Neil McIntyre never realised how large the red deer he grew up with in rural Perthshire and the Highlands were until one of the majestic creatures was standing right in front of him.
As a six-year-old boy, he was mesmerised by that close encounter with the monarch of the glen, whose breath seemed like smoke in the freezing air.
He recalled holding up his hands and realising that one of the animal’s antlers would be longer than his arm, even as he gazed at the fully grown stag.
He said: “I remember the awe and wonder I felt and it was overwhelming.
“Ever since then I have loved the red deer and I have been observing them now for more than three decades, but they still exert a fascination for me.”
Neil has travelled to many of Scotland’s rugged, remote places with his camera in search of enduring photographs of these iconic beasts.
And he has now brought many of the images together in a richly evocative collection.
Given his family background, it’s hardly surprising he is passionate about the countryside and the different birds and animals which populate the hills and glens of his homeland.
His grandfather, Peter, was in the army during the First World War, where he served with the Scottish Horse, which subsequently became the 13th Battalion of The Black Watch.
Neil said: “He was very experienced with horses and the estate where he worked, Glen Artney in Perthshire, became prominent in supplying ponies to other estates.
“My father (Torquil) took me out to walk the lands together from an early age and told me how important it was to respect the land and the wildlife.”
These first steps into the Scotland’s wild places inspired Neil to develop an early interest in photography and his passion grew after watching a film-maker at work, carefully, meticulously chronicling the secret life of ospreys.
He said: “I was about to enter my teens when a wildlife documentary maker, Hugh Miles, visited the estate we lived on to film them.
“Seeing the work that Hugh did filming the rare birds, how he went about it, and how he connected with his subject, sparked an interest in me and opened up a world which I had never previously considered.”
The fire had been lit and it has never been extinguished. Not long after he left school, Neil bought his first camera – with the money he made working on an estate during the summer holidays – and he was free to begin a hobby that has turned into a vocation.
He said: “For me, photography has always been about appreciating the wildlife first and foremost and the camera is just a way to capture the lives of the creatures with whom I felt the deepest connection.
“It was, and still is, my greatest passion, so I pursued it as a career, taking me a step away from gamekeeping while keeping me connected to rural life.”
The results are transcendent and his new book, Chasing the Deer, highlights the animals in myriad different guises, whether “boxing” in the spring, surviving harsh winter blasts, bringing new life into the world or with stags and hinds blending together in some gorgeous silhouettes.
Neil isn’t doe-eyed about the ongoing conflict between those who carry out deer culls to prevent overpopulation of the species and those who oppose any killing of animals.
But he has produced a vivid, visceral and luminous illustration of why these beasts are such an enduring and cherished feature of the Scottish landscape.
A work of art as well as a moving meditation on man’s relationship with red deer.”
Environmentalist Cal Flynn on Neil McIntyre’s Chasing The Deer
He said: “Despite the indifference shown by some people to what I see as the plight of the deer, there is undoubtedly still a real love for these creatures.
“A lot of household items feature a deer design: you see place mats, bedspreads, cushion covers, and all sorts of souvenirs featuring this magnificent animal.
“I hope that my work will raise awareness of the challenges facing the red deer in Scotland as well as helping others to better understand what makes them so special.
“There used to be a body called the Red Deer Commission, a government agency which worked together with interested parties.
“Although it was never perfect, things were thought out a little bit more and culls would only be done out of season in really mitigating circumstances.
“But with changes in the way that culls are regulated and, as rewilding, forestry and other interests extend their influence, (the number of) culls has increased dramatically in recent years.
“In 2017-18, 21,861 deer were culled at night in Scotland. In 2018-19, Scottish Natural Heritage (which is now called NatureScot) issued 370 night shooting licences (more than one a day) and 641 out-of-season authorisations.
“The change in the way culls are planned has resulted in a number of detrimental consequences, because there is no way to take appropriate care when the culls are reduced to a numbers game.
“Any night shooting and out-of-season authorisations should and must be seriously scrutinised and investigated before (licences) are issued.”
Whatever the politics of the situation, Neil has taken his camera far and wide and gained praise from the likes of Outlander star Sam Heughan, who has described his latest collection of images as “stunning”.
Environmentalist Cal Flynn went further and said the book was: “A work of art as well as a moving meditation on man’s relationship with red deer.”
And there was an effusive tribute to Neil’s powers from Simon King OBE, the naturalist, conservationist and TV presenter whose credits include Springwatch and Planet Earth.
King said: “My passion for red deer was born of early encounters in both Scottish hills and southern moors and forests almost half a century ago.
“That creatures of such physical stature can still roam wild in these crowded isles is a testament to their adaptability and tenacity.
“In the mid-1990s, I spent two years working with a friend to habituate a number of wild stags and hinds on the west coast of Scotland and got to know these deer intimately, not just as a species, but as individuals.
“And individuals they were! It should come as no surprise that each deer has a unique character, elusive to the casual observer, but which shines through once you get to know them well.
“Neil’s glorious photographs capture much of that identity: the way a stag holds its head, the look in a hind’s eye as she scrutinises the photographer.
“In every image, there is clear empathy, care and even love for the subject embodied in Neil’s composition and choice of light.
“I hope that the splendour, beauty and wisdom (in the book) will convince those who consider red deer to be nothing more than a destructive force on the landscape to have a new-found understanding and empathy for this most precious and iconic of wild creatures.”
- Chasing the Deer is published by Sandstone Press.