Since the inception of my journey into deer stalking, I had taken a basic qualification, applied for, and been granted a Firearms Certificate, bought my first rifle, and learnt how to zero it. It was finally time to go out for my first stalk – a significant milestone.
Having finished zeroing my Sako rifle, Peter (Jones, lead instructor at The Capreolus Club) leads the way into a nearby area of private woodland, on which the club has permission to shoot. “There ARE deer here” he explains. “It’s just a question of who sees who first.” We quietly climb over the gate next to a sign that reads ‘PRIVATE – KEEP OUT’ but not ‘…especially if you’re wearing a fur coat and a pair of Christmas antlers’.
As we are now off the public road, I am to load, apply the safety catch, and sling the rifle over my shoulder. I will always sling the rifle while walking. Peter will walk in front with me tucked in behind, thus reducing our visibility. We will move slowly and quietly, stopping to ‘glass’ our surroundings at regular intervals – the term used for scanning the area with our Swarovski binoculars. We will be looking for any sign of deer – movement, the white flash of a tail, or the twitch of an ear.
Peter carries a set of shooting sticks – a four-legged support, providing remarkable stability for the rifle. Hunting is not a shooting competition. There are no points for a difficult shot over an easier one. The only objective is to humanely kill the animal you’re hunting. If we come across deer, he will plant the sticks in the dirt, as I move up with the rifle. We will need to quickly assess what we were looking at, what species and gender – it’s still October, and with the exception of Muntjac which have no closed season, it is strictly bucks only.
Our objective is a ‘high seat’ about a hundred yards in. A high seat is basically a ladder with a chair screwed to the top. You lean it up against a big tree, and secure it, creating an elevated platform, around ten feet up. From that vantage point, you can more easily spot your quarry, steady your aim on the attached armrest, and be confident of a safe backstop:
To illustrate, if I shoot horizontally, at the same height as my target, on flat ground, my .243 calibre bullet could travel a kilometre before gravity eventually brings it down. That’s no backstop at all, because I can’t see clearly out to that distance. There’s foliage in the way, obscuring my view, but which isn’t a backstop in itself. I might hit a solid tree, but then I might not. I might hit livestock, a building, a moving vehicle. Or a person. If I go up ten feet, provided the target is reasonably close to me, which in woodland it would have to be, the only thing on the far side is soft earth – I’m safe to shoot.
We begin our stalk down through the woodland, Peter quicker and quieter than me. Each of his steps is two of mine, and I’m trying not to tread on dry twigs, leaves and other noisy stuff. I’m tending to lag behind, which is an issue, because if we do encounter deer, I need to be able to move forward to the sticks before any opportunity is lost. It’ll be frustrating for both me as a client, and Peter as a guide, if an animal presents itself and I’m in the wrong place. It would be something else entirely if I were to get carried away, and try to take a shot by myself, freehand, with Peter standing downrange. I would quite rightly find myself on a rather frosty walk back to the car.
We stop every few yards, and raise our binoculars. You can’t hunt without a rifle – not in the U.K at least – but on any given outing, you only use it for a moment, if at all. The piece of gear you actually use constantly, is the binoculars.
We work our way methodically down the path, to the foot of the high seat, and climb up as quietly as possible. And there we sit, listening to the sounds of the woodland, silently scanning around. I could happily sit for hours, just letting the place get back to doing whatever it was doing before we intruded. Every couple of minutes there’s a clatter as a horse chestnut comes bouncing down to earth, ricocheting off every branch in its path. Every time it happens I think ‘DEER!’. I expect Peter thinks ‘horse chestnut’. In truth, I don’t expect to see any deer. I don’t believe it’s going to be that easy. Sometimes it is, apparently.
Not this time – after a while we slowly clamber down and begin to move sideways towards a second seat, another hundred yards further on. This time there’s no path to follow, and we’re picking our way through brambles, deep piles of leaves and deadfall. Try as we might, it’s hard to keep quiet.
