HIGH in the Monadhliath mountains above Strathspey, stalker Bruce Hendry sits by the carcass of a Royal stag.
• Bruce Hendry readies a shot at the Glenshero estate. Picture: TSPL
It is still warm, having just been shot as part of a cull targeting animals in poor condition. In what at first sounds like a contradiction, he says the health of the red deer herd is helped: "If you don't cull deer then they will multiply up to the extent where the vegetation just can't support them and then they start to die."
Although culling helps to restore the growth of vegetation, which also supports birds and other animals, for sporting estates to remain viable they need sufficient numbers of deer to ensure clients have something to shoot. The numbers mean that calls for regeneration on a large scale, such as woodlands, cannot be met.
So how do you get the balance right?
The Deer Commission for Scotland, the main regulatory body which advises the Scottish Government, says the total number of deer in the country has remained at around 900,000 (350,000 to 500,000 red; 350,000 to 400,000 roe) for the last few years. To achieve that, the number of deer culled ever year is around 105,000 (65,000 red; 40,000 roe).
But the commission says more needs to be done, particularly in protected areas of the countryside.
Despite a tradition of hostility between the commission and landowners, they now have a similar outlook. Mr Hendry, head stalker on the Glenshero Estate, near Laggan, in Inverness-shire, says you can't treat every part of the country in the same way: "Some areas are better to regenerate trees, to create an environment where one day the deer can get back in – over a long, long time. All the plantations on Glenshero were planted in the 1960s and the deer were allowed back into them maybe 20 years ago. They use that as shelter through the winter.
"I don't believe in getting rid of all the deer to create an environment where you are taking huge blocks of ground. But you can do it in smaller plots, with a fence if necessary."
However, some cynicism towards the authorities remains. Looking out over Strathspey, he says: "The government agencies are quite quick to push estates to cull numbers but they are very slow to acknowledge they have done something about it."
In the past ten years the red deer population on the 35,000-acre Glenshero Estate has halved to just under 1,000 stags and about 900 hinds and calves. "It is coming down to a reasonable number," says Bruce. "For a deer forest it is OK, but if you want to regenerate trees there are too many deer." Bruce says that in order to see trees growing back in a glen, the number of red deer have to be limited to about two per square kilometre. A sporting estate needs 14-15 per square kilometre.
However, the sporting estate helps "create viable jobs out in the middle of nowhere". Bruce adds: "It is creating jobs for the place, we have got two stalkers, two ghillies, a handyman, two housekeepers, a cook."
But is stalking deer with a rifle not a barbaric pastime, rather than an effective way of managing deer numbers?
Bruce says: "You are trying to get there as quietly as possible, you get in to within shot of the deer and you are picking the ones that need shot. The rest of the deer don't know you are there. The shot's fired, the stag's killed. It is done as quietly and humanely as possible. If it is shot in the right way it is instant death, it is as quick as anything you see in abattoirs.
"Probably the most natural way of killing any animal is to go out and hunt it, get within a safe distance so you can humanely kill it.
"We are looking at trying to cull really old stags, very poor condition stags. You are looking at maybe picking off some of the younger stags, three or four years old, that aren't going to make a good stag – they are just eating grass and not doing the place any good."
Many deer were killed last winter as the country experienced some of the harshest conditions for decades. However, some say that more culling would have stopped so many animals enduring a long and painful death.
Hugh Fullerton-Smith is the general manager at Alladale in Sutherland, where a population of 700 red deer live on 23,000 acres, a number brought down by a comprehensive culling programme. He says: "At Alladale, with our numbers now getting much more sensible, it is probably the reason we only lost half a dozen animals last winter."
Alladale has hit the headlines with plans to create a wilderness reserve and release wolves on to it. To create the landscape not seen in Scotland for centuries means more culling is absolutely necessary, says Fullerton-Smith: "Do you want to see landscape which is not typical and heavily degraded by deer or do we really want to return to the eco-system that Scotland once could boast, with all its supporting wildlife. When I first came up here I thought this was the way Scotland had always looked; obviously, I have learned it is a lot different."
