In November, I travelled up to Knoydart in the West Highlands of Scotland to photograph a week-long deer stalking trip. I knew nothing about hunting beforehand, and had no idea what to expect.
After a 16-hour drive and a night in Fort William, our group of 9 arrived in Knoydart – which is not accessible by road – via a foot passenger-only ferry. Having settled into the country house on the estate, the group went down to the larder and butchered a deer, which had already been hung, for our meals for the week – venison steaks, stew, burgers and kebabs!
The group split across two different estates each day, with a primary shooter and secondary shooter accompanied by a resident stalker and ghillie. The scenery was stunning, the weather was varied, and the stalking was unpredictable. One day, we climbed almost vertical hills in an intense hailstorm, hiking for nearly eight hours, and taking home nothing. Another day, the sun made the entire vista golden. Later in the week, we crawled on our bellies through thick snow under a cloudless sky.
When a deer was shot, the shooter or ghillie would gralloch it (remove the stomach, intestines, spleen and colon), and the ghillie would drag the deer down the hill. Then, the deer would be put on a quad bike or strapped onto a pony to travel to the Landrover, and put in a trailer for the journey to the larder. At the larder, the animal has its legs and head cut off, and its organs removed. Her teeth are used to age the deer. Then, she is cleaned and hung, before butchering later on.
Some of the shooters in our group were first-timers, so, following tradition, the stalker dabbed blood from the shooter’s first kill onto their face, before sharing a hipflask (port mixed with whiskey, or a Strongbow..!)
I was interested in opinions and ethics around shooting. Due to a lack of natural predators, the deer cause environmental damage, and the estates are fined if the correct number of deer are not culled each season. The numbers of deer shot are monitored, and part of the stalker’s job is choosing which deer to cull. This results in a steady, healthy herd on the hill. I asked one of the stalkers about this one evening: “I do what I do because I love it,” he told me. “But killing animals is not fucking cool. I start to have a meltdown if I think about it too much. Am I god? I have to decide out of a group which ones to kill. ‘Oh, she’s not a good mother, BANG! He won’t last the season, BANG!'”
Photographing this trip was a challenge. I took lightstands, a tripod, off-camera lighting, a range of lenses and back ups of everything. But after day one, I realised I needed to limit myself to one body and one lens on the hill. The hiking could be strenuous and the weather was highly changeable – not ideal circumstances for carrying extraneous gear or even changing lenses a lot of the time. So I ended up using different lenses on different days – one day taking out my D3s with the 24-70mm attached, several days I used my 20mm, and another day I opted for the 85mm 1.4 (which I felt was risky at the time, but ended up getting some of my favourite shots of the trip).
For more information about the Knoydart Foundation, go HERE and for info about the Kilchoan Estate, go HERE. Massive thanks to Cai at Game and Flames for organising! Thanks also to stalkers Ian, Jim and Fred; ghillies Mike and Lewis; and hunters Jed, Rob, Eddie, Fei, Lee, Phil, and Matt for making the whole trip such a memorable one!
NOTE: some of the following images are graphic, showing dead animals, and animals in the process of being butchered.