Brian Phipps joins deer expert Dominic Griffith on a stalk through an idyllic Hampshire estate
Professional deer manager Dominic Griffith approached me last year regarding the re-launch of his updated book Deer Management in the UK. We met several times to discuss image requirements and take relevant photographs. The book has now been released and is very successful once again.
In return for my help, Dominic offered me a stalk on one of his estates in Hampshire – an area that, I would say, just squeezes ahead of my beloved Somerset in terms of head quality. Dominic manages three estates, including the famous Broadlands, and as a result produces a prodigious number of medal heads. Though I doubted I’d be allowed to grass one worthy of a bronze, silver or gold, it didn’t matter – I knew it would be an exciting stalk.
From then on I was eagerly following the weather reports, waiting for a good forecast. Finally, Countryfile’s weather report said there would be sun the following weekend, and within minutes Dominic was on the phone telling me to cancel any plans I had. I love roe stalking in the summer: the early starts with no one around, the wildlife still undisturbed and the music of the dawn chorus filling the air. On top of that, you’re back home before the dog walkers scatter everything that breathes.
The weekend couldn’t come quickly enough, and this was one of the only times I’d looked forward to a 2am start. I’m always notoriously early for things, but on this occasion I was beaten to it – a familiar Pathfinder sat in the thick mist in a pot-holed lay-by. Like something from a horror movie, a heavily camouflaged arm emerged from the window and beckoned me to follow. The mist lay heavy in the fields – streams and low-lying ground had caused these build-ups.
When we pulled onto a grass verge, Dominic explained everything. The estate, I sensed, was Dominic’s favourite: at about 1,200 acres with 150 acres of woodland, he has seen his deer management process (applied over 25 years of stalking these grounds) go from strength to strength. With around 60 roe deer on the ground, most of the bucks are of super quality. As for shooting, just eight bucks and 14 does are removed every year, though there is an extra selection that requires culling when they appear. Dominic monitors the grounds weekly, but only stalks a few days a month in spring and summer to achieve his cull plan.
Dominic was keen to get a move on. Once the summer sun hits the backs of the deer, it sends them into sleep mode. We sped off to the grounds of a clay pigeon shoot within the estate, the location of our first assault on the bucks. I used the estate rifle: a Sako Finnlight .243, a good budget working tool. His previous rifle, the 75, was a bit heavy for extended stalks when moderated, while the Finnlight is shorter and lighter with no loss of performance. It’s perfect for a stalker’s needs, and comes complete with the safe-opening release switch, meaning you don’t have to move the safety catch to ‘fire’ before uncocking.
On top of the Sako was a 5-15×42 Zeiss variable. “I have always favoured Zeiss, and like the flexibility of a variable scope without a huge object lens,” said Dominic. “I think that too much is made of twilight performance. If you are shooting deer so late that you need huge object lenses, then you are probably shooting too late. They add unnecessary weight and bulk to the rifle.”
We moved through the manicured grass of the clay ground. “We get the odd buck around here,” said Dominic, “and it’s always worth checking out. The stalk will get harder after this section – we’ll be exposed as the ground is more open.” A pile of empty shotgun cartridges that would dwarf a people carrier almost blocked our path to the clay fields. With nothing around, we carried on.
The grass was heavy with morning dew, and the whole field was showered with broken clay pieces. I felt like a marine walking through a minefield. It was unavoidable, but our footsteps sounded like walking on pea gravel.
Dominic told me that the estate comprises many open fields separated by thick hawthorn hedgerows. A section of the estate also lends itself to a successful pheasant and partridge shoot, which was evident as we had been flushing them as we went. We hadn’t spotted anything worthy of my round yet – a couple of good medal heads were apparent through the binoculars, but I knew not to ask if these were on the table for me.
The sun was beating down now, and we had to change our plan. I was hoping this would be to return to find the big bucks from earlier, but it wasn’t the case. One of the last options was to stay out of the sun for a while longer – the dew would still be thick on the grass, and Dominic knew a buck could be taking advantage of this.
It was quite a walk, but took us through some of the most picturesque stalking grounds I had seen and revealed some outstanding views across the Hampshire countryside. I also saw the most hares I had ever seen: with almost every corner we turned, a couple of hares darted away. I was in heaven, and promised to return with my camera to capture these animals another day, but I was on a mission.
Dominic had been correct. I got the impression he knew all along where this buck would be, but had decided to give me the guided tour. I wasn’t impressed at having to push my way backwards through a dense thorn bush, but there was a young buck in a field no more than 50 yards away, feeding happily on the long grass in the shade. “That’s a perfect cull buck,” said Dominic. “He needs to be removed.” It was a bit closer than anticipated – we had only entered the field via this hedge to scout it, and hadn’t expected to be so close. We couldn’t drop him here because of the lack of backdrop, so we retreated back through the hedge. Creeping slowly into another position, we looked for places that would give the opportunity of a clear shot.
To minimise the chance of being spotted, we crawled through a hedge. The buck was only 40 yards away and I had to act quickly. The grass was several feet high, so my plan to take the shot lying down was thwarted. I moved with my head bowed and my chin on my chest, then rose gradually to my feet. Dominic erected the tripod and I swung the Sako off my shoulder and dropped it firmly onto it.
With the rifle in a more favourable position, I glanced through the scope. It’s not often that I’ve looked through a scope and brown has pretty much filled my vision. It was an easy shot, breaking the silence of the morning air. It was such a close shot that I saw a huge mist of blood erupt from behind the buck – but he didn’t drop, and bolted further into the field. The round must have affected him, and he charged headlong into a wooden tree protector, where he came to a halt.
We walked to where my round had hit home. There was blood and bone fragments everywhere. It must have been adrenalin and shock that propelled the buck further through the field. We recovered the buck, and Dominic confirmed that it was perfect for the cull plan. It hadn’t been a medal head, but a good stalk with great company was more important to me.
Dominic is a traditionalist, and we carried the buck to a branch to perform a tree gralloch. Apart from not giving you backache, it’s an essential method for removing the organs cleanly: all the blood runs down out of the carcase and it is washed easily ready for removal.
Most stalks would end here, with the beast loaded and farewells exchanged, but Dominic is different. We had parked next to a makeshift shelter and a picnic bench, and from his Nissan Dominic removed a metal tripod and a frying pan. He constructed a small fire underneath, and we had a campfire. Dominic loaded the frying pan with eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and, would you believe it, my roebuck liver. My job was simple: butter the rolls and get the freshly ground coffee ready. We basked in the sun and munched on roe liver, agreeing that there was no better place to be on such a fine morning.