If my first outing was a bit of a trial by fire, the second is about as ideal a stalking experience as you could hope for.
I’ve asked Peter (Jones – lead instructor at The Capreolus Club, with whom I am learning the practice of stalking) for a morning outing. Most stalking takes place either at dawn, or dusk, and an early start suits my schedule better than a late finish: A few years back, when our daughter was born, we learnt the invaluable skill of going to sleep by 9pm. It’s a habit that we continue to maintain.
I get myself out of bed at 3:30 am, in time to meet Peter in a Hampshire village just after 5:00. Arriving a few minutes before him, I quietly sort my gear out in that pre-dawn stillness, when it feels like you’re the only person awake in the whole world. Except that in short order my presence galvanises the local crow population into action, about a million of them ‘cawing’ at me, at each other and at the world in general. How they manage to make quite so much noise is a mystery, but I feel uncomfortably aware that to the folks trying to get their eight hours in the homes nearby, this dawn chorus is going to be about as welcome as an ice cube in a bedroom slipper.
I have decided to try some different ammunition for this stalk. On my first outing, I fired two rounds into a muntjac buck, neither of which had quite made it out the other side, which did not seem right: Back on the PDS1 course, Peter had explained to me that the round will almost always travel straight through the animal – which is why we need to be careful that another deer isn’t standing behind our target. I was concerned that despite fitting the brief from a technical standpoint, that ammunition had been lacking in some way, because while .243 is the smallest legal deer calibre in England and Wales, it should be more than capable of the task at hand. To put things in perspective it’s bigger than the .223 (5.56mm) calibre used in a standard NATO military rifle. The ammunition I had been using was 90 grain, so I opted for something heavier – 100 grain Hornady.
I count out four rounds of ammunition, loading them into the magazine. I won’t need more than four. If I need more than two, the chances are something has gone really wrong. I don’t want to be pointlessly carrying around a quantity of ammunition that I don’t need. It makes it more likely that I will accidentally lose a live round – a huge problem. I am responsible for each and every one. Peter has previously given me some solid advice on this: ‘Take the same amount of ammunition out with you every time. That way you’ll always know exactly how many you need to account for.’ I put the loaded magazine into one zipped pocket. The rifle bolt is in another, as it has been for my drive to our meeting point. Without the bolt, my rifle is a paperweight. By keeping the two parts separated, I’m creating as many obstacles as possible to it being used for the wrong reasons. The rifle, over my shoulder in a gunslip so as not to alarm anyone, will not be reunited with its bolt, or with the loaded magazine until we’re on private land where we have permission to shoot.
As the first glimmer of dawn appears, Peter and I make our way out into the fields. We need to move quickly: As day breaks, and the world starts to wake up and get involved, any deer that are out and about are going to start making their way back into the denser woodland. As usual, because he’s nearly twenty feet tall, what for Peter is a brisk walk, is for me on my little legs, a run.
Almost immediately we encounter deer. There are three roe deer in the second field along. There’s no question of a shot here: They’re skylined – there’s no backstop behind them, no bank of earth that can be relied upon to absorb a bullet. Furthermore, there’s a farmhouse there, and there’s no way we’re going to point a rifle in any direction where there are likely to be people.
And this is a gift, because while there’s no chance of taking a shot, I can simply watch these animals, and concentrate on what Peter’s saying – it’s a lesson in how to tell the difference between these young roe does and bucks. The bucks haven’t grown their antlers yet, and at first glance, the genders seem identical. But they’re not, and what Peter has been able to discern instantly takes me some time, and careful study through the Swarovski binoculars to understand. The does have an ‘anal tush’ a tuft of hair that protrudes beneath their tail. Identification is crucial – the does are in season, the bucks are not. Even when encountering a species of deer in which both genders are in season, it might be that we should be favouring one over the other, for conservation reasons. We have to know what we’re shooting, and why. This is another reason why I’m here with County Deer Stalking. It’s not just that the police require me to shoot under guidance until I can be relied upon from a safety standpoint. That’s obviously the most important thing, but there’s a lot more to it than safety. If I’m to hunt these animals well, to do what’s right for their species as well as my nutrition, I must understand which ones need to be culled in any given group.
