« PreviousContinue »
The old books on venerie distinguish learnedly the different names of the animals—stag, brocket, hart, hart royal, and the like. In modern forestry the term royal antlers is applied to a stag's horns which carry twelve regular points, each tine so distinct that the stalker's watch can be hung upon it. Sheep, as we have said, are hateful to deer. Even grouse are shot down as vermin in a forest, as they are apt to rise with every token of alarm just as the stalker may be attaining a position for a shot which has cost him miles of careful walking and creeping. His sagacious quarry is then off in an instant, and all his labour lost. We have seen a line of wire fencing running across a moor, on one side of which was a deer forest, where all the grouse which appeared were ruthlessly shot and treated as vermin ; on the other side of it was a grouse moor, and the birds were religiously preserved. The naturalist is thankful for the existence of deer forests in Scotland, as they are the means whereby many of our more interesting quadrupeds-owls and falcons, elsewhere shot down remorselessly as vermin-are preserved to give animation to the scenery. In these great tracts of moorland given over to deer their presence does not signify to the sportsman. They will not injure the deer, so their lives are contemptuously spared.
The tourist who finds his way to these deer forests is apt to think that the line of dull brown and reddish creatures which he discerns on the distant hillside, or filing in single column over its crest into a new world of bare moors and crags beyond, might be easily approached, and two or three fall victims to a couple of rifles. He is in truth never more in error. The senses of deer are wonderfully acute, and ever on the alert.
A shepherd or carter may pass tolerably near without the herd taking alarm, but anything unusual in the shape of sportsmen with rifles, and it may be a dog or two held in leashes, at once renders them suspicious, and calls forth all their native timidity. In some forests deer drives are organised at certain times. This seems to us poor sport in itself-not unlike what shooting hansom-cab horses passing under the windows of a London club might be—and nothing so terrifies and disperses the survivors. It has not even the plea of necessity to recommend it, as has grouse-driving, when the birds become too wild to give a chance of a shot. It may perhaps suit a handful of aristocratic sportsmen unwilling to take the severe exercise which stalking demands, but it will meet with no favour in the eyes of the man who is delighted with wild sport and the freedom of the hill-side, and who loves to match his skill against the fine senses and extreme
The sun nay
caution of a noble brute. Such an one must possess strong thews and sinews, an iron frame, a capability of enduring cold and hunger equal to Catiline's, much readiness of resource, and quickness of eye and hand. He must learn to explore every hill-side in front with the most careful attention, before adventuring himself over the skyline into the valley beyond, to walk without making the least noise amid rustling heather, the boulders of a stream, or the “clatter" of a steep brae. While with one eye he sweeps the moors with a powerful glass, the other ought to be carefully fixed on the direction of the wind and drift of the clouds; and he must be extremely particular always to approach his quarry by keeping well to leeward. Then he should be skilled to avail himself of every scrap of cover, be ready to crawl for hours up and down braes of sliding pebbles, swim a swollen torrent, or work his way along the beds of icy-cold “burns." Thus he may at length get into a favourable position for a shot. Even then the stag has many chances on its side. glint on the barrel of the rifle; a whiff of scent on the wings of a cross breeze may betray the stalker; the stag itself may unaccountably gallop off, or from idle caprice change an insecure for a secure position, just as the finger is about to press the trigger. Ibi omnis effusus labor. Nothing remains for him but to wipe the brow, take a pull at the flask, and begin again. Of course a skilled attendant will be of inestimable advantage to the would-be stalker who is unaccustomed to the "hills ;" but the perfection of exercise and sport is only to be attained when the gillie is strictly subordinated to his master, carries the ammunition, spare gun, or the like, but leaves his master free to devise his own plan of operations. If the acuteness of a stag's senses be considered, it will be seen what need its would-be stalker has of woodcraft. “ There is no animal more shy or solitary by nature than the stag. He takes alarm from every living thing in the forest; the slightest sound, be it only the fall of a leaf or the scratching of a grouse, will scare and set him off in a moment : except in certain embarrassed situations, they always run up wind, their great security lying in their extreme keenness of scent, for they can smell a taint in the air at an almost incredible distance."
There are two occasions when the stag loses his wonted timidity and becomes a very serious antagonist, owing to his activity and the wide sweep of his horns. Our forefathers esteemed a wound from a hart's antlers most dangerous, as almost beyond the skill of leeches,
· Sport in Many Lands, by “The Old Shekarry” (H. A. Leveson), rol, p. 11. 1877.
