With years of stalking experience, David Barrington Barnes has a wealth of success stories to tell – but also knows how easy it is to make a mistake and come home empty handed
I enjoy reading the stories of others who stalk roe, and also the tales of those who hunt in other countries and continents from Africa to Australia. When I have a few minutes to spare, watching a hunting video online or reading a chapter in a hunting book can be nearly as good as the real thing: it’s a quick fix for the enthusiast.
Many such articles conclude with a successful cull or kill. It’s understandable that a hunter wants to round off his story with a successful outcome. On reflection, I must now admit that more of my own writings end up with a beast in the larder than do my outings on the ground. I certainly don’t intend to exaggerate my own success rate, so in this piece I intend to grasp the nettle of failure and unravel some of the reasons for unsuccessful stalks.
Before leaving home, it’s worth going through a short checklist of essential equipment. A stalker is handicapped without a pair of boots on his feet and a pair of binoculars round his neck. It’s not possible to unlock the forestry gate if you don’t have the key with you. A rifle is of limited use without its bolt or the correct ammunition.
The most likely occasions for the deerstalker to leave key kit behind occur when he uses a different vehicle, travels with a friend or has a guest who arrives early and interferes with his car loading plan. If these appear to be obvious omissions, I would invite the attendees at any gathering of deerstalkers to raise their hands if they have ever left essential equipment at home. I would not expect to see many hands stay down.
On starting out for a stalk, the all-important wind direction may not readily be detected, so my car and coat pockets are full of puffer bottles to ensure I pick up the direction of the slightest breeze. That direction will often be different in the vicinity of farm buildings, woods and other obstructions. I would guess that getting the wind direction wrong is one of the most common reasons for unsuccessful stalking outings: the deer alarmed by the stalker’s smell will slip off ahead of him and rarely be seen. Not infrequently, the wind will change direction during an outing.
The onset of rain during an outing cannot be avoided. Deer tolerate summer rain but chill winter rain will have them hiding under the canopy. The time, perhaps, for a stalker to find a high seat and wait for deer movement under the trees.
When there is a fresh blizzard of snow, deer will likely hide and shelter on the downwind side of a wood. A careful approach by a deerstalker in white outer clothing is quite likely to be possible, with more than one shot on the cards. Waiting for deer to move in these conditions is likely to result in failure.
Where there is intense frost at night and crisp snow on the fields, the days are likely to have Alpine blue skies and sunshine. For once, early starts are likely to fail and the top of the day may be prime time with deer, particularly fallow, throwing caution to the wind and emerging from cover for feed and sunshine. Crackling, hard frost renders moving while hunting virtually impossible because of the noise made by each footfall. Persisting in walking and stalking in these conditions is a recipe for a blank outing.
I hate stalking in fog and, if I must, I head for a high seat. If you walk and stalk in fog then deer will invariably see you before you see them because you are moving and they are still. Once, on the hill in Argyll, we followed a parcel of red deer for some miles. We never caught up with them, but continually found evidence of their recent presence.
In planning a stalk, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid the disturbance caused by others. However, some dog walkers are regular in their walks on and off public footpaths. In August and September, a word with the farm foreman or tractor driver may enable the stalker to find out which fields are going to be worked over and so avoided. Anticipation of such disturbance lessens the chances of an outing being wrecked. Aerial interference with the stalk from low-flying helicopters, microlights and hot air balloons increase the chance of failure but there is little that can be done to escape them.
Moving on to defects in stalking technique, the advantages of the best-placed ambush are negated by an approach that discloses the stalker’s arrival. Well prepared routes into high seats doubtless avoid a great many unproductive hours waiting for deer that departed the vicinity as soon as the stalker arrived.
In walking and stalking or still hunting, the emphasis should be on the still. Stalking too fast, or ‘athletic stalking,’ is a recipe for failure. When I was still practising law full time, the early part of my evening outings would see me charging over the ground in office mode and far too quickly. If I lose heart or concentration, I still find myself going too fast and, in consequence, bumping deer.
In his amusing and entertaining memoir, A Man of the Field, Frank Sheardown asserts that stopping and spying every 30 yards is the correct procedure while hunting enemy snipers or dangerous game. Sometimes in cover, under a dark canopy, I think 30 feet between each sweep of the binoculars can be far enough. Proceeding any quicker is to court failure. Fast stalking is, of course, always liable to be the cause of noisy stalking, and the combination is likely to lead to unseen deer fleeing ahead of the culprit.
Turning to the shot, some unsuccessful attempts are caused by what the stalkers concerned are likely to blame on mechanical failings. However, loose screws on rifles and optics are really the responsibility of the owner. The skilled, veteran stalker and rifleman, E. W. Holland of Colchester, once told me that he checked the tightness of the screws on his rifle and scope mounts before each stalking outing.
In the field, the reasons for unsuccessful shots encompass shooting at deer too distant, shooting in bad light, rushed shots, pulled shots and plain careless shots. If the stalker’s equipment is in apple pie order, stalker error is the likely reason for a missed or wounded beast. The mantra should always be: “Accuracy is lethal.”