Outdoors: Deer stalking

It was the dramatist WS Gilbert who once remarked that: "Deer stalking would be a very fine sport if only the deer had guns."

When it comes to shooting for sport, we tend to be slightly squeamish.

Tightened gun laws and anti-hunt lobbies have done little to enhance the image, yet the number of people shooting and stalking on our hills and mountainsides is increasing.

After being invited for a half-day taster session in stalking and shooting by the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group (SCSTG) I began to examine the possible reasons for the growing popularity of country sports. After all, how could a population which regularly bemoans the cost of rising petrol prices afford to participate in something seen as a pastime for the rich upper classes?

What became apparent is that this world, perceived to be antiquated, is moving on. Firstly, women are becoming more interested in shooting and among factors encouraging them onto the moorland is a growing awareness about eating local.

"Food is a big thing for women," says Victoria Brookes, project coordinator for SCSTG. "People want to know where their food is coming from and we will be having ladies days in the future." As she speaks, she displays the menu cards handed out on sporting days. Partridge breasts with chorizo, slow roast haunch of venison, venison chilli – all thoroughly delectable.

"Game is under-utilised," she adds, explaining that deer meat is a rich source of Omega 3.

While Scotland struggles with rising obesity levels, some are perplexed that we still export most of our low-fat game to countries like Germany. Thanks to TV chefs including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, locally-sourced produce is undergoing a renaissance. Listening to the experts at the stalking experience, the most satisfying fact is that all deer shot on Scottish estates goes straight back into the food chain.

It is one of the responsibilities of the stalker to get the dead animal into a temperature controlled larder as soon as practicable. All shooting estates now have game larders and beasts are either sold in the skin to the person who shot it or sold the next day to the game dealer.

This unpicks the notion that all hunters are merely trigger happy adrenalin junkies. "Unless the animal has been contaminated in some way, nothing is wasted," says Kenny Willmitt of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) who imparts an impressive knowledge of shooting spanning 30 years.

The cost of shooting is no longer as prohibitive as some might imagine. An adult with two children can easily spend 60 for 90 minutes of SPL football. In Scotland, you can shoot with an experienced stalker and hire equipment for half a day for around 120. A half-day taster course in either deer stalking, shooting or fishing with the SCSTG costs 50. The advancement in breathable, hard-wearing outdoor clothing has also eaten away the notion that you need to dress like the aristocracy just to get started.

Eddy Buchan, 26, guides visitors through the shooting experience at the Dunkeld Park range. The son of a gamekeeper, he doesn't care what people think of his gear. "The reason people wore tweed, initially, was that it was the hardest wearing and safest when shooting. It is all about wearing what you feel most comfortable in," he says. Up at the range, clay pigeons are being shot by a black leather jacketed beginner.

The main aims of these taster sessions are to challenge misconceptions, showcase Scotland's majestic sporting scenery and, most of all, for newcomers to have fun. With 43 million being spent each year by sporting estates in managing Scotland's land, the contribution to conservation can't be questioned.

If shooting something living is too much, there are still clays and targets. You'll get to sample an enjoyable new sport while sparing your conscience.

For information on taster experiences, visit www.countrysportscotland.com

&#149 This article was first published in The Scotsman on 15 May.

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