By Linda Mellor
In 2020, we all had to deal with life in lockdown because of the Covid-19 Pandemic. As a Scottish deerstalker in lockdown life was different. UK lockdown life was difficult, and demanding as it presented us with many unforeseen, unique challenges. Our main focus was to stay well and follow the government guidelines. However, as the lockdown days rolled into weeks and then months we had to find ways to keep ourselves occupied. How did a Scottish deerstalker in lockdown keep busy?
The mainstream Press reported people had taken up gardening, feeding garden birds, and cooking while others struggled to fill their days with activities. Rural life presented an array of different challenges but when one deerstalker on a remote estate was furloughed he decided to make the most of his time in April and May.
Richard MacGregor, 52, is a single-handed deerstalker on the remote Corrievarkie Estate, part of Benalder Estates, Scotland. When he left school, Richard started on a Youth Training Scheme (more commonly known as YTS) at Fairburn Estate as a trainee gamekeeper. After a number of years, he worked at Benalder, then Benmore Assynt before returning to Benalder in 1995. In 2000, he took on the solo deerstalker role at Corrievarkie on the banks of Loch Ericht. In June, he quietly celebrated his 25 years with Benalder estates. Corrievarkie is predominately stag territory, but it does hold small herds of hinds. The estate is located on the Perthshire/Inverness border.
Love of nature
When Richard was furloughed in early April, he was determined he wouldn’t sit around and do nothing. Encouraged by to his love of nature and an interest in photography he started taking pictures of the bird and animal life on the estate. As he began to spend more time photographing the wildlife his interest developed so he took a more focussed approach.
Scottish Deerstalker in Lockdown
Scottish deerstalker Richard said, “I love nature and getting close to it so when I was furloughed during the pandemic, it meant I had more time on my hands. So I used my time to study and photograph nature. Photography was something I always wanted to develop as I always enjoyed taking pictures. During lockdown, I thought I’d get a few local birds around my garden and the estate, and maybe a few stags. Of course, as a deer stalker you are observant and have to be aware of what is on your land. However, when you have more time to study nature it was very surprising how much activity there is and how much you see.”
Variety of birds
A local, small plantation proved to be a haven for birds and an opportunity for Richard to further his photography skills. Richard found a quiet spot to watch the bird activity and waited with his camera. He photographed a Cuckoo, Crossbill, Redstart, Stonechat, Redpoll and Ring Ousel. Hanging feeders in the plantation gave the birds a place to feed. The feeding area also gave Richard a fixed spot to visit. He spent many hours sitting out, at different times of the day to watch the bird activity. “It was a big surprise to see such a variety of birds, and to be able to photograph them. The light was quite a challenge because the birds, understandably, preferred the safety and security of the cover in the trees. I experimented going out at different times of the day to maximise the available natural light. I had no idea I had so many birds living in the plantation! So, it goes to show when you have the time, you’ll see so much more.”
Richard feeds the garden birds throughout the year. He said, “Corrievarkie is a remote location, we are miles from anywhere, the track to the main road is 11 miles long, and in the winter we can only travel by Argo because the snowdrifts are in excess of 6ft.” The regular garden visitors are Siskins, Chaffinches, Wagtails, Robins, and Sandpipers, House Martins, Coal, Great and Blue tits. Goldfinch, Bullfinch, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, and a Jay have been seen. “I was in the hide photographing the garden birds when I noticed a tiny blue tit had a ring on its leg then, a few weeks later, I spotted a ringed siskin. It’s very odd because we are so remote, and no one, to my knowledge, rings birds around here.”
Haven for wildlife
Corrievarkie is a haven for wildlife; Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles are seen regularly, so are Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks and Merlins. There are coveys of Grouse, Mountain Hares and Snipe. On the high-tops there are Ptarmigan and Golden Plover. In June, Richard enjoyed watching the hinds with their new calves and Sandpipers sheltering their young under their wings. On his travels locally, he has also photographed Blackcock, Curlews, Red Squirrels, Brown Hares, Common Greenshank, Little Grebe, Roe deer, Black-throated Divers and Lapwings with chicks.
“The Pandemic was a shock to us all, and no-one saw it coming or knew how to prepare. Looking back at the months I was furloughed, I like to think my experience was a positive one.” Richard started to use Instagram and Facebook to share his wildlife images, “sharing my pictures online has also helped broaden my social media skills because pre-lockdown they didn’t exist!” As a Scottish Deerstalker in lockdown on a remote Sporting estate, Richard summed it up. “All nature is special but it was amazing to discover there’s so much more when you take the time to study it.”
If any gamekeeper, ghillie or stalker is in need of help, advice or support please contact the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust, they had a dedicated helpline set up to assist anyone in need.