Introducing new stalkers to roebuck

With a lightened workload ahead of the red stag season, Chris Dalton is able to enjoy the experience of introducing new stalkers to roebuck.

To me, September is a slightly strange month in the stalking calendar. It is a great time of year, but I find myself slightly in limbo after the roebuck rut and waiting for the red stag rut. Yes, there are sika and fallow in the mix, but for me, the bulk of my work will be on the upcoming red stags.

We have clients on the other deer species, and it’s actually a good time for the roe bucks, particularly later in the month, as they start to feed and move again after the rut. For those fortunate enough to have arable crops, working on stubble after the harvest is great.

We do quite a bit of work on assessing the stags as well, and we are still stalking on the hill, as well as taking clients who want to come in September. At Kinnaird, a number are combining stalking with salmon fishing on the Tay, and maybe getting in an early season duck flight, so we are involved with some mixed packages.

However, last year was slightly different, as I had Graeme and his brother Steve working with me. This lightened my load somewhat; Graeme taking on the bulk of the stalking, with Steve handling a lot of the admin and management tasks. So unlike previous years, where I would have been buzzing like a blue-arsed fly, I attended the Midland Game Fair, where I was once again on duty measuring trophies for Sporting Rifle, BASC and
the BDS.

As I was not required up on the hill, I enjoyed my trip to the Midland. It’s a great chance to meet stalkers who delight in relating tales of that manic moment when they finally catch up with an elusive buck after what can be many years of trying.

I left a little early on the Sunday, and was on the road by mid-afternoon to make the trip back north, where father and son team of Paul and James were arriving for an introduction to stalking package.

Both had their own rifles, but had not stalked before, and so they wanted to gain experience in stalking and butchery, and start some preparation for DSC1, intending to return early in the new year to take the assessment with me. I think of all the training we do here, taking folk out to stalk and getting them into their first deer is probably the most rewarding aspect of all.

We try to impart our own ethics of sustainable deer management, the proper selection of a beast to shoot, and the careful and correct handling of the carcass to end up on the table.

However, in order to demonstrate carcass handling and butchery, first we needed a deer! We spent the first afternoon on the range and discussed in detail stalking, points of aim and reaction to shot, and some basic deer management principles.

With all of this covered and the shooting safely negotiated, we followed up with the DSC1 range test to assess shooting ability and the rifle setup. I find this is as good a method as any, so we were all set for a nice, early start the following morning.

After a brief cup of tea just before first light, I went to check the weather. The forecast had predicted a nice day; a slight ground frost with little wind and a sunny day in prospect, and that is exactly what we got.

Have a plan, but don’t feel obliged to stick to it

I had a plan of where I intended to go the day before, based mainly on where I needed to shoot deer and the prevailing wind and weather, but I don’t always stick to it. Some mornings I get up and just feel, for whatever reason, I am going to stalk this patch or another, and end up in an entirely different place.

However, this morning I stuck to the script. We have a range set up in a particularly attractive spot, deep in a steep valley looking across the Galloway hills. Felling and replanting had finished around 18 months earlier, and the re-growth was lush, as light that had previously been excluded under mature Sitka spruce for around 30 years was now allowed in.

This is a huge draw to deer, compounded as it is by a sheltered, south-facing steep slope. I had been monitoring the area for some time, noting roe deer in particular in increasing numbers.

I hoped that this morning, with some luck, I could get James his first deer, and start to deter the roe from eating the young commercial crop. I have a few syndicate guys here, but the steep slope and long carry back up to the road does seem to deter some. Consequently, the deer had been left in peace, so I was hopeful of at least finding some roe.

My cull plan was for young bucks ideally – particularly good eating in the autumn after a summer of nibbling young shoots and buds – and the ones that will cause the most damage to the trees.

We had our strategy, and moved off along the forest road just as the first strands of light fingered across the darkness. As forecast, there was a slight ground frost, so walking on the grass on the track edge allowed us to move silently towards the head of the valley, from where I could glass down to the valley below.

I was careful as we slowly moved forwards, James close behind with Zosia taking point. Roe will often feed on the edge of the track overnight, and the last thing I wanted in these conditions was to bump into a roe that would then run off, barking a warning to all and sundry that not all was well. Far better to leave any feeding roe fully settled and on low alert – if roe are ever in that state!

I find that I now totally tune in with my surroundings, and am glassing frequently, but watching the hound even more often. Thus far, nothing had pricked her scent buds. She did pick up once – but only as a woodcock flushed from a few feet in front of her – making me jump as she did! False alarm.

After covering around 800 yards, I got to the vantage point where I was directly above the valley and could glass down below, examining very carefully all the little nooks and sheltered corners and grassy plateaus. Had I not seen anything, my intention was to wait and watch.

This morning that was not required. There were five roe in view already – a doe and kid to our left on the edge on the wood, and a group of three, almost directly below us feeding besides an old sheep fold, long since fallen into disrepair.

With the stone walls crumbling and providing shelter for the new occupants, all five roe were settled in – no need to rush. As the light came up, identification of the group below us became possible. A doe plus buck kid and a yearling buck.

He was slightly above and behind the other two – he fit the plan so we could approach. This was relatively easy, and we dropped out of sight, moved about 150 yards down a stream gully to a small ledge where we crawled forward, almost directly above and around 120 yards from the young buck.

I briefed James to crawl alongside me, rifle pointing forward, and we both eased simultaneously to the ledge. Once I could see the top of the sheep fold I eased up and looked, but initially could not see any of the deer. Then a slight movement drew me to the doe, who had moved 30 yards left and was walking away from us.

Zosia was sat on my right and watching intently down below – stock still, but muscles tense and watching to our right. I followed her line of sight, and there was a cracking six-point buck! We needed to be careful here; the dynamic could change rapidly if he started to throw his weight about.

It’s a lovely day for a first stalk

I glassed back, and picked up our target buck, following the line of the doe. I told James to set the bipod and cover the buck, which he did. There was no chance of a shot initially, as the deer was walking away from us, but fortunately he turned to sniff and half-heartedly thrash at a willow sapling.

This meant that the deer in James’ sights was now presenting a lovely broadside, head facing left. My whispered instruction to James to “take him when ready” resulted in the slightest of pauses before the shot went on its way, and the buck instantly dropped with the briefest twitch.

We both paused to enjoy the moment – another memory made. You never forget your first deer. A suspended gralloching demonstration followed, along with the organ identification tutorial, and we now had the required carcass for a butchery demonstration later in the week.

All that remained was the lung-busting carry up ‘Heartbreak Hill!’ – now I know why the syndicate boys don’t come down here.

More from Chris Dalton

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