Reflecting on a truly special occasion, Selena Barr tells the story of her first successful hummel stalk – a family affair for which she was joined by her young daughter, Ptarmigan.
There’s very little that can beat the classic sporting holiday in Scotland, with long days spent on the hill or by a river after fur, feather and fin – and friends and family there to celebrate or commiserate sporting success, depending on the outcome of your outings. Last October, just as the rut was starting, we took a week at Auch and Invermearan Estate, together with a small party of friends. A few attempts at a Macnab were planned, but as any seasoned sportsman will know, you can never plan for success when it comes to the pursuit of wild game.
Of course, one of the great factors of a sporting holiday in Scotland is the weather, and with my young daughter Ptarmigan with us, we could hardly plan ahead, nor stray too far from the lodge if bad weather was threatening – a toddler in a baby carrier is hardly well-protected should the conditions turn nasty. So, while the rest of the party could spend from dawn till dusk on the hill, come rain or shine, I was rather more restricted.
We watched the forecast religiously for the first days of our break, and while the outlook wasn’t atrocious, it certainly wasn’t good enough for what we had in mind. So, while everyone else spent their days after salmon or grouse or stags, I was the hunting widow – my days spent occupying Ptarmigan. Apart from several constitutionals a day, I was confined to our headquarters – luckily for me, the lodge at Auch is incredibly comfortable.
And then, finally, the forecast looked good. We watched the sun set in a blaze of red, the sounds of the stags roaring around us, and stalker Sandy Mckellar, my husband Simon and I hatched our plan for the following morning. Simon would carry Ptarmigan in the carrier on his back, while I would get my chance at a stag. With some 28,000 acres to hunt over, we were, in theory, spoiled for choice, but with young Ptarmigan with us, the reality was that we’d need to be within retreating distance in case of a change of conditions.
Sandy, together with Chris Foley, the ghillie, discussed our options, talking over where they’d seen stags that were the right age and size to take, and we settled on Tulloch Glen. As Sandy explained, “It’s an ideal spot for the deer – very sheltered, and you’ll certainly find hinds there in winter. It’s also not too far from where we can get a vehicle to and perfectly manageable for carrying Ptarmigan.” Luckily for us, Sandy is someone who knows the estate very well – he’s worked on Auch all his life, and grew up there with a father and twin brother who are both keen stalkers. On an estate that has five munroes (mountains which exceed 3,000ft in height), both Simon and I were relieved to hear that we wouldn’t be tackling them.
We set off mid-morning, and Sandy was right. The terrain wasn’t back-breaking, but the views were still stupendous. Ptarmigan chattered away happily on Simon’s back, breaking the stalker’s code of silence, but it wasn’t a problem; just to be out with the whole family was enough in itself. As we climbed the glen, we spotted hinds, and our chances looked good, for we could also hear stags roaring in the area. And then, on the skyline, we spotted a large deer – it took me a moment to recognise what it was, but Sandy knew the second he saw it: “There, it’s a hummel, do you see?” The lack of antlers was no disguise, for the beast had a massive body and the thick neck of a stag.
I may have been out for a Royal, but Sandy hardly had to ask to know that I’d be equally delighted with the hummel, a rarity in the red deer world. So we began our stalk proper. It was a nervous time, for keeping a child quiet is impossible, but the acoustics of the hill worked in our favour, as did the wind, sending the sound swirling down the glen. It was doubly lucky that this was the case as the ground wasn’t in our favour, with only open territory between us and the hummel, which was on the move, looking for hinds. Sandy worked hard, picking his way up the slopes, stopping when the hummel stopped and hunkering down, watching and waiting. Several times we got into position for a shot just as our quarry moved off again. And then, finally, we had our moment, as the hummel stopped and settled in one spot. Sandy and I would have to get closer, so we left Simon and Ptarmigan behind, unslipped the rifle and made our approach.
Staying low on the rough ground of the Scottish Highlands isn’t always easy, but we managed to gain enough ground to find a good spot. As I settled behind the rifle, I became aware of Ptarmigan’s shouts of “Mummy, Mummy!” and was sure we’d move the hummel before I could take a shot. However, I continued my preparation, and, adjusting myself behind the rifle, brought the scope to my eye. As I did so, the hummel started to move again, though thankfully not as a result of Ptarmigan’s efforts to get my attention. Sandy whispered: “I’ll get his attention to stop him, you take the shot.” I nodded in agreement, too tense to speak, training the rifle on the beast.
Sandy let out a bellowing roar, bringing the hummel to a stop. I squeezed the trigger and the shot rang out, echoing down the valley. Dead silence – even from Ptarmigan – followed and, almost in slow motion, the hummel sank to his knees and then keeled over, dead.
As a family, we approached the animal. Ptarmigan looked on in fascination as Sandy began the gralloch. He set about his work on the carcase quickly and efficiently, and chatted away, clearly as relieved and pleased as we were that our family outing had been successful. “It’s a big animal, alright, and it’s not surprising he was easy to spot. I’d say he’s 11 or 12 years old, so certainly ripe for the taking,” he said. “I’m pretty sure this is the same one I saw a couple of weeks ago, and I saw a hummel two years ago, so it might even be that.”
Ptarmigan soon went back to her happy chattering as we set off down the hill and back to the vehicle. As we met the rest of our party, exchanging our day’s adventures, I reflected on what a special occasion it was, not just to take your child out hunting for the first time, but to hunt with your whole family. The week progressed, bringing with it two near misses on Macnabs and an unexpected highlight and first for Simon: a pair of ptarmigan, shot while walking-up a high area of moorland.
Leica Geovid 10x42 HD-B rangefinding binoculars
Leica ER5 riflescope
Sauer 100 in .308
Hornady Superformance SST 150-gr ammunition
Osprey Poco AG Premium child carrier