However this may be, when a stag is wounded or run down, and stands at bay against a rock or in another advantageous position, it requires no little determination to rush in and despatch him. On such occasions he will frequently maim and even kill dogs. In Scotland, however, dogs are rarely used at the present day, they being found to terrify and scare herds off a march far more than much shooting. Sometimes one of the noble slate-coloured deerhounds of the country is slipped when a stag is badly wounded, and yet likely to escape ; but of course this does not affect the main body of the herd. The second occasion when a stag becomes an unpleasant neighbour is during rutting time, when the monarchs of the valley wander about excited, jealous, and savage. We have known a man passing through a forest at such a time thankful to creep into a culvert which providentially ran under the road. He probably owed his life to this means of escape from the infuriated stag. The rutting season runs from about September 25 to October 12. A man should not in conscience shoot a stag after October 10, though the hinds are thinned after this for six weeks or so. October 10, therefore, may be taken as the end of the deer-stalking season. He who is lucky enough to see a couple of stags fight during the rutting season is amazed at the manner in which they strike at each other with their antlers and fore feet, and at the distance to which the crash of their meeting horns penetrates on the quiet moors. It is needful to thin off the hinds at the end of each season ; fifty, eighty, or as many as a hundred in the case of a large forest are thus annually killed off by the keepers. The venison is much superior to that of the males.
It is a matter of general complaint in Scotland that the modern express rifles, over-stocking and over-preservation of deer, have led to a degeneration in the heads that the stags carry. The extreme certainty of modern breech-loading rifles, and the number of rich sportsmen who now engage in deer-stalking, may well have caused this result. Yet it is not always true in particular cases that moors are overstocked. In July 1879, Mr. Bass determined to take a census, if possible, of his deer in Glenquoich Forest, which, with the adjoining small forest of Clunie, runs to about 42,000 acres of excellent pasturage. His calculation was that a full but certainly not excessive stock would be one deer for every 12 acres, or about 3,500 deer, of which perhaps 900 should be stags of all sizes. The actual result gave less than half these numbers, about 1,600 deer and 450 stags. Mr. Bass believes that it takes from ten to twelve years for VOL. CCLIII. NO. 1819.
the horns of hill deer to reach their best. Mr. Scrope, writing in 1838, calculated the deer in the forest of Athole at between 5,000 and 6,000; and he gives the extent of this forest as being 40 miles long, 18 miles wide at the broadest part, with an expanse of 135,000 acres, of which some contained the finest grazing in Scotland. But all these calculations of the number of deer are exceedingly fallacious. It is very difficult to count them with anything like accuracy, owing to the wide extent of country over which they roam.
Without too curiously examining the truth of old Sir Robert Gordon's statement that the “ deir of the hill Arkhill have all forked tailes," ? there yet remain numerous interesting questions connected with a deer forest. We shall only touch upon one more before “taking the hill," and that only because it last showed itself in print after the census of Mr. Bass's forest just mentioned, although it meets the Scottish tourist on every coach-top and at every breakfast and dinner table in the Highlands ; leaving for the present any consideration of the animals, birds, and vegetation to be met in the deer forest. Over and over again, however, in the Highlands, the assertion is made by some embryo political economist, some householder smarting under the remembrance of his butcher's bill, or more often still, some of those extremely self-opinionated doctrinaires who would ruthlessly stop all the means of amusement in Great Britain, that these vast deer forests are so much land diverted from the production of mutton, and withdrawn from the wealth of the nation to satisfy the selfish pleasures of rich or haughty aristocrats. Fortunately Mr. Bass supplies us with the means of neutralising so grave an accusation. A committee of the House of Commons, formed of representative men, not all of them sportsmen, was appointed in 1873 to enquire into “the laws for the protection of deer in Scotland, with reference to their general bearing upon the interests of the community.” The committee first examined seventy-four witnesses, among whom were many Scotch farmers, and then reported unanimously that the evidence did not bear out either of the charges : first, that deer forests tended to the depopulation of the country ; and secondly, that by the displacement of sheep for deer they diminished the food supplies of the nation and raised the price of meat to the consumer. The fact is, that only the mountainous parts of Scotland are adapted for deer forests, and that the business of sheep-farming would require the removal of a great part of a flock of
Mr. Bass's letter to the Times, Oct. 14, 1880.
? History of the Earldom of Sutherland (Edinburgh, folio, 1813). Written in 1630.
sheep from such ground during six months of the year; while the absorption into deer forests of any quantity of land that can be profitably tilled, has been entirely negatived by the witnesses examined before the Commission." On the other hand must be placed the large amount of money brought annually into Scotland by deer-stalkers; the roads, houses, cottages, &c., which must be constructed, and we may add the charitable gifts and kindly examples of so many ladies brought by husbands and fathers to the lodges of the Highlands. This last consideration alone largely increases the happiness and contentment summer after summer of the resident population of the lower classes among the Scotch straths and glens, and, taken with the rest of the evidence, is a strong proof that the practice of deer-stalking is extremely beneficial, rather than injurious, to the nation.
We must now spirit the reader to the keen breezes of a deer forest, and show him a little of the noblest of British sports; and here we long for the magician's wand who showed Aurelius in the “ Frankeleines Tale,"
Or they went to soupere,
That with hir haukes han the heron slain. Should he be desirous of knowing, without the trouble of mounting his steed, what stag-hunting over swell after swell of heather is on Exmoor, the late Capt. Whyte-Melville will vividly describe to him the charnis of the sport in Katerfelto; or would he have some idea of what the pursuit of a stag on horseback through Highland passes was in old days, let him turn to the Lady of the Lake, and then read how
Yelled on the view the opening pack,
See Mr. Bass's second letter to the Times, Oct. 19, 1880.