First steps in the field

As the opening of the roebuck season draws close, David Barrington Barnes recalls his first ever stalks after the UK’s most beloved deer species.

If ever I had any doubts about becoming a deer stalker, these were dispelled by my first roebuck season. I had acquired some ground and erected my only high seat in a small spinney on one side of it. From this I had a view over two fields, which were framed by the big wood on the far side. This wood did not form part of my permission.

Being very much the novice in those days, I made most careful preparations before the opening of the roe buck season. I cut a path through the copse to the high seat so that I could approach it unseen and silently. I arranged camouflage netting round the seat and on the front of the ladder, enabling me to climb into the seat undetected.

After I had completed these tasks, I looked forward impatiently to 1 April. It took me some time and numerous blank, bone-cold outings to realise that the popular moniker 1 April has – April Fools’ Day – could apply to me too.

Inexperienced though I undoubtedly was, I had the advantage of having read Richard Prior. His book on stalking was very much the roe stalker’s bible 30 years ago. Though deer management policies have moved on since then (not always for the better), his concise and well-written books and articles really did provide a bench rest for the self-guided stalker and would-be deer manager.

David in the present day with an early-season buck.

If in doubt as to what to shoot or what to do in my roe deer stalking, I would refer back to Richard Prior’s writings.

I also absorbed his enthusiasm for roe stalking. He understood and articulated how every stalker longed to be out in the woods in April and how the countryside was then brimming with excitement and opportunity. He vividly described the insomnia that affects stalkers on the night before an early April stalking expedition.

He wrote of waiting impatiently for the coming of the light and how when the slightest hint of midnight blue replaced the black night, it was time to be shifting.

He relished the dawn chorus and scents of spring, but cautioned that the wonderful feeling of having the countryside to yourself might be an illusion, as other folk might be about; often in unexpected places where they had no right to be.

Prior’s advice on what to do when encountering a roe deer hinged on the need to keep calm and still and, when the beast was relaxed, to check whether it was a buck or doe, young or old and whether it offered a safe shot. If the beast was a buck that could be safely shot, he addressed the question of whether the stalker should shoot as follows: If it was the stalker’s first buck, he should shoot it.

After the first one he maintained that every stalker needed to think about what he was trying to achieve in terms of tree and crop protection and deer management. As all roe stalkers now know, the selection for shooting of yearling bucks was – and remains – an important part of the cull plan.

I knew that much, back in my first full season. I had shot a representative six-point head the previous season over a rape stubble field, and was now set on culling a yearling roe buck.

I soon discovered that my small patch of stalking was an ideal kindergarten. First, it was flat ground with a row of houses on the south side, which restricted shooting to my high seat. With a distance of 300 yards from the seat to the big wood, I was able to watch the woodland edge unseen and unobserved, and of course saw roe deer and other occupants.

On a benign morning or evening, a good number and variety of birds and animals could be seen, but when it rained or was chilly in the wind I would often experience an unrewarded outing.

It took me some time and numerous blank, bone-cold outings to realise that the popular moniker 1 April has – April Fool’s Day – could apply to me too

That first opening morning outing proved to be a beautiful mild spring morning, with leaves budding in the spinney around my seat and the hedge that ran back to the big wood thickening up with tender shoots.

As the light came, I spotted a buck emerge from the wood and start to feed hard on these shoots. He was a big buck, obviously mature and in his prime. He found the tender hawthorn shoots very toothsome, and looked quite comic when he curled back his lips to avoid being pricked by the sharp, hard spikes of the previous year’s growth.

After feeding for a few minutes he appeared to listen to a noise in the wood, to which he then returned. After he had gone, I felt disappointed, and thought I would probably not see another roe buck  that morning.

I was completely wrong about that. Quite suddenly, a yearling roe buck was on the field running towards the spinney and my high seat. In hot pursuit was the buck I had been watching at the hawthorns.

His formidable head gear was close to the backside of the youngster, and the chase was hot. However, as soon as the youngster disappeared out of sight of him, he stopped and made his way back to the wood. I was left with an empty field, both deer having gone out of my sight.

It was a diffident, confused-looking little buck that emerged from the spinney 15 minutes later. He had been duffed up, probably by his own father, and had just learned the hard lesson of nature that has a young roe buck being nurtured and instructed by his parents during his first winter, and then ejected violently and relentlessly come the first spring of his life.

In the case of this little spiker, he had little time to dwell on the lesson, because he offered me a straightforward shot with which I brought his troubles to an end.

As a beginner, I was pleased with my culled beast, but even more so by the conviction that I had discovered a sporting pursuit that would offer endless fascination and interest. And it has!

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