It’s time to move on. We’re not going to get a shot here. Rather than creep about in the bushes, Peter elects to walk, brazenly past them along the road. They may be used to walkers, and they might just ignore us. It’s worth a try. In the event they run, but it’s magnificent to see them bounce across in front of us, disappearing into the woodland. Following after them, trots a little muntjac buck. We’ve now seen four deer, and we’ve only been out for half an hour.
We keep working our way along, a couple of fields over, climbing up a bank from the single-track road, and emerging from the undergrowth on the edge of a large, undulating field. And there, right out in the middle are no less than eight roe deer. They’re grazing, and wandering to-and-fro down in a dip in the field, which rises gently behind them – a perfect backstop – we’d be firing down into soft earth.
Having unloaded the rifle, and put it back in the sip while walking along the road, I’m now acutely aware that I need to get myself in a position to shoot. Are they going to detect us and run? Is this an opportunity that’s about to vanish into the trees, while I fumble with zips? But there’s no point in rushing. Above all, we need to be quiet. They haven’t seen us, and if they could smell us, they’d have done so already.
Peter has set the sticks up – we use shooting sticks as a stability aid. It’s extremely hard to shoot accurately ‘freehand’, but far easier with sticks or a tripod. And stalking is all about a humane shot, not a difficult shot. There’s no satisfaction in wounding an animal, or in taking the risk of wounding one. I seat the magazine in the rifle, and slide the bolt forward to pick up the top round and push it forward into the chamber. Something sticks. I’m trying to be quiet, and every little click and scrape of the metalwork seems about as discreet as…well, as a million crows going apeshit at 5:00 am in a small Hampshire village. I don’t want to start slamming the bolt forward, and making even more noise. Peter is frowning at the rifle. I understand the implication – if the cartridge won’t move forward into the chamber, is that because something is blocking its passage? If an obstruction gets forced into the barrel ahead of the cartridge, firing the rifle could be extremely dangerous for us both – fatal, even. He takes it from me, quietly removes the bolt, and sights down the bore. It’s clear. The next round loads ok, but it does seem a bit ‘sticky’. I make a mental note of the fact that my rifle and this ammunition can be this way when a fear of making noise makes you less ‘positive’ with the action.
I’m up on the sticks now, with a loaded rifle, looking down the scope at a group of eight roe deer, around 120 yards away, with a perfect backstop. What then follows is the sort of experience that led me to pursue stalking in the first place. Peter is talking me through the group – the approximate age of each animal, the does, the bucks. He explains which one should be taken – a yearling doe. He makes sure I’ve identified her.
There’s no rush now – it feels as if we have time. I won’t take the shot until she’s in a perfect position. There’s no need to take any risks. The easier the shot, the more chance there is of a humane kill.
Each time another animal crosses in front or behind, I have no shot. I can’t risk killing the doe, but wounding a second animal. As she turns too far towards or away from me, I have no shot – I want her to be more-or-less broadside, because my target is the heart and lungs, but without my bullet travelling on into the gut, perforating the intestine and causing contamination.
A high neck shot is a possibility when a deer is head-on, but it’s a difficult shot – more risky for an experienced stalker, reckless for a novice like me.
The deer are standing in what to me, at my height is ‘dead ground’ – because of the way the terrain dips, their lower legs are obscured by the ground in front of them. The long grasses that are growing here reach up high enough to sit in the path of my shot. I need to wait for the doe to move up the slope a little, giving me a clean shot at the ‘killzone’, just behind her front leg, around half way up her body.
Peter and I settle in, and continue to talk through what the animals are doing. As I wait for the perfect shot, we have this wonderful opportunity to just watch them grazing, to observe the different characters, the dynamic of the group. People might find it hard to accept that stalkers appreciate the beauty of these creatures on the one hand, but are prepared to kill them on the other. It is necessary. If the population grows too large, it’s the deer who suffer – starvation and disease begin to take hold. Humans have removed the wolves who would naturally prey on deer in the U.K, and in order to maintain the health of the six deer species that live here, we must control their population. These are the principles of conservation.