Suddenly, with a great crash from the bushes just down to our left, a deer shoots out in front of us. ‘FALLOW PRICKET!’ comes Peter’s urgent whisper. I grab the rifle off my shoulder and step forward. The buck stops and looks back at us, before vanishing into the undergrowth. A more experienced stalker might well have taken advantage of that moment of curiosity, but all I could see was its backside, and its head, twisted round to look at me. It was a shot that would have to have been taken extremely fast, and to the animal’s neck. Neck shots present a far smaller target than a heart and lung shot, and I could easily have missed, or worse, injured, but not incapacitated the animal, allowing it to escape, severely injured into the woods, never to be seen again. Besides, I couldn’t clearly see what was behind it, and without being absolutely sure of my backstop, I can’t take a shot. We decide to backtrack, work our way around, and see if by chance, we might encounter him again, further down near the far edge of the wood. We don’t.
Having made our way back to the gate, we set off for another nearby area of land. It’s late afternoon by this point -maybe an hour until sunset. It’s mixed woodland and arable land, and we work our way through some small clusters of trees and undergrowth, and up the edge of a large field.
Suddenly there’s the sound of frantic barking, and an over-excited dog appears in the field, about a hundred yards behind us. Great. Not a recipe for blissfully unaware deer. Looking back, I catch a flash of neon yellow in the tall grass – the dog is wearing a high-viz coat. Despite the problem the animal poses, I can’t help feeling slightly sorry for it: The only thing less dignified than a high-viz coat, is one of those neck cones for dogs that won’t stop licking their genitals. It has obviously been wrestled into this garment because it’s the sort of dog that’s prone to fucking off every it’s let off the lead. With any luck it will do so now. But we aren’t going to wait to find out, and put as much distance between ourselves and this disturbance as possible.
Moving quickly away up the hedgerow, we eventually cross into another field, overlooking a gently sloping area of fallow land, perhaps three hundred yards in length, bordered by woodland, and down at the far end by the road. I realise what Peter has done – he’s parked up close to where he thought we might ultimately encounter deer, and then led us round a circuitous route to the other side of that location, ensuring that we don’t alert any deer that might be there. He is demonstrating that you have to carefully consider not only where you want to put yourself, but how best to get there. We could have headed straight up the field from the car, but then we’d have left all sorts of smells, signs and sounds that could have spooked the deer.
We sit down under a tree, at the top of the field, and scan silently around with our binoculars. I am surprised to find that while they don’t have any active night-vision tech, the Swarovski’s seem to enhance the now fading light. What is to the naked eye a rather murky gloom, appears brighter through the binoculars – as if it were somehow half an hour earlier.
Time passes, and it’s now dusk. Within half an hour it will be completely dark. We have both started to stir a little, in that way that people do when they’ve finished doing whatever they’re doing, and have mentally switched into ‘time to go home’ mode. Instead of the palpable tension of waiting for deer to appear at any moment, we are just starting to let go of that possibility, just about to glance at each other as if to say ‘It’s not going to happen today, nevermind. We might as well stop whispering and sitting on this field’. Then suddenly, Peter tenses. ‘Muntjac – look!’ I follow the direction of his binoculars with my own, and there, silhouetted in the gloom, comes a pair of Muntjac.
Peter is instructing me now, in whispers. ‘You need to try to stand up, as slowly as you possibly can. I’ll hold the sticks upright, and you see if you can get the rifle up onto the sticks without them seeing you. There’s a doe in front, and a buck behind. She’s blocking him. They’re both in season but I’d much rather you shot the buck than the doe. Wait for her to move away, then take the buck’.
What then follows is a few minutes of yoga poses, as we try to get ourselves up and into position slowly enough that they won’t immediately notice us and bolt. Rather more by luck than by design, I end up standing, rifle on the sticks, pointing at the deer. Looking down the scope, I can see the silhouette of front of these two animals, but not a great deal of detail. The doe is in front, as Peter has said. She stands sideways on, blocking the buck. I line up on her, and wait for her to move away. She takes a step, grazing on the clumps of grass…and then trots a few feet forward, revealing the buck. Heart racing, I place my crosshairs just behind his front leg, around half way up his body. Safety off – click…pressure on the trigger…squeeze…squeeze…BANG.
