Some are narrow and sharp with red pearling (the bumpy bits), others are thick and straight with ivory fingertips and no pearling at all. The bucks which hold territories in the heather fires have black antlers, and those which keep the lower ground are frequently clean and brown. Young bucks have flat, level coronets like tabletops, whereas the same structure on an older beast will often sag and droop like a frilled stage curtain- the detail (and accompanying technical knowledge) is phenomenally intricate.
I shot a seven pointed buck in 2015 – the biggest and best animal I will probably ever bring home, but still far short of any “official” recognition. And yet when I look at his head on the wall, I forget the points – I am taken back to those thrilling moments as I closed the gap between us to thirty yards. He walked in deep rushes, and I remember the sense of dreamy, heavy-lidded bravura as he tilted back his head to lick his nose. He was missing an eye, and he rolled his lip like a bull to snuff the wind. And afterwards I carried him over the hill and home – the climb took three hours and smeared the skin off my hands in clotting folds, but the stars shone like dust and the sky was mine.
Dozens of books have been written about antlers – they are a constant source of fascination for all kinds of people, but I reassure myself that my interest is less proud and showy than most. I think it has the same root as my childhood drive to collect skulls and feathers – natural artefacts which we can take home and keep to remind us of specific moments when nature simply blew us away.
Antlers have been on my mind over the last week on account of a very special buck I’ve been duelling with this summer. Now that the dance is over, I’m currently trying to immortalise him in oil. If the painting works and I find the time, the full story will appear on this blog in due course.