We lay side by side in the snow, his warm breath in my ear and his hand on my back, but it’s not that sort of story. A little over 200 yards ahead of us, a group of red deer stood tentatively on a dappled scraggy top. Just below them, on her own, was an old hind without a fawn. “You’ll need to be about ten inches above her,” the stalker whispered. It wasn’t an easy shot and I could feel my heart beating against the cold ground. Holding my breath a moment, I eased the safety catch forward, squeezed the trigger and listened for the reassuring thud of the .308 round blowing a hole through her heart. The hill in front of us came to life, as the deer gathered as one and then disappeared, leaving the hind to stagger after them before tumbling, lifelessly, into the frigid heather.
An hour or so later, after the beast had been gralloched and loaded onto the Highland pony’s back which would carry it to the larder, we hunkered down to eat our lunch. “Would I be able to chat to you at some point,” I asked the stalker “about the politics of deer management?” He looked hesitant and after the last few bites of his sandwich suggested that he’d rather I spoke to someone else.
Almost everybody involved in deer counts admits their figures are often inaccurate
The following evening, after driving south to Edinburgh Airport, I sat in Yo Sushi, still in my tweed breeks, reading about Scotland’s deer problem while pulling plates of sashimi off the carousel. According to a piece by George Monbiot, written back in 2012, red deer numbers north of the border have risen from 150,000 to 350,000 since 1965. The result of that explosion, by the green grandee’s reckoning, is that the hungry herbivores have rendered large tracts of the Highlands “almost completely treeless”.
But back then Monbiot believed there was hope. He praised the actions of a few “more enlightened” estates such as Glenfeshie which were “at last reducing the overpopulated deer”. In practice, what he was referring to was the deployment of marksmen — at the behest of the Scottish government — who were helicoptered in to surround out-of-season, often-pregnant hinds, before mowing them down for hours on end.
The gory details of the so-called Glenfeshie Massacre were enough to make me put my chopsticks down.
Those of you familiar with Monbiot will be aware that he has fought against the cull of badgers, whose numbers have grown by 88 per cent since the 1980s. Similarly, he came out in support of the TV naturalist Chris Packham when he was attempting to force a ban on shooting crows, of which there are more than a million breeding pairs in the UK.
Both badgers and crows are voracious predators and have a devastating impact on some of Britain’s most endangered ground-nesting birds such as the curlew. As I wandered to the departure gate, I couldn’t help but feel a little confused: why the bloodlust for Scotland’s tree-munching red deer while simultaneously defending bird-devouring predators?
Some days later, I spoke to Megan Rowland, a former vegetarian in her late twenties who makes a living as a freelance deerstalker. Megan wasn’t entirely surprised that the stalker who took me out on the hill was reluctant to air his views on the fraught topic of deer management. “First of all,” she told me forthrightly, “I’d like to knock the deer explosion myth on the head.”
Like many of those on the ground, Megan believes that in reality red deer numbers “are either declining or stable”. While opinions on the figures differ hugely, almost everybody involved in deer counts admits they are often inaccurate — but that has never stopped metropolitan environmentalists throwing them around with deadeye certainty. As far as Megan is concerned, the impetus for the likes of Monbiot supporting ruthless and indiscriminate deer culling is really just class war. “If they can’t shoot the toffs,” she told me in her sage Highland lilt, “they’ll shoot the deer.”
It is not, by my reckoning, his best painting but The Monarch of the Glen is the Edwin Landseer that we all recognise. According to Monbiot, eco-zealot turned art historian, the “overfed” stag was “both the idealised quarry of the new lairds and their own imagined embodiment”. He notes that to his eyes “the pose, gaze and setting” bear a resemblance to Franz Winterhalter’s 1841 portrait of Prince Albert. Just before I shot that hind, a stag above it pricked its ears up and stared across at me. If Monbiot had been peering down the scope, I wonder whether rather than seeing a rugged beast he would have seen some sort of furry totemic oppressor.
There is no doubt that the likes of deer, foxes and crows need to be managed but those who allow prejudice to cloud their vision have precious little to contribute to an ongoing conversation about working towards a richer, more biodiverse countryside. Perhaps somewhere out there there’s an alternative universe where toffs have taken a shine to badgers and Monbiot is calling on comrades to blow them to bits.
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