I feel a sense of…patience. I’m enjoying this opportunity to watch the deer, to learn more about them, and if some unexpected disturbance sends them bouncing into the woodland, never to be seen again, well so be it. Tough. I will still have had a wonderful experience. That said, I’m sure it’s going to happen. I can feel the jigsaw falling into place. The doe is starting to drift up the bank of the field a little, grazing as she goes. She moves clear of the others. I push the safety catch – forward to fire. The click seems unnaturally loud. She lifts her head and at that moment, everything is as perfect as it’s ever going to be. I put pressure on the trigger, and the rifle jumps back into my shoulder.
Peter has taught me that I need to try to keep the ‘sight picture’ as I shoot – to keep looking down the scope. There’s a natural instinct to bring your head up off the rifle as it goes bang, to recoil away from it. But the trick is to keep your focus on the target, to see which way it runs in the ensuing confusion, without trying to adjust to the new version of reality offered by the naked eye. And deer do often run when you shoot them. They can be effectively dead, but muscle memory and adrenaline may take them a few yards from the point at which they’re shot. It’s an issue in the dark, or in dense woodland, where a stalker can lose a deer.
I’ve had time to rehearse the shot in my mind, and I do manage to come back onto the scope, seeing the doe kick up her back legs – a good sign – and bolt to the right, before disappearing down into the grass about twenty yards on. The shot placement was good, and I know that there was no chance we were going to find her alive. I look over at Peter, and can see that he shares my confidence. He had the look of someone who has done their job well. He has given me both the skills and the opportunity to shoot the right animal, the right way, at the right time.
We wait. In the commotion of the shot, the other roe have bolted, but we want to give them plenty of time to get clear. We don’t want them to associate this location with people. Equally, if there’s any chance that the doe is still alive, we don’t want our ugly mugs to be the last thing she sees. She’d just be afraid. We will hang back, and give the natural world a moment to catch up, to regain its equilibrium.
After a few minutes, we walk out into the field to retrieve the doe. She’s lying down in the grass, precisely where we expected her to be. We conduct a blink test – a way to definitively establish that an animal is dead, and not just paralysed. The shot has passed directly through the heart, and both lungs, a neat pinprick marking its entry just behind the shoulder. I roll her gently over. There’s no question of inadequacy with the 100 grain Hornady. I find myself taken aback at the severity of the exit wound. This is what I had expected, but it’s somewhat shocking to see the reality of what a bullet does. I’m glad of it though, because I’m reassured that this was effectively an instant death.
One of the great advantages of the morning stalk is that now, with the sun up, there’s plenty of light by which to learn more about the gralloch – the process of removing the intestine from the carcass before it swells up and causes contamination. It’s fascinating. Peter takes me through the steps in detail, demonstrating and encouraging me to get involved as much as possible.
My motivation for stalking is the venison as a source of food, and the gralloch represents the first step in turning a carcass into a meal. I’m shown the various steps in order, as well as how to inspect the lymph nodes for signs of disease. We must remove the hooves, head and intestine, burying them in woodland nearby. In addition to those, the heart and lungs are destroyed, and the exiting bullet has also taken out the shoulder on the far side. These things can not be salvaged, but the other organs, and the lion’s share of the muscle meat is in perfect shape. Peter shows me how to skin the carcass.
By the time everyone else is thinking about leaving for work, I have one roe deer, in a muslin bag, in the boot of my car. By midday, I’m in my kitchen at home, with the animal butchered, portioned and vac-sealed ready for the freezer, my rifle cleaned and locked away. I eat the liver for dinner. While liver is often offensively strong-tasting, this wild venison liver is mild, tender and sweet. It’s incredible, delicious, nutritious eating. This outing embodies all of my reasons for getting involved in stalking in the first place.