I pull up on the verge of a country lane, the route blocked by a set of imposing, military-green electronic gates. Presently a black Range Rover appears alongside me – it’s Peter. The barrier slides back and I follow him up a lane, and then a rutted track. Thank goodness I’m driving my Skoda Yeti, rather than my McLaren F1. It’s all quite James Bond, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to arrive at some sort of secret training facility – maybe you can hunt deer with heat-seeking missiles, fired from a wrist watch. But no, we arrive a few minutes later, in a field. It makes sense.
We park up, and I grab my stuff and join Peter by a table, set up in the shade of a nearby tree. Leaning against the table is a rifle. Here in the U.K. we don’t see rifles all that often. The vast majority do not own them, and those that do never advertise the fact: People don’t walk around carrying these things. Despite the fact that I’m expecting to see a rifle, and that I have seen, and fired them in the past, its presence is slightly jarring – incongruous to me. It’s Black, with stainless steel metalwork, efficient, solid, machined.
Peter is exactly like the rifle. He’s wearing a black t-shirt, and mirrored Aviators. He also looks like he’s been machined out of something, and like he wouldn’t break if it rained. We offer each other 2020’s customarily awkward socially-distanced greeting – somewhere between a nod, a shrug and a wave. He’s warm and friendly, and over a casual chat, begins to get some background from me, assessing my level of experience…
…Which is limited, but not zero. I grew up with assorted air rifles, and have had the opportunity to shoot full-bore rifles at times in the past. It’s a dangerous level of experience, in my opinion. I’m familiar enough with these things that I’m neither wary, nor afraid to handle them, but I simply don’t have that consistent experience of living and working around firearms that would make their safe handling second nature. I recognise that I’m a prime candidate for over-confidence. I hope that I’m not going to make a dangerous mistake and accidentally shoot one of us. Peter isn’t going to let that happen, he reassures me – I believe him. We start from the beginning – firearm safety.
Peter’s instruction is concise, unfussy. Everything he tells me has a purpose, and arrives in a clear, logical progression. “If I don’t point a gun at someone, I’m significantly less likely to shoot them.”
We work through the different parts of the rifle, and their function. The terminology isn’t always what hollywood might have you believe: It’s a ‘moderator’ not a ‘silencer’. It reduces the noise of the propellant in the cartridge detonating, but not the crack of the bullet in flight, as it breaks the sound barrier. It offers the weapon added stability, improving accuracy, and makes it more difficult for deer to discern the direction from which a shot has been fired.
It may look like it belongs in a movie, but the rifle is a tool, a necessary means to an end. While obviously essential, its use represents a very small part of the stalker’s activities: Over the course of a three or four-hour stalking session, the rifle will only be used for a few seconds, if at all.
I learn that these days, technology has improved the manufacturing process so much that even the cheapest rifles are capable of doing the job effectively, and humanely. Spending thousands on a rifle really isn’t going to make the bullet arrive in a different place than spending hundreds – at least not in this context. Whatever the cost of the weapon, the main components are similar. I learn their names.
The optics – the telescopic sight – is far more important, Peter explains. It has a meaningful bearing on the final result, and as anyone with the slightest interest in photography can tell you, it’s the glass that makes the difference, both to quality and cost. On that same note, a pair of binoculars is another important investment, and this time, one which the stalker will use constantly. Peter recommends a brand with whom County Deer Stalking and their associated club, The Capreolus Club have an affiliation – Swarovski Optik. Googling, later on, I discover that Swarovski is also the name of an unrelated jewelry company. The jewelry is considerably cheaper than the optics, and their lot are doing a 50%-off summer sale. Oh well, I’ve never been one for cheap hobbies, and most of my working life has been spent recording audio – the world’s most reliable route to spending unimaginable sums of money. Even a collection of Swarovski’s flagship products wouldn’t get close to my microphones. I picture my wife’s expression, but it isn’t one of relief.
