It happens very quickly. A pair of eyes is caught glinting in the Land Rover’s spotlight. One of the stalkers moves quietly out of the cab and stands his rifle on the bonnet, while his colleague keeps the spotlight trained on the target. Then the rifle shot cracks and the deer goes down.
Close up, the animal looks tiny, but stalker John Clark tells me it’s a fine roe buck. Lying on the dry grass it might almost be asleep until Clark turns it over to reveal the gaping bullet wound on its shoulder. He swiftly opens its body cavity and grallochs it, then drags it back to the vehicle.
That shot was part of the ongoing and controversial cull to control deer on the Glen Feshie estate, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.
The tipping point for the estate came in January 2004, when the Deer Commission for Scotland ruled the estate had failed in its commitment to protect the rare and dwindling vegetation of the glen, a protected area under a host of European and UK conservation laws.
When the commission sent in a helicopter and hired guns to sort the problem out, there was uproar among the deer-stalking community.
The estate factor, Thomas MacDonell, only in the job for three months, knew nothing of the planned cull until he saw a helicopter overhead. Contract stalkers were waiting in vehicles nearby. MacDonell contacted the Cairngorm National Park authority, but was told the commission’s actions were legal.
At that point, he could have tried to resist or obstruct the cull.
But instead he decided the deer commission – however high-handed its actions – was right. Too many red and roe deer were preventing the Scots pine, juniper, and other species that make up the glen’s unique flora, from regenerating.
And, importantly, MacDonell convinced the estate’s then owner that the cull should continue, and that it would cost less if the estate staff did it.
MacDonell and his team of stalkers set to work with a vengeance. They continued to use helicopters as transport: it’s strictly forbidden to drive deer using cars or aircraft, and MacDonell insists they complied with the rules. More than 700 deer were killed on the estate that year, almost double the number shot the year before, and the shooting continued long after the normal end of the season in February.
Under the current owner, Anders Holch Povlsen, who bought the estate from fellow Dane Flemming Skouboe in 2005, the culling has gone on, and three years ago, it became more intense. Stalkers carrying out regular patrols at night, using Land Rovers and searchlights, were told to take a “zero tolerance” approach, and shoot any deer they saw.
In 2004, around 1500 deer were counted on the Glen Feshie estate. Now there are perhaps 400 animals.
Importantly, the cull has concentrated on the valley bottom, where the vegetation is most important, and there the reduction in deer has been even more dramatic.
Now, five years after the deer commission’s intervention, the results of the cull are evident to everyone who goes to Glen Feshie to walk, climb, or just enjoy one of the finest and wildest glens in the whole of the Highlands.
It’s a unique Alpine-arctic environment, where snow lingers long into spring and the eagles, pine martens, red squirrels, grouse and capercailie can all be spotted by those patient enough to wait.
Creeping up the hillsides, scattering down to the river’s edge, the bright green of new pine seedlings is everywhere across the valley. For visitors, it’s a surprise and a delight – in the past it’s been obvious that no new generation of Scots pine was appearing to replace the fallen giants.
For MacDonell, it’s a pivotal time, and, he believes, a vindication at last of the decision to reduce deer numbers to a fraction of what they were before.
“This is the first time we’ve had regeneration of these forests outside fenced areas for 200 years,” he tells me in the estate office. “The mature trees you see here now are almost all 200-odd years old… Going into the woods here was a bit like going into a retirement home for war veterans, a lot of very noble old specimens, but they’re well past their best, and there was nothing coming through to replace them, until now.”
From his appointment as factor, MacDonell felt drastic deer reduction was inevitable, given the agreement the estate had signed with the DCS to protect the vegetation. But he says he was unable to act because of a tier of management above him.
When the deer commission moved in, he says: “I told the owner at that time we have no choice but to comply with the government agencies. The only other way would have been to man the barricades… I would ask the commission for logistical support and we would carry out the cull ourselves. If we didn’t, the commission would come in and do it for us, and charge us for it.
“Ultimately the deer on the estate were very special animals but they couldn’t survive without the habitat, and that was disappearing.”
The initial Glen Feshie cull attracted publicity, largely because of the use of helicopters – video shot by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who opposed the cull, was given to the BBC.
Because of the number of animals killed at a time, some carcases had to be used for pet food. It all led to threats from animal-rights activists and ill-feeling among some in the area, and some of that disapproval lingers.
