Down the garden path

More used to the wilds of Scotland, Chris Dalton finds himself stalking muntjac in a rather more domestic setting

February, as is tradition, sees me heading south with a team of rifles to help out Paul Childerley with his cull on fallow, muntjac and Chinese water deer (CWD).

I enjoy this week every year, as I team up with a group of guys who have made this trip with me for years. They are all trained and know the set-up, so it’s a fairly relaxing week.

We do the first half of the week on an estate in Hertfordshire, which is a big pheasant shoot where deer culling becomes a priority for a short period after the pheasants have finished, before heading back to Paul’s. The only thing I don’t enjoy is travelling south.

It seems that every time I cross the border and get past Shap Summit it gets busier, with the M1 South just a nightmare with mile after mile of roadworks and 50mph speed restrictions. 

Anyhow, we travel down on the Sunday so at least there was not the additional working day traffic to contend with. We all try get to the digs and meet up for bite to eat on Sunday evening, with the first outing on the Monday morning.

It’s always good to chat over last year’s memories and make plans for this week ahead. I don’t bring a rifle – I spend the week guiding one or other of the guys. I also carry the camera to try and get some filming done for The Shooting Show while I am here.

It’s nice also to stalk a different species over very different terrain to my normal hill or woodland roe stalking at home. It’s definitely a busman’s holiday, but one that bears little resemblance to my own stalking.

We get a briefing on the first morning by Paul and Phil, the head keeper. This year, the instruction was to concentrate on fallow – numbers were building, so we were to try and reduce some of the estate herd if possible.

The first day went OK in this regard, but we had a number of misses, which is unlike this lot. A pep talk was required, and I duly delivered it, getting them to buck their ideas up (excuse the pun). I had taken Paul (alias Elmer Fudd) out, and he had missed three deer with me on the first outing.

We later put it down to a technical issue, but it did not prevent serious mickey-taking during the week, helped all the more by me filming it for posterity.

The following evening I took out Brian. It was a slightly challenging outing – I was dropped into an area I had not stalked before, and was guiding on the basis of a brief overview given to me by Phil.

It was further complicated as Brian, after being in a traffic accident two weeks ago, was suffering from some serious bruising and a couple of broken vertebrae in his lower neck.

Medical advice was to rest and do nothing strenuous, and he even considered cancelling this stalking trip – lightweight! – but he saw better of it and came anyway.

My brief was to stalk the estate house gardens – it seemed a bizarre prospect, even more so to me as I have stalked in Scotland for years and I can count on one hand the occasions I have seen any sign of any human life other than mine and my clients’ when out stalking.

I had visions of creeping around trying to avoid the head gardener and his team. In reality, flags had been put out and the family were aware there were stalkers in the garden, so as Phil dropped us on the drive of the big house, we had free run of the area.

The lowland terrain was rather different to Chris’s home territory

I negotiated the pergolas and rose garden to have a look at the situation. In front of us on the main lawn, there were three lawns running straight out for about 350 metres in the form of a fan leading off from the main house. Each strip of lawn was between 10 and 20 metres wide, all bounded by beech hedging with formal gardens in-between.

Phil suggested that a good tactic would be to sit in the middle of the main lawn. If you got the correct spot you could look down all three legs of this fan, and watch for muntjac crossing. It seemed odd – I could not get the thought of the estate owner and his family sat watching with one eye on the TV and the other on the two blokes with a rifle sat on the lawn.

However, it was obvious from the paths crossing the lawn that there were a lot of muntjac doing precisely that. I mulled over the options, and since I was coming back to stalk here again in the morning, I thought we would go for a recce initially and get a feel for the lie of the land and then maybe come back to sit on the lawn 40 minutes or so before dark. 

At that precise moment, a muntjac appearing on the right-hand strip 180 yards away made the decision for me. I hissed at Brian and we legged it to the middle of the lawn, got prone, and while Brian was setting up the bipod on his favoured .308, I got steady and tried to follow the action on camera.

We were both ready at broadly at the same time, only to see the muntjac disappear into cover through the bottom of first beech hedge. Logically I figured that it would continue on its present track and re-emerge onto the wider central lawn, so we redeployed and with camera and rifle now aimed down the central grassed lawn, we waited.

It seemed ages but out it came, scurrying across like a guinea pig. As far as the cull plan in here went, I had pretty much free rein – the owner wanted them shooting and apart from any really big bucks we were to take any we could. So this deer, a smaller buck, was OK to shoot.

He showed no sign of stopping, so I gave a loud bark. He stopped dead and then immediately fell dead to a very well executed shot. I think we had been out of the car about five minutes. I had also forgotten Brian’s medical condition in the heat of the moment – I have to admit that running him over a lawn, dropping into prone position and then taking an awkward shot laid on the lawn hadn’t particularly helped his broken neck.

Anyhow, he managed to get up with a bit of groaning and was still able to walk afterwards, so I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. I told him to stop whingeing and go down and get that muntjac as I want to film the recovery! Fair play – he got on with it.

With two hours of daylight left, we had a nice stalk through the grounds and accounted for a second muntjac after a good approach through some broadleaf woodland, which opened up to a grass paddock.

I had spotted two muntjac feeding in some brambles on the side of the grass, and we stalked and shot a young doe as she came into a clearing from the tangle of briars. We were certainly doing our bit for the preservation of the estate owner‘s garden, again all captured on film.

By the time we had recovered this munty, we had limited time and the night was drawing in, so we elected to take Phil’s advice and sit back on the lawn and watch the three grass strips. The only thing missing were two deckchairs, a sun shade and glass of Pimm’s (in Brian’s case; a pint of bitter in mine).

As we got settled, I moved off to the side of Brian to get a few camera shots from different angles. While I was doing my best imitation of a film director, Brian put his thumb up, which I took to mean he was going to simulate some other big movie moment or cut a pose.

What he actually meant was that another muntjac had appeared, and he was going to shoot. Which he did, and as the shot was totally unexpected, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Suffice to say I did not get that shot on camera, but we finished the evening with three muntjac and we had done more than our bit for conservation. And all on the very first stalking outing of the trip. 

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