Dismal December

This time of year can offer terrible weather in all its forms, but there’s no excuse for not getting out there, says David Barrington Barnes.

Credit: Boris Roessler / Contributor / Getty Images

By the time I picked out the fallow doe just within the woodland edge, darkness had fallen. Not a complete blackout yet, but it was near night. I spotted her through the thermal imager but could not see her with the naked eye.

She was walking slowly from left to right until at the wood corner she was opposite me in my high seat, 40 yards out from the woodland edge.

Still watching through the thermal, I observed her checking out both faces of the wood. She disappeared for a minute or two to check the front face, then re-appeared and looked in my direction before crossing the ditch and stepping on to the field, front left of my position.

I needed to redirect the rifle from 12 o’clock to 10 o’clock. I had to do this quickly as she was moving out and away, and would in a matter of seconds be lost in the gloaming.

This I succeeded in doing, which left me with one more job before engaging her. I had to switch on the illuminated reticle on a low setting as, when on high, the glare would prevent me from sighting on the beast.

Fortunately, I got that right and, sighting on the doe’s left shoulder and with a clear enough picture through the glass of my scope, I whistled once, which caused her to turn to a better angle.

Even in the last of the light, I could tell she was down. The thwack of the bullet strike and the lurch forward were giveaways, and these signs were confirmed by the white shape just outside the wood. I had done it, just within legal shooting hours.

Without thermal assistance I would have been homeward bound half an hour earlier on this dank night. As it was, I had added another fallow doe to the cull, which was a cause for satisfaction during the subsequent night-time collection and larder work.

Another unfavourable December day – John Hargreaves has the wind in his face

That early December doe is memorable for two reasons. First, it exemplified the huge help thermal is to the fallow stalker, notwithstanding shooting hours being restricted to an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset (not that the sun was visible that evening anyway).

Secondly, the care that doe took before emerging from cover was truly something to see. Walking and watching from within the woodland cover, she showed how careful fallow are and why they so often defeat the cull stalker who, in many cases, will not know the beast has even been in their vicinity.

Though in the case above the doe ended up on the quad bike carrier, she was unlucky and was within a step or two of walking away unscathed.

My December diary entries tend to make dire reading, with or without thermal. The entry for the doe above shows I was out on the ground morning and afternoon, for six hours in total, for just the single sighting and shot.

In the same week I made an overnight trip to the same patch. The afternoon session was completely devoid of deer, without any sightings let alone shots.

It was one of those dreadful December evenings when the sky came over dark like a big black cloak and animals and birds of all description scarcely showed (and, if they did, looked bedraggled and miserable). This was a hard time on the farm.

A night in the caravan for me, with rainstorms patterning the roof like spent shotgun pellets, was followed by a gruesome pre-dawn start. I selected a different high seat for the shelter it offered (to both me and the deer), with, I thought, a chance of catching does coming out of the woodland for an early morning feed and another chance of intercepting beasts heading back to the safety of the big wood with the coming light.

For hours, nothing, Not a hair of a deer did I see. It was bone-chilling cold, and I stuck it out, fortified by tea from my thermos flask. It was near the end of the outing that a solitary miserable-looking calf stepped out of the wood on to the grass margin.

I waited to see if its mother or any other deer were behind it and, in the absence of these, concluded it was an orphan calf on its own. It joined the cull plan. That made it two for the week.

My diary entry for the next day was a simple one: “Rain all day. Did not go out.” All too frequently rain features in my December diary entries for one or both of the day’s outings.

While in theory December should produce lots of frosty days with sunshine and blue skies, of which deer take full advantage, the reality in today’s weather is that grey days and early nights, with rain, predominate.

In the summer, deer of all creatures are very often to be seen out feeding in the rain, and I have even witnessed a feisty roebuck mounting a doe during a massive thunderstorm under tropical-type rain.

It’s different in December, when the rain seems to put a stop to any movement and causes the deer to occupy discreet, difficult-to-approach areas of woodland for shelter and warmth.

A fallow pricket, caught on camera, observes open ground from within the wood

Sometimes I find a seat and sit up under the cover of a sturdy golfing umbrella in the hope of catching a beast on the move within the woodland.

I have not even mentioned the propensity of the public to walk wherever they like between Christmas and the New Year, thereby making the stalker’s job even harder than usual.

Telling off the offenders rarely seems to be effective, so for the good reputation of deer stalkers it’s probably best to accept the invasion with patience and stoicism.

Even with all these negatives, December is a great time for good, keen men and women to be out stalking and enjoying the challenges this month presents.

For those among my readers, who can get out then, I send the traditional Christmas greetings and wish you “straight powder”.

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