But the culling forays continue, around four times a week at all times of night night, trying to replicate the activities of natural predators. As well as killing deer, they also scare them away – the deer learn to avoid the wooded area, and MacDonell says it’s as if the stalkers are taking on the role of a pack of native wolves.
John Clark and Bjorn Moe are an unlikely pair of wolf impersonators, Clark with a soft Paisley accent – he’s been on the estate for 15 years – and Moe, a hefty Norwegian student.
Drinking coffee and waiting for it to get “proper dark”, Clark says that for him the cut in deer numbers is a mixed blessing. While the regrowth of vegetation is welcome, it makes taking paying clients out harder.
“Where once we would have had eight or nine chances for a stag, now we maybe have one a day,” he says. “But it’s actually what some clients want.”
Indeed, the estate now makes just as much money from traditional stalking as it used to, with only half the number of stags being shot. Clients, it seems, are prepared to pay more to hunt a scarcer, wilder animal.
As night falls, the Land Rover rumbles out of the estate office yard and heads north to the fringe of the estate. The vehicle is equipped with a powerful light on the roof that rotates though 360 degrees, and in its beam, owls swoop across the fields. One sits on a post a couple of metres from the vehicle, transfixed by the light. Big brown hares fly up almost under wheels.
Clark gets out and takes aim at the eyes of a fox – they are killed to protect lambs – but as he peers through his telescopic sight it moves away before he can get a clean shot. I have seen the merest glimpse of eyes in the searchlight, and wonder how they can possibly know where the animal is, let alone what it is.
The pair spot a roe deer in the fringe of a wood, and drive across open hill to take a look, but at this point they’re just outside the Feshie estate boundaries.
The trip is fascinating, and the men clearly enjoy the work. Clark handles his high-powered rifle easily but tells me they have to shoot with great care, especially at night, as the bullets leave the guns at 2000 mph and can travel up to 12 miles – Kingussie is only about eight miles way.
He admits other stalkers have found it hard to adjust to such drastic reduction in deer numbers.
“It’s a huge change from keeping numbers up for sporting visitors to this. But it’s what the boss wants,” he says.
Driving higher up the glen and the pair talk about another shoot – a new film, Centurion, about the disappearance of a Roman Legion in Scotland – is being made on the estate.
All the time they chat, Moe is sweeping his light across the flat valley bottom, up onto the hillside and along the fringes of the woodland, scouring the hillside for deer in the places they like to feed.
But the roe buck is the only kill of the evening. Back at the shed it is hung up, cleaned and trimmed. The size of a dog, the carcase only weighs about six kilograms in total, and will yield even less meat for the butcher. It’s a contrast to other nights in earlier years when such a trip might have yielded a dozen or so animals, including red deer heavier than a man.
In daylight Clark drives up into the high country on the west side of the estate to see what deer are there. It’s a stark contrast to only a few years ago when red deer by their hundreds could be seen in the bottom of the glen. The car trundles along the track for what seems like miles before a small group of hinds is spotted high up in the margin of an old plantation, where they love to shelter. These trees are not protected and estate has removed the fences from around them. They stare out at the vehicle then file slowly into the shelter of the woods.
From high up it’s possible to get an impression of the enormous size of the estate. Including a couple of Munros, it runs almost as far as the eye can see, from the edges of the Atholl estate in the south west to the bulk of Sgor Gaoith, over 1100 metres high and the start of the main Cairngorm massif, in the east.
Smoke drifts up and past the snow patches to the west were the Atholl estate workers are burning heather, and a biting wind cuts across the hill. Only a thousand feet or so above the main glen there’s a distinct drop in temperature.
Clark spots a roe hind and tries to sneak up on it for a closer look, creeping across the dry ground, but something spooks her and she disappears into a stand of trees. We head back to base.
The whole culling operation is of course expensive, and MacDonell praises Holch Povlsen for subsidising the estate. The cheaper option would have been to just fence off the woods, scrap deer stalking altogether, and let out the cottages used by visiting guns to holidaymakers.
But that would have meant losing the four stalkers’ jobs, and possibly the factor’s too, and forcing deer into areas that could not sustain them.
Fencing too can produce a mass of vegetation and trees all the same age, without the variety that comes from occasional browsing by deer.
Indeed it is likely deer numbers will be increased once the new pines are established, so browsing can help produce a varied landscape of pine, open grassland, heather and juniper.
