We are lucky to have both a healthy number of resident hinds and stags, and wonderful terrain for stalking. Several of the factors that made last season challenging were repeated. Firstly, the rut throughout Scotland was again later than average this year, due to the mild autumn. Secondly, our deer count in March revealed a drop in deer numbers, itself largely due to an area-wide mandate from Scottish Natural Heritage to shoot more deer to reduce grazing pressure.
However, thanks to the hard work of the guests, Hamish, and George MacDonald (who we are delighted has recovered from his illness) we achieved target of 44 stags. The new rifle has been going well. The weights averaged 14 stone 3lbs, up a little on last year, with the heaviest being 20 stone 4lbs (second heaviest in the last 10 years) shot by Nicholas Dunlop; his first stag!
Hind stalking is ongoing, and given the reduction in deer numbers we will be shooting fewer hinds this season. Versus the 117 hinds and calves shot last winter, we are aiming for 80 this winter. This would represent 20% of our deer count; a little above the recommended 16% but one that I believe is sustainable due to the fact that we have a higher than average resident population of hinds versus stags (thus greater breeding potential); and better shelter and grazing than the average Scottish hill, meaning fewer winter deaths.
The above chart illustrates the significant increase in our deer cull since the 1980s, itself correlated to the increase in our resident deer population. When my father bought South Chesthill in 1978, the deer density (4.8 per sq km) was far lower than the Breadalbane deer group average (8.6 per sq km). But that was quickly addressed and for the last 30 years or so our density has consistently been more than twice that of the deer group average and at times nearly triple. This has been primarily achieved due to reducing sheep numbers and provision of salt licks which have improved the condition of the deer and their breeding capacity. Where we are now, with about 600 deer, more or less matches 2002, and feels like a sustainable number, but grazing pressure from sheep is now increasing: our sheep are not the problem (they are stable in number) it is our neighbours’ sheep who are increasingly wandering onto our land. To address this, in 2016 we will be repairing our 3,095 metre march fence with Roro to the West, and we are urgently investigating options for repairing our 5,250m march fence with Ben Lawyers.
Decent numbers of grouse were seen this year but the number shot was down. We are aiming to increase vermin control and burning of old heather. Next season we will continue to aim for three days walked up with a five brace target each day, and will hope that in the future we can increase both the number of days and the bag.
Nature Tours, walks and an array of nearby activities (updated details available in our Activities section) do, I hope, enable non-sporting guests to enjoy and feel part of the estate in the same way that sporting guests do.