For the Deer Commission for Scotland, balancing the needs and wishes of all those who live, work and enjoy the countryside can be a difficult job. But the organisation's stakeholder manager, Alastair MacGugan, is pretty upbeat, saying things are "going in the right direction".
He adds: "In general, the number of deer culled in Scotland in recent years has kept our red deer population from expanding.
"But there isn't a simple answer to whether we cull enough deer in all areas of Scotland, as the amount of culling needed varies hugely, depending on what the owner uses the land for and whether the land has any protected natural areas, such as SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). Some protected areas still need more culling to get the balance between deer numbers and healthy habitats right.
"There are also some spots, particularly in the Central Belt, where roe deer numbers may be increasing and escalating the number of road accidents between vehicles and deer."
The commission says there are more than 10,000 deer-related vehicle accidents in Scotland every year, on average causing about 70 serious human injuries and two to three deaths.
The idea of killing a deer might equate to "killing Bambi" for some people but there is a growing argument that the animal is a resource we should take greater advantage of. Michelin-starred chef Tony Borthwick, who runs the Plumed Horse restaurant in Leith, says we should eat more venison.
"As a nation we don't eat a lot of the things we produce," he says. "We need to control deer populations because we have taken away the things that did that naturally and I think one of the positive things about being able to do this is that people like my customers end up with it on a plate.
"It is a lot higher in protein than beef, it is a lot lower in fat and cholesterol, it is a very healthy meat." The chef thinks attitudes will have to change to make venison more popular to eat at home. However, he says the signs are good and it already outsells beef by three to one in his restaurant.
"I think a lot of people see game as being exclusive or something you eat when you're out but rarely ever do at home. But we are changing as a nation – I remember when a turkey was a traditional thing for Christmas or Easter if you were quite a wealthy family. Now, you can buy them cheap as chips, even a decent quality one."
'There is no guilt, only a little sadness at the stag's death'
Nick Drainey joins Bruce Hendry to stalk and kill a deer for the first time
I am standing behind stalker Bruce Hendry as he raises his Swarovski binoculars to his eyes, scanning the hillside for stags. There, in the distance, two of the majestic beasts are grazing, slowly walking up the slope, unaware that their fate is being decided a few hundred yards away.
We walk on in single file, the photographer and I with ghillie Nathan Windle bringing up the rear. Slowly we make our way over the wet ground, keeping a grassy bank between us and the deer. At my feet, a startled frog leaps out of the way.
I feel a little unsure as to whether it was a good idea to come along and actually shoot one of the beautiful creatures – I'd never shot anything that wasn't on a fairground before. The other part of my brain is happy to be high up in the heart of the Monadhliath mountains taking part in a key countryside activity, culling older deer to ensure the health of the herd as a whole.
Then, Bruce creeps forward alone before getting on his hands and knees; the deer are on the other side of the grassy bank and he needs to get a look. He makes his slow way back through the bog cotton and wildflowers. Are we on? Not yet, the stags are too young.
As we tramp on, we (I really mean Bruce) spot another stag on the edge of some trees. Bruce stops, whispers that he's going to load the .270 calibre Sauer rifle, and my heart misses a beat. As the Spey makes its slow way to the sea nearly 2,000ft below us, the stag grazes on. We creep forward through larch trees along the steep hillside. Above and below us are more deer, and the crack of a twig could betray our position.
We are now crawling below trees, through burns and over wet, muddy ground. Finally, we reach the spot and, lying full length under a fallen larch, Bruce passes me the gun.
I watch through the telescopic sight as the deer grazes then turns broad side, the safety catch comes off and I gently squeeze the trigger. An ear-splitting crack echoes round the hillside and about 180 yards away the deer is hit.
For a second the Royal stag – 12 points on its antlers – stays upright before wheeling around and tumbling down a small rocky outcrop. It is over.
The adrenaline that was coursing through me begins to subside. There is no guilt, only a little sadness at the death. My main feeling is one of relief, that it was a good enough shot to kill the 11-year-old animal immediately – maiming the beast could cause days of suffering.
The rest of the herd dart wildly in all directions before trotting down the hill. Calm then returns to the wild, open mountain country.