The idea is that when you take a shot, you continue to look down the scope, reacquiring the sight picture as quickly as possible after absorbing the recoil. In an ideal world you’d never lose sight of the animal, and exactly which way it runs. Because even a perfect heart and lung shot won’t necessarily drop an animal on the spot – they tend to run a short distance, before collapsing.
I don’t see what happens as I take the shot. Bringing my eye back onto the scope, I can’t see anything at all. But Peter, who’s been watching through the binoculars has a far better sense of where the animal might be. He has also heard the impact – a dull thwack. This is not good news. It’s the sound a bullet makes when it strikes the animal too far back on its body. Instead of going through the heart and lung area, the bullet can strike the gut. It may well prove fatal, but not instantly. If this deer has been able to run some distance into the darkness, with a serious injury like that, we may not be able to find it quickly. We may not be able to find it at all. The idea that I could cause this creature a long, painful death, not to mention a pointless one in the event that we could not find it, doesn’t really bear contemplating. It ‘s everything I had hoped to avoid. I don’t know why my placement was off – it could be that in the low light, I hadn’t understood how much the animal was ‘quartering on’ – angled towards me. Perhaps a natural tendency to let the point of aim drift more towards the centre mass of the target. Either way, it doesn’t matter now. What matters is finding it, and finding it quickly.
Normal procedure would be to wait a few minutes for a shot animal to die peacefully. The deer will likely never know what has happened. They go into shock, lose consciousness and die from a massive loss of blood pressure within a minute or two. They need never see us, and the last thing we want is to cause them the fear and distress in their final moments. We may even provoke such an adrenaline response that they can get up and run, potentially vanishing into the undergrowth.
But in this case, we will not wait: Peter quickly explains that because of the darkness, we need to locate the deer immediately. We follow a standard approach to locating a shot deer – moving to the place at which the animal was standing when the shot was taken, and then searching outwards in a grid. In better light, we would have followed blood trails, but in the gloom that isn’t an option. We have to rely on what Peter saw through the binoculars – where he thinks the deer may have gone to ground. It’s surprisingly hard to judge the exact position of events taking place at some distance, especially in low light.
Luckily, while I am looking in completely the wrong place, Peter’s instinct and experience leads him more or less straight to a patch of tall grass, where the shot buck is lying. He softly whistles me over, illuminating the grass in the light from his phone. I can see the outline of the deer, and hear some soft sounds of movement. He is still alive. I can only hope that the shock had not yet worn off, that he is not yet feeling pain. I had taken the shot, and it hadn’t been a perfect one. It is my responsibility. I need to put that right, and I need to do it immediately. I step in from the side, raise the rifle to my shoulder once more, take the safety off, and shoot him again, through the back of the neck, just behind his head. There is no further movement or sound.
We conduct a blink test. We need to be absolutely sure that he is dead, and best practice involves touching the eye with the tip of a shooting stick, or similar. Even if an animal is paralysed, they will still blink, and the lack of that reflex is conclusive. We both breathe a big sigh of relief.
I have mixed emotions: I feel relief at having shot my first deer, and sadness at having taken his life. I feel worried that I haven’t made all that great a job of it, and grateful for the experience I have gained because of that. I feel out of my depth, out of my comfort zone, but with the recognition that that is where I need to be if I am ever to become a good stalker of deer. This experience has made it crystal clear that hunting is not something to learn by trial and error. It is best passed on, traditionally from the older members of a tribe, to the younger ones, but in a modern context, from a professional to an amateur. Had I attempted this alone, it would have been an unmitigated disaster. If anyone feels resentful at the mentorship imposed upon them by the requirements of the Firearms Certificate, don’t. Be grateful for it.
When, a couple of days later I stand in my kitchen, eating Muntjac loin, grilled over charcoal, it makes sense of the whole experience. This incredibly delicious, nutritious food is what this process is really all about for me. I take no satisfaction from the kill – it’s a necessary part of the process of truly knowing what it is to provide the food we eat.
If you’re interested in getting involved in the world of deer stalking, contact Peter Jones at County Deer Stalking.