The smoke drifted casually skyward, dancing and swirling in the breeze as it breached the shelter of the old black-house wall. The gentle smell of ember-cooked meat intensified slowly, feeding the rumble of belly growls longing for sustenance after a long morning. For now we were dry, but for how long was anyone’s guess.
We had watched the low sun of winter climb the back of a snow clad Cuillin range. The sheer rawness of the unveiled powder clad tops was brutally beautiful. An unforgiving spectacle of enticing calmness, imminently poised to provide a gateway to hell strangled by passing snowstorms. For now the ragged elephant grey granite faces would remain covered, likely for many weeks. It was a freshly crafted mountain of mythical stature.
We were at least three hours from where we had set off in the husky grey of morning. Stretching out west lay thousands of acres of wild lands, tracking a jagged coastline on its northern edge. This was hunting as it should be. The truest sense and meaning of the word. Remove the material branding of equipment, and strip life back to its most simple elements and you end up here. A requirement for shelter, food and water.
This was Skye, and for the previous two months it had done nothing but rain, so water was never going to be an issue. Home for our time on the island was rustic and simple, occupying one room of a hill shooting bothy. Wood clad inside, the walls were adorned with stags heads, with the luxury of a wood burning stove providing a level of comfort beyond our usual primitive open fires.
Our food supply for the week was a mixture of fur and feather, hung from a tree outside in natures open larder of the winter months. We were surviving with what we had provided, and there was no greater satisfaction. Whether we returned to the comfort of our newly claimed abode would be depended on how far we had hunted that day, as well as the outcome. We had the basics with us for a night roughing it if we had to. Temperatures were expected to drop down close to -10 Celsius, so the prospect of returning to a fire and a more substantial shelter was an incentive to hunt smart.
Sharing the last pieces of woodcock kebab with my brother we re-packed our bags, organised filming equipment and de-layered, ready to tackle the arduous ground once more. In the preceding months we had hunted some tough terrain in even tougher weather, and had learned the importance of correct layering of clothes. We were lucky to have some of the best gear around, but one still had to be conscience of layering up and down to prevent overworking and sweating.
Heading directly into the wind, we had been lucky with the direction of incoming weather fronts. Had it pushed in from the east, we would have had to yomp miles along the coastline before stalking back. The dilemma with the hand we had been dealt, was deciding when to call it quits and head back. Like a fisherman chasing that magical pool around the next bend, every hollow and valley could supply the answer to our quest. It’s easy to keep chasing the unknown.
We had already spotted deer earlier in the day through the telescope, but they were a long way off. A group of a dozen or so slowly grazing the lower slopes of the distant, towering mountainside. It seemed unlikely that there wouldn’t be other beasts between us and them, and knowing we had an unsupported extraction, shooting an animal closer had substantial benefits.
Unlike our previous trips, where the focus had been on supplying meat for our own freezer, this was different. We were assisting the estate on their annual cull, with the provision of any carcases being used by the hotel for guests. Offering to tackle the most inaccessible ground they had, it would be valuable time saving for the head stalker, especially in a year where the weather had made hunting incredibly challenging.
Settling back into the rhythm of walking, spying, and scanning of the ground, we were another hour in before we came across the gorge previously identified to us on the map. This was the reason even an Argo could only help so far. For us, every step was one more we would have to carry a beast out. There was no possibility of dragging in such broken, undulating and rough terrain.
Pausing for a well-needed rest allowed us to scan the more distant ground. Behind us the tide was well on its way out.
“Well that’s convenient” my brother remarked. “It’s still going to be a bloody long walk out, but at least that looks easier than where we have just come from.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
The spotting scope hadn’t even been unzipped when Darryl announced he had deer in sight. Three or four hundred metres ahead, grazing steadily away, a single calf walked along a sheltered stone face at the top edge of some sparse native birch. By the time I had the binos in hand the beast was gone. I scoured the surrounding terrain to make sure we weren’t about to step out into the watchful gaze of hinds lying up in over-watch. We seemed clear and free. In front of us the ground dipped away before rising into a flowing series of knolls ideally placed for crawling in.
