Book review: Among the Deer

Aptly sporting the name Hart, the author has spent a life stalking deer. This, he remarks, has never excited any serious moral objection, even in our sensitised society, because the need to control deer is accepted. He is, therefore, a main-stream countryman. A long-time Independent columnist, he also knows how to put it across.

There are 250,000 stalkers in the UK and the sport is growing rapidly. Not for a moment will they feel ill at ease with Duff Hart-Davis because he has experience, humour and intelligence, attri-butes valued in stalking, and he knows the business inside out. He describes stalking in Scotland’s bare hills as like billiards, one event having knock-on consequences miles off. He understands, as stalkers do and walkers never can, that a careless movement can shift deer on an entire hill.

The author’s reports of stalking fallow in the English woods are fascinating, and he is illuminating on their habits and group behaviour. He tells of the Stonor Park herd that got drunk on crab apples, of titled poachers and eccentric chatelaines of signature private estates. His story of going to the famed Letterewe in Wester Ross during the lifetime of the Dutch businessman and wilderness zealot Paul van Vlissingen is telling.

He is consigned to a remote corner of the vast estate to occupy a house lit by gas. The fare is minimal, the weather worse, and the house is hideously haunted. But to obviate these discomforts, the laird has provided vintage clarets. Besieged by spooks, the lone stalker imbibes the claret and finds his bed a happier man.

The author knows the hills and relishes their culture and legends. The queer spirits of the Highlands, a land much de-peopled, he understands. He vividly recounts tales of sprites, kelpies and spectres. Above all-the critical thing-he understands the people. Right at the end comes the key phrase: ‘I have never spent a day on the hill with a stalker I did not like.’ Is it the hills that have given these men their gravity, presence and resilience, or did they bring it with them? The act of stalking, of spending days with binoculars and rifle in the high country and becoming weathered like rock, would seem to be the formative force.

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There is a tribute to the best communicator of his day on deer, former Balmoral stalker Ronnie Rose. Rose proved that wildlife and commercial forestry, and deer and trees, are not exclusive and that each could benefit from each other. The author had the privilege of a dawn foray in his company.
When the chips are down, Mr Hart-Davis heads for the hills. He rents stalking in the Scottish Highlands and has been everywhere. He rubs shoulders with lofty society, which tends to ownership of deer forests. Somehow, on the high tops, sheltering under a bluff as a chill storm blows by, there is no room for ceremony. Stalk-ing is a brilliant leveller.

There are the stories, the long days, the triumphs and the exhaustion, and there are the injuries and tragedies. Adding spice, there are the disappearances, the human ones. Lastly, the laughs, often, in the nature of stalkers, self-deprecating ones.