We talk about calibres, how to zero a rifle, the meaning of the term ‘point-blank range’ – it’s not what you think – shot placement, shooting positions and the use of shooting sticks: No, not a length of polished birch, designed for beating a recalcitrant spaniel, but a means of stabilising the rifle. I’m handling the weapon a lot by this point, going slowly, step-by-step through Peter’s drills, trying as far as possible to match his example. He hands it to me, and encourages me to lift it to my shoulder, and sight down the optic. It’s wobbling about all over the place. He demonstrates the various positions in which the sticks can be used, and I see for myself, each time, how much stability, how much accuracy they provide.
In discussing shooting positions, Peter explains that we may often find ourselves shooting from a ‘high seat’. It’s basically a bench at the top of a ladder – think ‘one of those elevated pool-side lifeguard seats’, but without a rubber ring, or red swimming trunks. And there’s no life-saving come to think of it. Quite the opposite. I joke, of course, but this is a serious matter: From a high seat, my bullet will travel down towards the animal. The ground on which it is standing will be my backstop. My bullet won’t continue off into the distance, travelling up to three miles, and coming down with lethal force, who knows where.
The high seat offers stability – it will increase my chances of a humane kill. The use of these aids, the sticks and the seat are to ensure that our quarry is not made to suffer. This is not about proving our skill, but about doing the job safely and humanely. The end goal, for me at any rate, is to put food on my family’s table, without causing suffering. It’s not to be able to tell people, over drinks, that I made a 400 yard neck shot from a standing position, without sticks – who cares?
And so we begin to shoot. Peter has prepared me, and I have a bit of past experience to fall back on. It goes pretty well – the gun goes bang, and the bullets land in the right place. It’s neither easier, nor really harder than I had expected it to be. The key thing is that I’m able to reliably place my shots within the ‘kill zone’: I am capable of humanely dispatching a small metal deer at a range of around a hundred yards. God only knows how much more difficult this will prove on a real stalk, with a live deer, but I’m not going to find out by lying awake worrying about it. One step at a time.
We move on to discussing what will happen after the shot is taken, what we can learn from the animal’s reaction, and how to ‘follow-up’. The chances are that the deer will not simply drop, motionless to the ground. It will run a few meters, even though, provided we have done our job properly, it is effectively ‘dead’ at this point. We go through the various steps that must be taken to track the trail of blood to the fallen animal. We must then ensure that it has definitely died, and grallock it as soon as it’s practical to do so. It’s crucial that the animal be inspected for any signs of disease, particularly notifiable disease – that which must be reported. We need to have a plan for how we’re going to get the carcass home. It’s one thing if it’s a little Muntjac, but what if it’s a Red stag, weighing the best part of 200kg?
We break for lunch. Normally this would involve a trip to the pub, but Covid has put paid to things like that, and we’re both happy to crack on in our field.
The afternoon is spent on the theory side of the course. Peter asks me if I know how many different species of deer there are in the U.K. Thanks to my stalking of his website, I do. We work through each species, its characteristics, where it lives, how we can tell the ‘stags’ from the ‘hinds’, if they are stags and hinds, or if the species instead has ‘bucks’ and ‘does’.
I learn about their breeding cycles, and how this affects the management of the species. These cycles dictate the hunting seasons – we don’t shoot the females when they are likely to have dependent young. I memorise the dates of the open and closed seasons for the different species of deer. Peter explains the broader principles of managing a species like this. It’s actually fascinating stuff.
We move on to the law, firearms licensing, and relevant requirements for ownership. I will detail these further in a future article about the application process for a Firearms Certificate.
All too soon, it’s time to find out whether I’ve been listening. I am presented with a test paper. Multiple choice – at least I’m not going to have to write any essays. I work through it. Peter works through my work. I’ve satisfied his requirements, and he informs me that I’ve passed the course. I have my PDS1 certificate.
But, I’m fully aware that this is just the very first step. I now need to gain some real practical experience. I need to get out on as many stalks as possible, and see what actually happens. I’ve yet to learn the practical art of actually stalking an animal – when, and how to move, when to stop, when and what to watch, what to listen for. I am also aware that at some point I will need to take that first shot. I don’t want to rush, unprepared towards that moment, but at the same time I must not leave it too long. I don’t want it to become a mental obstacle that I struggle to move past.
My next step will be to book a stalking session, and to ensure that in advance of that, I fit in some more time on the range.
The PDS1 1:1 training course costs £510. Contact www.countydeerstalking.co.uk for more information.