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The Moor and the Loch
The Roe


MANY of the woods that fringe our most romantic lochs and glens abound with the roe; its chief food being the leaves in summer, and the tender tops of the trees in winter. I do not mean to say that it is not also fond of grass or clover, but the other is its most natural choice. So destructive is it to young woods, that many gentlemen give it no quarter on this account. Even trees of considerable growth are not safe from its attacks ; the buck sometimes fixing his horns against the stem, walking round and round until the ground is bared, and the bark so injured that the tree dies. The favourite haunts of the roe are those belts of young plantation, surmounted by large pine-forests, common throughout the Highlands; the former supply it with food, and the latter give it shelter.

The pursuit of the roe, if followed in a proper way, affords first-rate sport, and taxes to the full the strength, skill, and energy of the hunter; but this is seldom the case, and the generality of roe-hunts are nothing but blunders from beginning to end. The common way of proceeding is, to place half-a-dozen gentlemen with their guns in the passes, and then, with a host of beaters and dogs, to scour the plantations, always commencing at the windward side, where the roes are sure to be found. I confess I have no great liking to this plan; the plantations are thoroughly disturbed, almost every head of game being driven out; and I never saw a party of this kind succeed much better than when one or two experienced roe-hunters had the whole sport to themselves. [The roe is occasionally stalked, and shot with the rifle, and I have heard it alleged, that it is thus raised to the dignity of a deer, whereas the common method of buck-shot degrades it to the level of a hare. Having several times tried this experiment, I may safely pronounce it a most wretched burlesque upon deer-stalking. Roes almost always confine themselves to the woods, and although, by peeping round corners and openings in the plantations, you may sometimes get a good rifle-shot, yet you are much more apt to come upon them quite within range of buck-shot, especially if the cover is not very thin, which a good haunt of roes seldom is. They are thus almost sure to see and hear you and steal away unperceived; but should you succeed in getting the shot, it is pretty certain to be a running one, and you will stand but a poor chance with a rifle at a roe bounding among thick plantation. The great excitement of deer-stalking consists in seeing your game from a distance without being yourself perceived, which affords ample scope for skill and tact in approaching it.]

A description of one of these noisy parties will, with a few exceptions, apply to all. We will suppose the sportsmen snugly in their passes, while the beaters and dogs are in full hoot and howl in the wood below ; one man allows the roe to slip by unobserved, until it is almost out of reach, then fires his buck-shot, perhaps wounding his game, which the dogs are unable to run down ; another never sees it at all; a third shows himself in the pass, and so throws away his chance ; and I have even known two instances of our brethren from the south leaving their posts for a time to take a comfortable luncheon-their love of a roe-pasty prevailing over their love of the chase. One of them was only detected by the hounds and roe having run right through his pass during his absence. Although a man should not be so churlish as to refuse joining a party of this kind, yet I could excuse any knowing roe-hunter for anticipating with greater pleasure and hope of success the day when he should take the field alone.

Such a one will always prefer a day with scarcely a breath of air, high wind being destruction to his sport: first, from the difficulty of hearing the hound; and, next, from the currents of air which he will be obliged to avoid, lest the roe should wind him. His only companion is a very slow and steady hound. Thoroughly acquainted with all the passes, he places himself in that he considers the best, ready to change his position should the baying of the hound seem to indicate that the roe has taken a different direction. If it escapes at the first burst, he is not at all disconcerted, as his tactics now begin. The roe perhaps stretches away into the large pine-forest, and he sees his good hound slowly and surely threading his way through the thick underwood, making the welkin ring. Now is the time for our sportsman to display the strength of his lungs and limbs. Aware that the roe, after a fair heat, will probably slacken his speed, and with the hound scarcely more than a hundred yards behind, course slowly round and round a knot of hillocks, perhaps for half an hour at a time, he will use his utmost efforts to keep within hearing of the bay. Whenever this appears nearly confined to one place, he advances with extreme caution, peering round at every step, with his gun cocked and held ready to fire. The sound seems now at hand-again more distant, as it is obstructed by the intervening hillocks; he conceals himself upon an angle of one of them, near the centre of the knot, to command as good a view both ways as he can. If the hound continues opening near, he watches with the utmost vigilance, almost holding his breath to catch the slightest sound. After waiting some time, should the dog still remain near, he will occasionally shift his position, but always with the same caution.

