January blanks

There’s no month like January when it comes to returning from the stalk with an ‘empty saddle’, remarks David Barrington Barnes

Credit: Giedrius Stakauskas / EyeEm / Getty Images

In sport, a drawn game provides little satisfaction to players and spectators. A no score draw is worse. This general truth has me wondering whether a blank deer-stalking outing is ever worth retelling. It’s in January that I most frequently have to address this issue because stalking this month is more often than not difficult.

Browsing my diary entries over the years, I find plenty of blanks. In the first week of January 2016 I marked a solitary outing with the legend ‘nil shot’. The next day Jim and I stalked morning and evening and I noted our ‘four outings, no shot’ for that day.

I didn’t stalk all day on the Thursday but had an outing with two associates after a day’s game shooting. The game shoot gave us some good sport for 110 head but the three afternoon outings with our rifles were completely unproductive.

In the same week the following year, two of us started on the first Monday of the new year with a remarkable day during which we saw an estimated 100 fallow deer, all of which eluded us.

We failed to score! A blank early morning on some roe ground on the Tuesday was improved by a hedgerow shoot that yielded 12 head of mixed game including three mallard at flight in the evening. The rest of the week was so unproductive, I began to think I was stalking in a deer-free zone.

There are plenty of theories as to why stalking in December and January is so difficult. My own opinion is that the short daylight hours are key. In Suffolk, cover is getting sparse by then and fallow deer are not as a rule going to stand in the open where they are likely to be disturbed by dog walkers and their often unruly dogs in addition to farm and forestry workers.

They therefore couch in such cover as they can find under the canopy during daylight. They are certainly not hibernating but they benefit from each other’s warmth and alertness to sit out the day expending the minimum of energy.

Then the cloak of darkness invites them to step outside the woodland harbour and graze on such fresh grass as they can find, often on the same path that goes round the woodland edge and, in daytime, is busy with walkers, joggers and other folk.

Not much grazing is required to keep them going until the days lengthen to draw the hungry deer out into the fields. By late February some of these will have a bite on them.

Well, that’s the theory! To readers who disagree with it, I quote the writer Laurence Sterne, who said, “So long as a man rides his hobby-horse peacefully and quietly along the King’s highway and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, what have either you or I to do with it?”

Returning now from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, there is a case for saying there is little point in stalking between 15 December and 15 January, but that would be a defeatist, dull conclusion leading to the loss of outings good and bad with all the concomitant events and happenings, many of which are unrelated to deer.

One January evening, a friend returned from his high seat well drenched by a heavy shower. “Why,” he enquired, “do hares stay dry while they are out in the rain?” I hadn’t a clue but now I always ask that question when I see hares going about their business.

On another January morning, I had the most stunning view from my high seat of a stoat that was scuttling over dry brash with breath taking agility and with a predatory mien about him that was comic in so small an animal.

Neither of these encounters would have happened had we done the sensible thing and sat in front of the fire. That fire will of course be very welcome at the outing’s end and may assist the thawing-out process, particularly if accompanied by the drink of the stalker’s choice. 

And of course there are deer to be stalked during the fleeting daylight hours, and I have a host of great memories from this month. Though I have stalked a few stags and hinds in Scotland, I have had little opportunity to stalk red deer south of the Scottish border.

Indeed, until the incident I am about to relate, my one and only red stag outside of Scotland – a handsome royal as it happened – came from the south of Devon.

I was therefore very excited to receive an invitation to try for a red deer with my good friend J. The commitment to the task J and his friend R had soon became apparent when J got out the trailer, which was engineered like a tank transporter and fully equipped with massive hoists and winches.

We set off in good time for an evening session, during which I became more and more worried as I realised the outcome of this would depend on my accuracy.

We arrived in due course at a large grass plain, in the middle of which was a big patch of cover of gorse and other heavy scrub. I was soon directed to a high seat on the edge of the grass, from which I had a splendid view of the grass and cover and beyond.

I was given to understand the deer would likely be in the gorse cover and that they might emerge and offer me a chance as they made for the woodland behind me. If they did not come my way, they might present for R who was in another high seat, 250 yards to my left. 

Notwithstanding my nerves, I enjoyed this novel and interesting location and, in the dying light of the day, saw a small group of huge deer heading towards me.

They were unalarmed so I decided to let them come on in the hope I could, as instructed, shoot two of them. On they came and I was ready to engage the spiker in the group when R fired a shot, causing all these deer to run back towards the cover. When they stopped, I could clearly make out the spiker, so I shot it. His companions then legged it.

When we got together, it transpired R had engaged a muntjac and in so doing had nearly ‘let off’ the reds. No matter – I was thrilled to shoot an English red deer. I was also mightily relieved not to be responsible for us going home with an empty saddle.

As to my friends, they worked like navvies into the night of New Year’s Day to process and recover my spiker: an impressive and extremely generous performance. 

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