Irish luck

Chris Dalton crosses the Irish Sea to try his luck at a sika stag, but poor conditions threaten to end his stalk before it’s even begun

One of the good things about having been an outfitter for a while are the like-minded folk that you meet during your stalking/hunting activities. They may simply be the guests that we welcome from abroad or at home, or the other guys who are operating similar stalking operations to ourselves, and it’s great to meet them, share war stories and get a feel for how they operate and manage different quarry species to my own.

My team and I stalk and guide clients on all six UK deer species – the mainstay of my deer activities are roe and red deer, but regular readers may have read of several trips down into deepest England to help out Paul Childerley with the management of CWD and muntjac. But thus far I had not ventured south-west in Southern Ireland. This month that all changed.

I was well aware of the reputation of Ireland, and Co Wexford in particular, for its superb sporting opportunities, but my interest really lay in the quality of the sika stalking – I have many clients who have enthused about the Irish sika for years, and I was well aware that the man to go to is John Fenton, who has for a long time managed a fair chunk of the area. This came about through my Sporting Rifle and Shooting Show connections with Jason Doyle. I only recently met Jason, I had read his articles and we have briefly communicated in the past, but for some reason our paths had not crossed.

Not Chris’s usual stalking ground – but he got used to it well enough…

He, like me, is passionate about promoting our sport and all the benefits that surround it, one important part of which is training. If we have trained and experienced hunters who have demonstrable skills in deer management and carcass handling then the better it is for all of us. Ireland has maybe lagged a bit behind the DSC training curve, but there is now growing interest among the hunting community to engage more with some formal training, hence my visit. I have been working with BASC as an approved witness for the Deer Stalking Certificate level 2 for a long time, but more recently as an assessor with the British Deer Society, so naturally I jumped at the chance do go over and talk to some of the guys and deliver some training/assessing in DSC 2. I did not need asking twice.

We (Shaz, one of my guys, came over to assist) were hosted for three days by John Fenton, with Jason Doyle and Will O’Meara looking after us. Our training schedule had allowed time for Jason to take me out on the hill; Will was with Shaz, and thus far the weather had been good to us. When I was living in Northern Ireland the locals would say, “If you can’t see Lough Neagh, it’s raining, and if you can see it, it’s going to rain” – and it’s wetter in the south! But we had been lucky.

I had been treated to some jaw-droppingly good scenery and a healthy sika population – the guys know their ground, and had no difficulty finding us deer. Sika had adapted well to the local terrain, but is almost identical to my own ground in the south-west of Scotland. However, while you have the traditional and classic woodland sika habit of staying in thick cover and venturing out sneakily at last and first light, there is an equal number who have adapted to living fully on the open hill. They behave exactly like hill reds, so you can stalk them during the day on the open hill in the same way. The same challenges exist when approaching a wary deer species fully in the open, but it does add a new dimension to the traditional last and first light ambush that I am more familiar with on my sika ground in Scotland.

A dog’s life: Jake the BMH was the true star of the stalk

Jason and Will collected us from the B&B, and off we set to our respective areas, which were a long way apart. We left with a clear, cold and bright morning – great hill-stalking conditions – until we got to our hill, which was shrouded in thick mist. But we were here, so off we went – you never know, it might lift. There was a good breeze, and Jason’s plan was to work up to the top of the hill using a stream gulley as cover. We had been to places at around 100 to 150 metres, so safety was not an issue, but in these conditions the hunting balance is tipped fair and square in favour of the deer, and encounters are invariably at close quarters, where we can see the deer, but by that time they have sensed or heard us and have sloped off. But any day is good to be out, and you never know.

We did have one ace up our sleeve in Jake, a trained and experienced Bavarian mountain hound (BMH). Jake is a great character – I know the breed well, and readers will recall many a tale gracing these pages with my own BMH, Burt, who I worked for many years. So it was also very nostalgic having a BMH tucked at Jason’s heel and working in front of me. When you have worked with deer dogs for years, you soon learn to watch the dog. Particularly in thick cover or poor visibility, the dog will tell you if deer are close by. It does not take long to pick up the little signs and idiosyncrasies they have.

The initial target of the climb was simply to get to the top of the hill. Our target was the next valley, where there were a good number of red/sika hybrids; these were our target for the morning. Specifically, he wanted to shoot one of the young stags – but in these conditions we would be lucky to get anything. We had seen sika on the way up – a nice young stag of four points who would make a fine beast, and some hinds. We did spook a few, but no harm was done – they ran to our left, not in front.

Sporting Rifle’s Will O’Meara does the honours

The weather closed in even more at the top, but even so it was great. There is always that anticipation of deer, and the grouse were cackling and noisy. We had a discussion at the top, and Jason suggested that we follow a gulley down to a sheltered basin below the ridge, which often held deer, and if the weather wasn’t clearing we would make the trip back down to the car for breakfast.

It was bitter at the top. The wind cut you like a knife. Deer in these conditions will be tucked in feeding out of the wind, so we had to pick the best option.

As we worked our way down the stream Jake became interested – his nose was up and his general demeanour changed. It’s often hard to describe to a non-dog person what you are seeing, but if you watch a dog work you will see how they ‘switch on’. Jason whispered for me to load, and I chambered a round into his moderated .270. This is an ideal calibre for sika – they are a tough deer.

Our movement became slow and deliberate. I strained my eyes and ears for any sign of deer in the gloom. We got another 50 yards or so before Jason, who was above me, slowly shrank down and whispered that there was a young hybrid pricket below us at around 10 yards. Long shot, then.

Chris rounded off the trip with a stag of soemewhat better quality

I eased up, and there he was, happily browsing in a clump of heather. Slowly, I was able to get the rifle into position, and used my long walking stick to provide some stability for the shot. With my left hand clamping the stock to the stick, I eased the rifle to my shoulder. Any slight noise at this stage and the game was up. But I was too low and still had heather in my line of sight. I pushed up even further; our pricket was none the wiser. I compensated for the close proximity, but over-did it and ended up shooting slightly low. The stag bowled over and fell down into the valley bottom, struggling and kicking before scrambling to his feet. A speedy neck shot finished the job just to be sure.

So a poor hybrid stag in the bag in the most unlikely of weather conditions. The deer had all the cards, but we had Jake! It was a simple matter of backpacking the stag off the hill and walking a mere mile and a half away – easy for a fit lad like Jason, and he didn’t complain, but I did carry the rifle.

All in all, it was a great few days in absolutely stunning scenery with some great guys. This is one destination that should be on the list of any hunter. Oh, and because visibility was too bad to take good pictures on that day, I’ve included some from the following morning when we sneaked off to shoot a decent stag each – don’t tell John.

For stalking opportunities Chris can be contacted on 07710 871190 or www.ayrstalk.co.uk

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