A novice would scarcely believe the noiseless step with which a roe will often pass, and the scanty covering of brushwood that will screen it from observation. Should it slip by in this manner, you will of course immediately know by the tracking of the hound, which has often made me aware of its almost magical transit. Attention and experience, however, will considerably lessen the roe's chance of escape. Whenever it takes another direction, follow at your best speed, until it again tries the dodging game. Continue the pursuit so long as your hound is stanch, and your own strength holds out, taking advantage of every pass within and round the wood.

Here let me give two cautions : always to dress as near the colour of the ground and trees as you can, and when concealed, never to make the least motion ; if you do, the roe will at once perceive it and stop short. You will most likely only be made aware of its having done so by the hound coming within forty or fifty yards, and then turning away in another direction. When properly dressed, even should your place of concealment not be very good, the roe will be pretty sure to pass if you keep perfectly still. This is even more necessary when expecting a hill-fox. Should the roe take a straight course, right out of your beat, you must await its return, which, if it has not been alarmed or shot at, you may pretty confidently expect.

In recommending the above manner of roe-shooting, it must be remembered that I do not say it is easy ; but I do say that, when thoroughly understood, it will be attended with much greater success in the long run, and the roes will be less disturbed, than when many of the passes are kept by novices in the sport. I once, in Kenmure wood, at the head of Loch Lomond, by this mode killed two in a few hours, one of them a very fine old buck, without harassing any others ; while a party of five or six of us, and beaters to correspond, after alarming the whole wood, and firing many shots, only got three yearling fawns in four whole days.

Many gentlemen have a great prejudice against allowing hounds to enter their covers, for fear of driving the roes away, when the blame should rather be laid on their large party, unskilful manoeuvring, and long random shots. I have had good proof that roes are not so much afraid of fox-hounds as people suppose. A gentleman of my acquaintance had a newly-planted wood much injured by them: he desired the gamekeeper to hunt them out; so little, however, did this frighten them, that they have been known to return within an hour after the hounds were taken off, nor would they leave the place until one or two had been shot.

Nor is this the only instance which has come within my own notice. On the shooting-ground which I took for a season at Kinnaird, in Perthshire, was a pine wood, with an oak copse at the side ; here I frequently saw a fine buck and two does feeding. They were very tame, and I tried in vain to beat them out with the shepherd's dogs. I had not then much knowledge of roe-hunting; but I procured an old hound, and pursued them every day for a week without getting a shot. They were still to be found in their old haunts every morning, although ever so hard hunted the day before. They would take a stretch upon the open moor for an hour, and then return, always keeping together; and it was only by marking a much-used pass that I at length succeeded in getting a very fair right and left, killing the buck with one barrel, and one of the does with the other. Astray shot struck the other doe, which happened to be in line, and broke her leg, although I was not aware of it. Two days after, a farmer sent me word that a wounded roe had been seen in the wood. I again put the hound into the cover, and in a short time the poor creature came limping past, when I shot it, to prevent the dog from putting it to a more cruel death. I do not mention this as claiming any merit, for the shots were open, near, and easy; greater skill might have secured them some time before: but I think a fair inference in proof of my assertion may be drawn from this and other instances of the kind.

The roe's sagacity in discovering real from apparent danger is remarkable: the crouching shooter with his deadly gun is instantly detected, while the harmless workman may even blast the rock and cause no alarm. This fact I have been assured of by men employed on the Highland road, who had often seen the roes peeping at them from the cliffs above, watching their whole proceedings without any signs of fear.

The roe has no great kindliness to the fallow deer. It is a curious fact, that on Loch Lomond there are two large wooded islands which the roes constantly haunt, without ever crossing to a third, where deer are kept, though well adapted to their habits. When swimming in and out of these islands, the roes have regular passes as on land, but if a boat be near they will never attempt to cross. A few years ago, an English gentleman wishing for a couple, a plan of catching them in the water was thought of; for this purpose, boats were concealed near the passes, and the roes hunted out of the islands: but they were such dexterous swimmers, and doubled so well, that they always escaped, until the thought of fixing a noose to a pole suggested itself, by which simple device they were soon secured. In a short time they became quite domesticated, and would eat from the hand of their keeper.

Another was caught many years ago, which my brothers and I, when boys, begged to be allowed to tame. We used to bring it leaves in great quantities, which it would eat from our hands, always preferring those of the mountain-ash. The confinement, however, did not agree with it; and, although supplied with grass, clover, and everything we could think of, it fell off in condition, and we were obliged to set it free.

The roe has two young ones at a time, the most beautiful little creatures possible. It is curious to see them, when started, bound away with the greatest activity, though no bigger than a cat.

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