I’VE ALWAYS wanted to experience the red stag rut in the wilds of Scotland, when male ‘stags’ compete for supremacy over the female ‘hinds.’ But I’ve never had the chance as it coincides with when I’m busy painting originals for my Christmas exhibition.
I’ve seen red deer rutting in parks like Studley Royal, Bushey Park and Richmond Park, and while this can be quite spectacular, it doesn’t feel authentic.
A customer in the gallery invited me to stay with him on an estate on the Glen Coe Range, owned by the family of the late James Bond author, Ian Fleming. This was a great opportunity to stalk deer with my camera. It’s a special area as much of the land in this region is completely wild.
I headed north with fellow wildlife enthusiast, Jack Ashton-Booth, who helped carry my camera gear up mountainsides and track the deer. We turned onto a single track road to Glen Etive and I heard a stag roaring, out of sight. We were surrounded by impressive Munros, the Scottish name for a mountain above 1,000m.
That evening at the lodge the enormity of the challenge hit home. It’d been such a mild autumn that most of the deer were still high up in the mountains and the rut was two weeks behind.
Next morning we spotted three stags high on the hillside. We planned our approach, using the forest as cover. Between us we were carrying 34kg of gear which is some weight when you are climbing. We had to walk over cleared fell forest, spiky deep brash piles and cross a mountain stream to gain height.
At the edge of the trees an old rickety deer fence blocked our path so we followed deer tracks up the hill and through a hole in the fence. Now we walked through dense bracken, using it as cover to get closer to the stag. Once in range, I set up my camera and tripod and started to get some shots.
But it was warm and sunny and the heat haze stopped my camera from focussing. The stag spotted my lens and started moving towards us, scenting the air to work out what we were.
The light was all wrong; I needed to be photographing the stag from the other side. So I set off again with the aim of looping around and hiding behind a large boulder I’d spotted. It took me two hours to do so through bracken and into a line of silver birch. It was hard going as fallen trees and boulders were hidden under foot. I fell several times, but finally I was high up above the stag and it hadn’t moved far.
I slid down a gully made by a mountain stream and made my final approach on my hands and knees. I peered round the boulder to see he was just 50 yards away.
After all of this, I didn’t want to disturb him so was selective with the photographs I took. He sensed something wasn’t quite right and walked towards me with his head held high, scenting the air. I was getting fantastic head shots but it was quite intimidating to have him standing 30 yards away, but he settled down and I spent the next six hours snapping away.
By 7am the next day we’d spotted him again. He’d been wallowing in a bog overnight so he looked different with his fur shaggy and wet. You can identify stags by their antlers which have a varying number of points - this one had 10. He was handsome so we nicknamed him George Clooney.
He was lower down the mountain which was good, but there was a younger stag with him. He was much more flighty and headed up the mountain snorting in alarm as we approached, driving Clooney in front of him – and away from us. I tried to get above the stags, using a stream gully as cover, but they were faster than me and gave us the slip. We looked for him for seven long hours without success.
By 5pm we called it a day as we were worn out and hungry. But just as my vehicle came into view I spotted Clooney on the hill behind us and so we headed back to stalk him again. As we got closer he tussled with some grass, tossing a large clump into the air. Then he set back off down the mountain roaring before disappearing into the forest.
The next morning, we looked for a stag on lower ground and saw one roaming the valley bottom roaring on the opposite side of a wide fast-flowing river. As I looked for somewhere to cross, I spotted another stag nearby. I couldn’t believe it: it was Clooney. I crossed the river and followed him upstream using the bank as cover.
I popped my head up over the bank: he was 150 yards away. To get closer I crawled over gravel and gorse. My camera got caught and the sound made Clooney put his head up and walk towards me snorting. I laid flat on the ground until he lost interest and then slowly crept forward. He spotted me just as I was getting my camera ready, but this time he looked straight at me with a look that said, ‘Oh it’s you again!’
By 9.30am I’d spent two hours edging closer to him and was just 50 yards away. He accepted my presence so I signalled Jack to join me. We spent the most amazing day following Clooney for about 11 hours like deer whisperers.
We walked with him as if we were part of his herd. When he lay down for a rest, we did the same. He knew we were not a danger to him and eventually let us come within 25 yards.
The past three days were among the best that I had ever spent in Scotland.
CLOONEY’s INTIMIDATING ROAR
IT WAS time well spent, creeping around the Scottish forests but it wasn’t without its hairy moments.
At our closest vantage poin to Clooney, Jack recorded his roar on his phone.
He played it back to check the sound, which really upset Clooney. He looked directly at Jack, holding his head high and roaring loudly in return.
Then he started raking at the ground with his antlers. It was quite intimidating and we decided not to playback the ‘Clooney roar’ again.
At the end of the trip, I was keen to get back to the easel and start a new painting of a stag that I had named after the actor George Clooney.
Robert’s art exhibition ‘Saving Nature’ is on until November 29 at his gallery at Thixendale, North Yorkshire.