I am a great exponent of stalking with a dog. It is particularly important when you run a stalking operation as we do.
I work a four-year-old Weimaraner called Oscar and Tony works a three-year-old German wirehaired pointer bitch called Molly.
There is nothing more satisfying than having a well-trained dog with you while stalking; you come to rely on them.
Firstly, they indicate deer and, more importantly, they can find or track and recover a wounded deer if things go wrong. However, getting your dog to that stage is not easy and there will be many pitfalls along the way, but sometimes a misdemeanour can work to your advantage.
This tale of a few years ago relates to my then deer dog, Burt, a male Bavarian mountain hound of impeccable breeding and my first specialist deer dog. I had a lot of experience with traditional gundog breeds from my wildfowling and game shooting days, and had initially used a cocker for my deer work.
Burt was to be a specialist. I had read and digested all the books and started to convert my training regime from game to the many different techniques required in a deer dog – the strangest of which was getting him to bark. An alien prospect for any Labrador or cocker handler used to working their dog in the game shooting field.
I had looked at the merits of the various breeds popular among stalkers and settled on a Bavarian. They have a tracking reputation second to none, as well as a reputation for being stubborn (my wife would say a bit like his owner). I will relate more of my early training experiences another time – there are many.
I was in the Angus Glens with Gordon, a regular stalking guest of mine for many years. I had brought Gordon to try for a trophy stag and had seen a lovely Royal hanging around a large peat wallow under some Larch trees the previous two mornings.
It was a tricky approach and important to get in quietly and stalk about 1,000 yards from the end of the track through the plantation. The briefing was completed in good military fashion and with the two-year-old Burt at heel – he had almost graduated the training camp – we set off to creep through the gloom before the light came up.
It was one of those mornings I hate: flat, calm and you could hear a pin drop. Burt had all his senses alert, having picked up on our heightened state of anticipation. He had certainly picked up on the scent of red stags and was wired, like a coiled spring waiting to explode.
As we walked, a frequent tap with the stalking stick was required to Burt’s rear end to remind him to stay quiet at heel.
I should mention that the forest has a large population of blue or mountain hare, and it was at precisely this point that one decided to amble up to five feet away from us. It stopped, sat on its hind legs, and eyeballed the dog. Burt shook with anticipation before he decided that it was time to leave.
The dog looked at me, giving, I am sure, the canine equivalent of two fingers, and then was off like a scud missile baying for all he was worth. I was apoplectic with rage; I couldn’t speak and had to stand and simmer.
The whole forest in that still morning was reverberating to a Bavarian barking for his life. Gordon takes it in good part – he is a dog man and understands that these things happen, but at that my Bavarian was unlikely to see its third birthday. After what was probably 10 minutes but seemed like 30, all went quiet.
Five minutes later we heard the panting of an approaching steam train followed shortly by the appearance of a Bavarian, who had realised that what he had just done had not been such a good idea.
He saw us waiting, slowed down and slinked in to heel, avoiding eye contact in the fashion of a dog sufficiently far along the training road to realise that what he had just done was not going to please his master.
There’s no good punishing a dog for coming back, so there was nothing else to do but carry on and ignore him. I was hoping to salvage what, if anything, was left of the morning stalk, though I wasn’t expecting much – any self-respecting stag would now be in the next county.
We continued with plan A without much conviction and shortly arrived at said wallow. Unsurprisingly, there were no deer in view. I briefed Gordon that we would sit and wait, positioning him on a tree stump that overlooked the approach to the mud.
Uttering a prayer, I rapidly tried to formulate a plan B. I need not have worried: within two minutes the tray tines of a large stag began to loom into view below us at 150 yards. A hiss to Gordon and he was ready.
The stag stepped into full view, a lovely 12-pointer. As it continued to walk towards us, at 60 yards I gave my best roar.
It stopped and raised its magnificent head, before dropping on the spot to a neck shot. I simply could not believe our luck.
Following a disaster we had, within a few minutes, bagged a majestic stag that any hunter would be pleased with. How quickly things change.
Not finished yet, movement again caught my eye as a second stag came walking down the same route as the first (albeit slightly more hesitantly).
A quick check with the binoculars revealed a big stag with a large but uneven head. I gave the nod to Gordon and, as the stag presented, it met the same fate as the first.
What a morning, and one that many will not better – but it could have panned out very differently had luck not swung in our direction.
Clearly the stags had been feeding away on the hill and, having heard the commotion being made by Bert’s escapade, decided that all was not well.
They panicked and had moved down to the safety of the trees, which was, unfortunately for them, where we were. All’s well that ends well and we have laughed about that incident many time since.
Burt lived beyond his third birthday and has since developed into a first-rate tracking dog with many outstanding finds to his credit.
It goes to show that with hunting you never know what will happen, and the stalk is not over until you are back in the car, so stay alert at all times and be ready for action when it runs in your direction.