Fallow under the falcon

On a meat hunt in his native New Zealand, Daryl Crimp is reminded that there are hunters far more formidable than the human in this part of the world

Ostensibly it was a meat hunt. A quick sortie to get venison for the summer barbie and to impress the visiting Aussie sister-in-law and brood. In reality, it was a bit of a soul search as well.

The does had just started dropping fawns, so the landowner had closed the area for hunting but trusted me to do what I had to do without disturbing the area. It suited me; I love the stealth aspect of hunting and, in particular, the challenge of taking an animal cleanly without it knowing you are there.

I also needed this hunt for other reasons: after a hectic few months, I’d crawled towards the end of the year with low reserves and, unlike Americans who put their restoration in the hands of therapists, I turn to nature to salve the soul. I did see a psychiatrist years ago but, after one session, she needed counselling too…

The summer evenings are long, mellow affairs in New Zealand so I made a leisurely departure from the Landcruiser; time was a commodity I had in abundance. Bees droned lazily from a hive on the bush edge as my legs scythed through the long grass, and a shrill kek-kek-kek-kek informed me I wasn’t the only hunter in this valley.

Casting an eye aloft, I eventually made out the tiny form of a karearea, New Zealand’s native falcon, and nodded in deference to my feathered brother. The tiny raptor is adapted to hunt in our mountainous bush environs and is capable of speeds in excess of 100kph.

It can catch prey larger than itself and weighs less than a pound. The karearea is a great little hunter – and psychotherapist. Already my step had a lighter feel to it.

Skirting the tangle of wild blackberry and rotting stumps at the base of a cleared face, I stopped when my trajectory intersected the closest point to a feeding doe and yearling – 50 metres away.

Time hung limply as the deer fed apart, contentedly, and the buzz of flies had a somnolent effect on the atmosphere. The encounter was mesmerising but ultimately my perambulations widened the gap between the unsuspecting fallow.

The falcon hunts on silent wings. The deer were too close to the vehicle and a hunt needs some degree of difficulty to authenticate it.

The cool of the creek held more promise. It had long since chiselled a path through the terraces either side, which were clothed in a mix of native beech forest and planted pines—ideal habitat for fallow. Grassy clearings dotted its length and it was in these that little clusters of deer appeared like ink stains on blotting paper.

Good management is required to get bucks like these on your ground

Fallow are the second most common deer species in New Zealand, usurped by the ubiquitous red deer, and a modern success story. Populations and distribution have increased this century owing to some clever but surreptitious ‘husbandry’.

While it is illegal to transplant these creatures in the wild, little populations have mysteriously popped up throughout the country, providing excellent hunting and food for the ardent Kiwi hunter.

Unlike their bigger cousins, they are grazers rather than browsers, so will be found in pockets wherever there is a good, constant supply of grass bordering appropriate cover.

Hunting pressure does not disperse them, as it does with reds, because they have a tight, defined home range, and farmers encourage their presence because of the intrinsic value of having the dainty creatures around. The upshot of this is plenty of animals but challenging stalking. They are canny, alert, and know their home turf intimately.

Trophy potential has traditionally been low but is improving in some areas with good management. While red deer were quick to develop better antler quality on the back of the deer farming era, with escapees dispersing good genetics over a wider range, fallow have required specific intervention to cultivate trophy herds.

However, the majority who pursue them favour them for their aesthetics and eating qualities, as was the case in this instance. Specifically, I was after a plump, fine-grained yearling.

I stalked into the wind, keeping to the shadows and bush edges, and paused often to reduce any distracting movement. Fallow have a habit of either materialising out of the shadows like ghosts or bursting into view like spontaneous combustion, so good situational awareness is critical when hunting them.

I’d mentally pegged a couple of does high in the pines, a yearling and doe feeding along the terrace edge, and a murky shadow in the lee of a broadleaf just above me. It niggled at my subconscious because, while it lacked real form, it had that charcoal tinge that suggested fallow.

The grassy creek clearings ahead of me housed fallow too, feeding among the knee-deep grass and rushes. I had plenty to strategise about.

The falcon was the true king of the valley – Crimpy just an interloper (Credit: vil.sandi / Flickr)

The charcoal shadow lifted a head and peered back over its shoulder. Ears pricked, alert. The doe stared at me intently, processing the intrusion. At the end of a millennium it decided I was nothing. I felt diminished and in need of counselling. The doe continued grazing. I had time so I watched it feed off until the forest swallowed it.

Mindful the farmer didn’t want the area disturbed, I decided not to press any further into the valley and marked my quarry. A couple of does with yearlings still at foot were feeding toward a third on the clearing below. I was in no hurry. The soul needed tending. So I sat and watched nature at play for a good hour.

The doe that was alone was behaving weirdly; it was sitting among rushes and would stand and feed a bit before running back and rolling in its bed. It repeated this behaviour over and again. The yearlings behaved like little kids, playing tag, chasing their shadows, running, jumping, gambolling.

The does hadn’t yet bumped the yearlings so were still in fawn. I waited until they had fed to the edge of the creek, which was fringed with bush, and prepared for the kill. For the does, the burbling sound of water and soft rustling breeze down in the gully would mute the sound of the already suppressed .308.

The first yearling dropped cold to a neck shot and I swung immediately onto the second just as it was lifting its head at the disturbance. A double tap. Two deer down. The falcon hunts swiftly on silent wings with deadly intent. Then peace after what was a blip in the tranquility.

The does had melted into the forest, with heart rates barely raised, more curious than alarmed. The lone doe, behaving badly, had been the tail-dragger, reluctant to leave.

A young fallow feeding among the stumps

I went to investigate and discovered a stillborn fawn in the reeds, a week old, rubbed clear of hair on one side. Clearly it had been the little fallow’s offspring and she didn’t understand it was dead.

I collected my thoughts and processed the work ahead of me. I’d shot two deer, which had to be carried out to the vehicle. It wasn’t far as the falcon flies, but I was only one, with a rickety frame, and a bad back. One versus two. What had I been thinking? I needed my head read. Note to self: make an appointment with a therapist.

But I did what needed to be done, with ropes and makeshift yoke and a river of sweat. I must have looked pathetic.

Then I heard it: Kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!

Someone was laughing at me. I didn’t look up but, quite literally, kept on crawling on.

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