Experts such as Dr Adam Watson, the pre-eminent scientific authority on the Cairngorms, approve of the kind of operation taking place in Glen Feshie. A similar initiative is under way on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge estate which borders Glen Feshie, although woodland regeneration is so far not as clear there.
The Glen Feshie estate however, like the vast bulk of the Highlands, is privately owned, and Holch Povlsen’s loss on the place probably runs deep into six figures each year.
That’s not an option elsewhere, especially for smaller estates, and Watson points out that much of the problem is that the number of stags shot is crucial in valuing sporting estates, so it is in the owners interest to keep deer numbers high.
“Until we get a change in that it’s very difficult for estates to take action along these lines,” he says.
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) represents 1200 professional stalkers and keepers, the vast majority of the professionals in Scotland, and it takes a very different view.
Peter Fraser, a member of the SGA committee, says the Mar Lodge and Feshie culls have led to a serious shortage of deer on neighbouring estates including the one where he works.
“When you remove deer from an estate you create a vacuum, and deer from neighbouring estates move in to fill that vacuum,” he says.
“Everybody around Feshie and Mar lodge is feeling the effects. We are very short of mature stags now.
“Deer are a major tourist attraction. A lot of people come here to see and listen to the rut along the road from Braemar to Lin of Dee. A tourist could from the comfort of his car watch deer on both sides of the road, but now there’s not a beast to be seen.”
He believes fences are the answer to the degradation of vegetation, and is also opposed to culling outside the traditional season.
He added: “Very little thought has been put into deer welfare in this. The deer are being continually harassed to keep them out.
“Most people try to finish shooting hinds by the middle or end of January. They lose condition into early spring and if you pursue deer at that time of year it’s a big stress factor and can cause them to abort their calves.”
The Deer Commission for Scotland says deer numbers overall in the Cairngorms have not fallen as a result of harsher culling regimes on the Mar Lodge and Feshie estates. But it recognises there have been some effects from the culls, and the DCS is currently assessing the impact on other estates and tourism.
“Cairngorms National Park are working on deer viewing opportunities, and there are plenty of opportunities still to see deer,” says Iain Hope from the commission.
MacDonell is keen to show off the changes that are being wrought in the glen, so we set off on a white-knuckle ride in a two-seater buggy, careering down towards the River Feshie and along the rough estate tracks at speeds of up to 40mph.
We stop along the river to look at the new pines, bright green peeping above the heather. A big old alder stands on one bank, its own seedlings sprouting thinly above the bushy little pines.
“People don’t believe you when you say the number of salmon in the Spey is affected because there are too many deer,” MacDonell says, waving a hand over the river. “But that’s what happens. It’s why we have to take a holistic approach.”
He explains that the Feshie is a major spawning ground for Spey salmon. The lack of trees in the valley, caused by deer browsing, makes water run off the hills faster when it rains. That sweeps away gravel beds the salmon spawn in. The shortage of shade trees along the river banks means the water gets warmer, and warm water is not favoured by the fish for spawning.
MacDonell roars off again up slopes as steep as could be tackled on foot, and my hands tighten on the grip bar in front of me.
Higher on the hillside there are clumps of juniper, which usually grows in tight domes under heavy deer grazing. Here it’s spread out in bushes. The heather too is long, and occasional tiny pines are nestling here as well. The soil is peatier here and it’s harder for the pines to establish themselves, but MacDonell believes that will change as more tree species move in and change the nature of the soil itself.
Rumbling back to the valley, MacDonell stops occasionally to point out the green tops of pine saplings, and calculates their age from the number of forks on the main stem.
Most are three years old, dating from the start of the zero tolerance regime.
“There was a point when we’d killed maybe more than 2,000 deer and there was no apparent effect – that was worrying,” says the factor. “But now you can really see how things are starting to change – hopefully it will justify what we’ve done.”
The next few years will be crucial for the regeneration of Glen Feshie. There’s no certainty, of course, that Holch Povlsen will be able to maintain his support for the estate. In a recession, even Denmark’s second-richest family could find pouring money into a Highland estate is not the best use of resources.
But if the current policy continues the next factor, or maybe the one after that, will really see the benefits of the current work.
MacDonell might not be around to see it but it’s clear his vision and that of those he works with is shaping the future of the glen.