Simon Barr joins deer specialist Richard Scrope to control the local muntjac population and gets a look at one of the country’s most spectacular trophy rooms on the way
The modern culture of British stalkers is often not to seek trophies but to manage the population as the landowner sees fit. I lean towards the European style of hunting and relish the opportunity to take quality trophies where a population can afford it.
My spring foray for muntjac with Richard Scrope was one I had looked forward to for some time. Not only was I spending a morning hunting with one of the UK’s upcoming roe and muntjac specialists, but I was also staying in Marco Pierre White’s new country inn and restaurant, The Carnarvon Arms in Highclere, Berkshire.
Of course staying in one of Marco’s establishments is first class, but this hotel is of particular appeal to British hunters such as me, since Marco has adorned the walls of the bar with much of his trophy collection. There were no fewer than 19 gold medals, six stunning roebuck shoulder mounts and a bank of over 40 intriguing skull mounts that together look remarkable. It must be the largest private collection of gold medal roebuck anywhere in the UK.
On the evening before our outing, Richard met me in the bar to discuss the stalk. We would be out for muntjac, and possibly fallow buck should we see one. As well as owning sporting agency Where Wise Men Shoot, Richard manages the deer on a nearby 4,000-acre estate, which would be the venue for the next day’s stalk. He has managed the deer on the estate for a couple of years, and his main objective has been to encourage better quality roe heads. It felt right to be discussing roe trophies surrounded by gold medals.
Richard is of the opinion that too many fallow, or indeed muntjac, can affect the quality and densities of roe. His plan has been to radically reduce the number of fallow and stay on top of the muntjac. This is already starting to have a positive effect. Through resting the roebuck for a couple of years and reducing the competition with other species, the quality of trophies has increased significantly. A testament to the success of his management strategy is that he will be taking a limited number of clients out for trophy roe this year – a sure benchmark that the quality and numbers of roe in the are increasing.
My Bavarian mountain hound Gretel and I slept well and were ready to be picked up by Richard just before daybreak. We headed to the estate, our destination a mixed forestry block. The woodland was perched high on rolling down land, with a 180-degree view of the field edges a long way off. Groups of roe skittered around, unaware of us glassing with our binos from afar. The morning was already full of promise.
It is incredible to think that the little muntjac is now the most numerous deer species in England. This curious-looking deer, no larger than a Labrador, has successfully colonised the length and breadth of the British Isles. Some claim muntjac are ugly, but others are engaged by their button noses and lustrous dark eyes. Whatever your view on the smallest of the six deer species in the UK, it cannot be denied that a muntjac buck complete with tusks is a magnificent trophy.
Richard, Gretel and I set off keenly. The plan would be to stalk downwind through a series of rides, which would lead us to a free-standing high seat. Richard explained that this seat was at the edge of a dense larch plantation, where deer are known to mooch about all day.
Almost as soon as we had set off, we spotted a roe doe, a couple of last year’s kids, and a buck just shedding his velvet. The young buck was in fine order and had the makings of becoming a tremendous six-pointer – even on each side with thick beams to boot. Given another couple of years he would certainly have all of the attributes that make the region so famed for its roe quality. We let the group move away so as not to disturb them – no doubt they would have hailed our presence in the wood with an echo of barks.
We continued along the network of rides, scanning the softwood plantations carpeted with knee-deep bramble briars. This is prime habitat for muntjac, who naturally live in semi-tropical environments. It was not long before we spotted one of the morning’s intended quarry. A muntjac doe stood glaring at us in the morning half-light surrounded by brambles. In the split second it took me to react and get rifle to sticks, she had bolted into the undergrowth. Luckily, she didn’t bark.
Our next encounter took us by surprise: we were head to head with a spectacular Reeves pheasant. Richard was aware of a local private collection and thought this brightly marked bird must have escaped. This was a strange coincidence given that we were hunting Reeves muntjac. Both creatures were named after John Reeves, who in 1812 was appointed inspector of tea for the East India Company in Canton. Little did he know then how well the deer that bear his name would prosper in the British Isles.
The muntjac’s rapid colonisation of the UK had not helped Richard and me that morning. We had yet to see a shootable animal, but the free-standing seat held hope for us. Bad luck struck – on our approach we saw a roe doe and two bucks not far from the base of the seat. It would be almost impossible to scale the ladder without disturbing them and risking them sending gruff barks through the area.
We decided to wait and watch, which, to be fair, wasn’t an unpleasant thing to do. Richard quickly identified one of the bucks as a beast he had earmarked for management this year. Its antlers were abnormally tall with slight brow tines. Richard explained that this animal may injure other bucks during the rut, so it would be coming out as part of the management plan. Gretel had spotted the group and was avidly watching and checking me to see if the rifle had gone onto the sticks – her signal to stand by for a follow-up. To her disappointment, the group melted into the larch plantation, offering us an opportunity to climb the seat undetected and leave her on terra firma.
Gretel sat below as Richard and I scanned the two rides for orange movement. Muntjac seldom stand still, making them challenging sport for even the most experienced hunter. A doe moved over the rise of one of the rides. An unsafe shot tantalisingly came and went. But finally our patience paid off and a formidable buck exited the larch and headed away from us down a ride. A stealthy pursuit was going to be necessary to catch up with this mobile but blissfully unaware buck. The deer moved around the corner of the ride and out of sight, giving us a chance to descend the ladder and head off after it.
Leaving the seat, we crept along the ride using the tree line as cover. As we peered around the corner, the buck was still in the ride but facing away from us as it browsed the ground-level fauna. It was around 70 metres away – all we had to do was wait. Rifle on sticks, reticle glowing red, I waited for the shot to present itself.
Eventually the buck turned to head into the soft wood on the other side of the ride. My fingertip took the tension in the trigger, and my rifle did what I asked of it. A 100-grain soft-nose round bowled the buck straight over on the edge of the softwood, instantly dispatching it.
Gretel had seen the whole scene unfold from barrel to buck dropping, but for experience I always work to the deer. Tracking leash on, we headed over to the prize. As we arrived, the miserable smell of a misjudged shot told me I had clipped the liver and guts. A misread quarter had caught me out and I was frustrated, but not every shot lands how we want it to. The good news was that, although not medal class, it was certainly worthy of shoulder mounting. After a thoroughly enjoyable stalk we headed back to the larder to remove the buck’s cape and salvage what we could of the carcase. The saddle and haunches were fine once washed off, so they headed for the freezer.
It was clear from the roe we had seen that Richard’s efforts have yielded positive results on quality. Richard’s roe will be worth keeping a keen eye on over the forthcoming years. I would not be surprised if one or two end up in the bar joining Marco’s collection.