We shuffled the last twenty metres before stripping our packs off to slide forward. Breaking the horizon of heathland rushes, it was immediately obvious there was more than just one red (stag). Closer inspection revealed a total of three: the original calf, a hind, and a yeld hind. All showing good condition, the yeld was an ideal beast to take for the hotel. Ever aware of our epic extraction, I took the easy option by settling on the calf. Maybe I was wimping out, but I seemed to justify it at the time.
Dropping back out of sight, I gave my brother the sit-rep before unclipping the rifle and pushing my rucksack ahead to shoot from. Settling back into a comfortable position I nestled the rifle into anchorage as my brother slid alongside me. At this point the yeld hind was already couched up (bedded), but largely obscured in the rank heather and surrounding grasses. The hind and calf were still on their feet, but a shot was impossible.
The white of its rump guided me through the overhanging birch branches, all while wandering directly away with its head down. In cruel temptation the older hind stood broadside in open ground. The weather had gradually deteriorated since our campfire lunch, spitting, sleeting and now raining with a rapidly escalating wind cutting across us. The bighting coldness numbed my hands, anesthetising the sensitivity of my trigger finger poised on the crisp edge of the trigger blade. Safety rocked forward, the centre of my cross hair hovered over the washed brown coat waiting for a clear vital shot.
As the calf dipped it shoulders, looking back towards us, I snugged the butt clamping my cheek down. Blinking for clarity in the smear of collating water permeating through my hat, I was wired. Its back legs dropped as it curled into a comfortable couch, disappearing into the tangle of grasses and bell heather. I breathed out an icy breath as my brother hushed a profanity.
As I struggled to contain my body from violently shaking, it was clear I had made an error in judgement by not taking the time to put base layers back on. If it really came to it my Mammoth smock could have also been adorned, but instead I lay there slowly stiffening in the cold. It was an unnecessary discomfort having known they were likely to lie for some time after initially going to ground. An hour had passed by now, and I was determined not to slip the first opportunity. This stubbornness had turned my lips blue and my hands to ice. Wearing only a T-shirt and my SAS Fortis jacket, the draining cold of the waterlogged bog we lay on had sapped my core heat. Darryl was in better shape still having his merino under layer on.
“Which ever beast stands first it’s going down Darryl. That or I have to get some more clothes on”.
At that point restless movement saw the calf back on its feet. No shot. Willing the little deer to turn, the yield pushed herself up, shaking off a water laden coat before stepping around broadside. Fighting the 30mph gusts, I steadied for long enough to take up the final pressure.
She never made it far, the bullet on review doing just what it was intended to do, produce a quick kill. The hind and calf lingered for a time, bemused as to the sudden loss of their companion. Reprieved of my cold, damp prone position I slapped Daz on the back as he confirmed he had captured the final moments on film. In haste I unpacked the rucksack throwing two more layers on. Immediately I could feel the positive effect.
As we wondered through the swaying, winter burnt grasses of the hillside I paused to look back at a coastline baring its bones. I wasn’t all that sure if I could physically make the walk out with such a big hind on my back. Every adventure comes with its own challenges, and the grave expression on my brother’s face reflected mine. This hunt had really just begun. We had to make it out in one piece now.
In the end we did. Five hours later, in the dark, under a heavy rainstorm and on the edge of my physical limit. Brilliantly coping with the conditions, Darryl had captured the entire extraction on film, forming episode two of our six part series. Where our next adventure would take us was anyone’s guess.
About the Author: Byron Pace
Byron Pace is the Director, Production Planner, Camera Operator, and Editor for Pace Productions UK.
Growing up in the countryside, “fieldsports” was always an important part of his life, and a thirst for adventure saw him temporarily postpone his post-secondary studies to work with EcoDart Ltd designing big game immobilization equipment. He went on to take part in trials and conservation projects across Africa. This included re-collaring of elephants in Kruger National Park, as well as rhino de-horning for anti-poaching measures.
After completing his degree, Byron went on to work for the world’s largest investment company, setting up new offices in India while working between London, Edinburgh and New Delhi. Not able to restrain his desire to get back to the countryside and adventure, after two years he left, working as a freelance film-maker for the UKs biggest online fieldports channels, as well as writing for a number of magazines around the world. It is during this time he honed his skills filming, and finally decided to fulfill a long held desire to make adventure feature films in partnership with his brother Darryl a retired Royal Navy Diver.
You can see the Pace Bros. excellent work at http://www.paceproductionsuk.com.