Formative stalking

Pete Law looks back to a red-letter outing that ignited his enthusiasm for roe deer and instilled in him a number of important principles for successful and safe stalking

All bucks were to be culled inside the fenced forestry. Photo credit: Andy Lovel

I learned early on that stalking knowledge comes to those who listen attentively, and resign themselves to the very real fact that one is forever learning – to know all is impossible. My first roebuck was a straightforward affair, but it whetted my appetite for more, and the next attempt proved to be the most successful singular stalking outing I have ever experienced to date. What is most memorable, apart from the number of bucks harvested, was the amount of knowledge I soaked up.

As I said, I had shot just the one roebuck before I joined a trip to the Angus Glens on a cull hunt with a few friends. Most of my rifle experience had been foxing under the lamp, and I had experienced considerable success working in partnership with a close colleague. Safety is, of course, always paramount when dealing with firearms – this applies especially to night shooting. Therefore my gunmanship was certainly up to scratch – I could handle a rifle safely and was an excellent shot under pressure. However, despite the one roebuck, I was as green as Kermit the frog when it came to roe stalking.

My mentor for the weekend was none other than Pete Carr, editor of this sporting journal and a damn fine bloke. He was mad keen on stalking, shooting and fishing, a real all-rounder. However, when it came to roe deer it was obvious that nothing else came close, and their pursuit was his – and soon to be my – favourite pastime.

The area we would be covering was some 650 acres of fenced forestry, mainly consisting of sitka spruce and larch stands. Along the numerous burns and in the valley bottom, some hardwoods were also struggling to become established, and it was these that had been suffering fraying damage.

The Angus Glens provided a dramatic backdrop for an unforgettable outing

I was keen to be away after the other boys had been placed in high seats, and my impatience soon become apparent to my guide. He abruptly plonked himself on the heather bank, and withdrew his flask from the roesack. “Fancy a brew?” he said. To this day I am convinced that he did this deliberately, both to slow me down and to subtly exert his authority.

Eventually the growing dawn was good enough to stand to, and after flicking a lighter flame to confirm the wind, we headed down the ride at a snail’s pace. This speed, Pete told me, was necessary: “A buck could be just as easily 10 yards away as 100. Anyone can see a deer in the open. Look for colour or movement that may betray a resting beast’s presence”. This was going to be the full-monty learning experience, I thought, but I soon began to emulate my guide, stopping often and probing the ride edges with the binoculars – and what fun it was. My appreciation for the environment improved a hundredfold. I also realised how much of it I would have passed by.

Then I was directed to a buck Pete had spied, laid up beneath the pine trees. The animal was watching us intently, unsure what we were. My guide was assessing him. “He’s a young buck and a shame to shoot,” he whispered, almost to himself. However, as we were instructed to shoot all bucks within the fenced forest, he was a legitimate target. I slowly deployed the bipod between the heather and waited for him to stand. Nerves soon got the better of him; craning his neck from left to right, he slowly stood and took a tentative step forward.

“You have a safe backstop – take him when he turns broadside,” Pete instructed. Swallowing the thumping in my chest, I did just that. The beast burst forward and tripped to tumble over dead. A freshly cleaned six-pointer was now successfully grassed. “Good shot,” said Pete, still in a serious state of determination. We bled the beast out and quickly gralloched it before hanging it in a tree for later retrieval.

As we topped the next rise, another buck was in clear view, and still obviously in velvet. Pete was clearly disappointed in having to shoot him, but we had our instructions to adhere to. He nodded his assent to take him. “Another young buck. Take your time and wait until you’re sure of the shot. Always remember the backstop,” he ordered. ‘Thwack’ – and the second buck of the day was now in the bag, after similar treatment with a bit of nifty knife work.

My guide’s obvious compassion for the quarry initially struck me as strange, but as the morning wore on, I began to understand that there is so much more to stalking than just shooting deer. My own experience at that time was totally centred on predator shooting, and this was something new, and so much more fulfilling than foxing.

Hard to beat: Anyone would be a stalking convert after taking six bucks in a morning

The next beast wasn’t long in coming, and he too was in velvet. However, we were now skirting the wind and our only other way of approach was across open ground. Pete stressed seriously that one should never push a bad position, so we pulled out and left him unmolested.

We then came across a steep burn tumbling down the hillside. The rifle was unloaded, and the two of us carefully crossed before scaling the opposite bank to spy a buck feeding less than 100 yards away. I watched him through the binoculars as Pete explained he was a very old buck. “See his thick neck and the way he walks almost as if his head is too heavy,” he said. Though still covered in velvet, he clearly had big lumpy coronets and thick stumpy antlers carrying only two points apiece.

My confidence was growing now, and as I fitted to the rifle for the third time, my guide allowed me more leeway. “I will leave the shot to you,” he said. At this moment a passing curlew flying overhead began its agitated alarm call, and the buck looked towards us. But after an anxious moment, the bullet was on its way before the buck bolted. With the third animal hung in a tree to cool, we once more headed into the wind. Not a bad start with three down in less than two hours.

Our luck continued, and as our success grew, my interest took more and more of a hold. I was fast becoming a roe stalking convert. Buck number four fell to a 200-yard shot off a steep bank, and I learned about allowing for the angle when shooting on inclines, and the reverse physics involved.

Buck number five was a little more difficult with his head down and hidden in some old bracken, but Pete confirmed that the beast was a male by his kidney-shaped rump patch and lack of a female’s anal tush. The sixth and final buck was taken on the final leg back to the vehicle. We bumped into the buck, and Pete calmly opened the stalking sticks and said: “Cover him.” Letting out a shrill whistle, my guide stopped the buck dead and I certainly confirmed him so after drawing a swift bead and confidently pulling the trigger.

It would definitely be an understatement to say this outing was a revelation, because it was more than that. I had learnt an immense amount and hungered for more of the same. That stalk was more than 15 years ago but it had instilled in me the basics of successful stalking that have helped me safely put numerous deer into the larder ever since: search slow, consider the beast carefully, ensure the shot is safe, confirm the backstop, and never push a bad position. I have never bettered that first real outing, and apparently nor has my guide. Six bucks before breakfast will take some beating, but roe stalking is more than just numbers – it is being part of something bigger than oneself, being part of nature.

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