Balmoral Castle in the Scottish highlands was a perfect setting to hunt the Queen’s roe deer--a small shy deer indigenous to those beautiful islands. Coming north out of Edinburgh by car, my wife Virginia and I traveled for three days, seeing and experiencing a small part of Scotland’s beauty and history before coming to the Hilton Craigendarroch on the Balmoral estate, where we stayed during the hunt. Michael and Danielle Grosse (with their daughter Jordan), of International Adventures out of Gunnison, Coloradomet us there. Theirs is a family-run business, catering to hunters looking for not just a hunt, but a total experience.
Our group had five hunters, each of whom could take two deer. We also had four non-hunter spouses hoping to see some of Scotland’s many historical and cultural treasures. Danielle, a perfect hostess, accompanied the non-hunters and those hunters who finished early on the outings of greatest interest to them. Virginia chose not to hunt on this trip, but she accompanied my stalker and me on two of the hunts, or “outings.”
We went in June, which is the rut for roe deer. As a wildlife ecologist by training, I was curious when Michael told me the hunt would be best during June. However, I learned that this diminutive deer is the only one that delays implantation. They drop their fawns in late May, and come into season shortly after that. Implantation is then delayed until fall. I can’t imagine what adaptive forces created that unusual breeding cycle. It seems to work though, because there is no shortage of roe deer.
Although we don’t usually think of the British Isles as being a far northern area, our hunting location has approximately the same latitude as the town of Churchill on Hudson Bay. We were amazed to hear the birds begin to sing before 4:00 am. That was almost, but not quite, the land of the midnight sun, and made for early morning and late evening hunts. Temperatures were cool, but greatly ameliorated by the surrounding seas.
On the first hunt morning, we gathered at 4:30 am on the Balmoral grounds and met our gamekeepers who would shepherd us to locations where we might encounter bucks. Each gamekeeper had a “beat,” so each outing was in a different area with a different gamekeeper. Michael Grosse has exclusive rights for all commercial hunts at Balmoral, as well as leases on estates in the surrounding area. Each of us had an opportunity to hunt one of our two roe deer on Balmoral, and the other on one of the nearby estates. Those estates, although nearby, are many thousands of acres, with plenty of diverse habitat no matter where we hunted. Once we met the gamekeeper for the hunt, we began the sometimes-arduous process of looking for a good buck. We did that by vehicle along not quite roads, but more like rocky paths, glassing the hills and glens at various stops. The area has spectacular, but rugged views with hills that are almost mountains covered with heather and rocks. Amidst the heather and rocks live not only roe deer, but red stag, both red and black grouse, fox, and many smaller birds and mammals. The lower areas between are called glens, and that is where the castles or estate houses, tilled fields, lakes and marshes are.
On my first “outing” we traveled up into the highest reaches of Balmoral, then down to some fields where we saw our first opportunity for a stalk. Although the deer did not see us, he was nervous and ran off about 100 yards from where we had set up on a small hummock. He slipped into the trees surrounding a small lake. Our stalk took us all the way around the lake, through peat bogs and forest, but we never saw that buck again. Their size, between 30 and 45 pounds, gives them an advantage in taller vegetation. We returned to our hotel, had lunch and rested up for the afternoon hunt.
The second outing began at 4:00 pm the same day on a nearby estate. We parked the vehicle inside the entrance and walked, and walked. By 10:00 pm, we had not seen a good buck. It wasn’t until nearly 10:30 when Robert, my gamekeeper for the hunt, spotted a very good buck. He was feeding along the edge of a field next to timber. Robert feared he would enter the woods, leaving us empty for the long stalk. We belly crawled up a small slope to get a better view. When we were 220 yards from the buck, Robert handed me the rifle. It is common for hunters there to use the gamekeeper’s rifle, usually a .243 or .270 with a silencer or sound suppressor. Robert’s rifle was a Steyr with Swarovski scope and Wildcat sound suppressor (often used when culling red deer). It was chambered in .243 Win. firing 100-grain Federal Premium ammo.
As we began our belly crawl, I handed my binoculars to Virginia to leave my hands free for crawling. When we reached the top of the slope, I looked for the animal through the scope, but could not find it. That was particularly frustrating because I’m often the first to see animals. After Robert described the buck’s location again and adjusted the bipod length, he was there! It took me only a split second to center the crosshairs on his shoulder and shoot. The buck--a beautiful animal that Robert and Michael believed would score a bronze—went down. It was quarter to 11:00 at night, and the light was beginning to fade. After photos and travel back to the hotel, it was nearly 1:30 am by the time we went to bed.
After a very short night, we met at 4:30 am to begin the next outing for my second buck. We traveled the Balmoral estate, where I hunted that morning. Gary was my gamekeeper and we were driving the estate, periodically stopping and spotting. I commented to him that it would be interesting to shoot my deer in view of the castle. His reply was that the Queen likes to have them shot near the castle grounds, as they eat her flowers. The deer Gary found was not near the castle, but up a long, steep slope. It had moved into the vegetation on the hillside and lay down. We could see only the tips of its antlers. “It looks like a good one,” Gary said. “Do you want to make a stalk?” I could see the steep climb and felt the short night before, but agreed that we should make the stalk. As we moved up the hill and crawled within 50 yards, Gary tried to get the deer to stand by calling several times but the deer didn’t move. Finally, he decided to tap his knife on the rock we were laying on, but warned me the deer might “bugger out of here fast,” so I should be ready to shoot. One tap of the knife and the buck stood, head and shoulders first. I immediately shot him in the shoulder and he was down. It was a nice four-point with long primary tines and a gorgeous reddish coat. I was ecstatic and, even though I felt like I could sleep for a week, had two beautiful roe deer in two days. Thankfully, the route back to our small truck was downhill and I didn’t sleep for a week. Instead, I went to see castles and distilleries and famous battlefields and churches and all the other things I could fit into the rest of my time there.