Bested by a Buck

Stalking is exhilarating whether you’re on the hill…

Recalling some of this year’s stalks, David Barrington Barnes takes the bucks with the bogs and looks ahead to a flourishing June

In East Anglia, my part of the world, the biggest obstacle to the doe cull is an enduring one from November until February: it’s game shooting. The disturbance to game caused by low ground deer stalking is difficult to assess. However much or little the disturbance, the pursuit itself actually causes most gamekeepers and game shoot operators to believe that it is detrimental to their sport. As a shooting man and a small shoot operator myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for their position. In the shooting season, I would not want a deer stalker walking round my small shoot as he would undoubtedly move some of my game off the farm and over the boundary. In other circumstances, for example, where there is a lot of woodland and other cover, and where the game is reared, not wild, and on a larger acreage, there would be less likelihood of disturbance. Be this as it may, if the shoot’s gamekeeper and shoot operator object to the stalker’s activities then there is little future for him there anyway.

This objection becomes invalid on 2 February. That month and the following, to a lesser extent, oblige the conscientious deer manager to go hard out at the does. I remember one February, the prevailing wind was unusually from the north and north-west for outing after outing. Going out and staying out in these conditions required a combination of gritty determination and multiple layers of clothing.

…or grassing a buck on the low ground

As is usual, roe deer were hard to locate in the first half of the month. Then they were more often seen out feeding on drilled winter wheat fields, even when the wind’s blow was making things really ‘raftery’, as they say in Suffolk. No doubt I could be heard muttering such words as “grim” and “chore” more often than I should have, but the stalking was hard.

In retrospect, not all my outings were without amusement. Towards the end of an afternoon foray on 25 February, in near freezing temperatures, I spied three roe deer feeding on drilled wheat within easy range of the overgrown brook at the bottom of a sloping field. I circled round, dropped down the brook’s steep banks and was able to progress downstream without difficulty for a few yards.

I then came to a stretch of concrete gabions, the downstream one of which had been moved and twisted by floodwater. It appeared I was going to get wet feet. Always game, I took a step and slipped into a hole in the riverbed that was waist deep. Well soaked, I continued my stalk and had the satisfaction of grassing the mature doe of the group.

On 28 February, as a guest rifle on a friend’s ground, I carried my portable high seat the best part of half a mile in a light breeze that was on my left cheek. I set up the high seat overlooking the woodland edge, confident of a shot and pleased with my plan. Then the north wind got up and increased throughout the evening until it was blowing a bitter gale. Nothing presented for a shot (even though I’d counted 18 roe there the previous evening), though if a doe had done so I doubt I could have hit a barn door, let alone a deer, as I was shaking and shivering with cold.

Photo: Andy Lee

If there was one incentive to keep going at this back-end doe culling, it was, as it always is, the prospect of prime roebuck stalking in April and May. In April there was, of course, the inevitability of some overnight frosts and heavy showers, but the sting had gone out of the weather and a frosty start would likely be followed by a sunny morning. The ubiquitous muntjac and the occasional fallow pricket or sorrel might also be moving and offer an unexpected bonus cull shot.

In April the yearling bucks were being thrashed and thrown out by their fathers and uncles and the cycle of the roe deer year. Then the struggle for survival took on a fresh, fine strength and there was, to borrow Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, “a spring running”. By May the mature bucks and does are, or appear to be, paired. The briskness of the spring mornings is replaced by the benign warmth of early summer, with ever-lengthening days and briefer nights – a roe stalker’s heavenly dream.

And then this leafy month of June screens the roe deer from view and tilts the balance of the pursuit in the deer’s favour. The seeing and the stalking have all too soon been replaced by bumping and boring, when the most likely part of a buck to be seen is its white backside as it runs away.

The rolling hills David calls home

June, then, is not a low ground stalker’s month. For stay-at-home deer stalkers it’s time to take a break, catch up on lost sleep, go fishing and prepare for more stalking in the rut. Another option is to head north and hunt on the hill. Up there, the summer arrives later, and the bucks are slower to come clean. The roe deer stalker can extend his prime time stalking by a month, and enjoy the exquisite pleasure of sporting stalking for hill bucks. There really is no better sport in the world than this and, if you have not experienced it, I urge you to go now while you still can.

Stalking hill roe puts more physical demands on the deer stalker than low ground stalking, but no more than a person of average fitness can handle. The fast-coming, early morning light reveals the contoured moor, while the thin, fresh air attenuates the haunting songs of hill birds. With luck, on some rough green a fine roebuck may be seen.

Seeing a buck is one thing, stalking it is another. Hill bucks are sharp. They have and use the advantage of view, so a lot of careful crawling may be required to get within range. Their hearing is spectacular, and the rasp of a boot on burnt heather stalks will have them running miles away. The hill birds are their friends – their alarm calls will also cause a buck to flee.

This is challenging deer stalking, providing the stalker with countless happy hours on the hill. Back home, the lightweight, elegant hill roebuck trophies are as handsome as any you will see. Souvenirs of your successes, they still cannot erase the many failures when you were bested by a buck.

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