The opening of the UK’s roebuck season is always a special occasion for me. I can only describe it as that Christmas-day sensation that was a familiar feeling to most of us during childhood. But enough of the soft-centred sentiment. This year was no exception on the excitement front, but there was a difference. On opening day I had a guest to guide on to the new-season bucks – normally reserved for yours truly on 1 April, a tradition I’ve held for many a year. But I’d donated this year’s new-season bucks to the Gamekeepers’ Welfare Trust auction, run last year in the keepers’ trade paper, Modern Gamekeeping.
I met the auction winner Kevin Minett at our pre-arranged RV at the pub on the eve of the new season, and relayed to him my plans for the following morn – weather permitting, of course – over dinner. A swift pint of Wold Top, a Yorkshire beverage that puts the ‘real’ into real ale (one has to be sociable you understand), and I was soon on my way home to get an early night in advance of the morning foray to come.
As always, I beat the alarm by 20 minutes and quickly slipped into my stalking gear (laid out in advance), grabbed the rifle and my knife and cartridge belt, and was heading back to the pub well before ‘sparrow fart’. The downside was the wind; it was blowing a real hooley from a westerly quarter (which was the only good thing about it).
During the short journey, last night’s text messages began pinging through on my mobile. When I crunched to a halt in the gravel car park, I cast an eye over them. The keeper had sent an interesting one: “Have seen a good buck and a doe for the past three mornings coming out of Beechwood on to the rough grass between wood and Winter Belt between 6.30 and 7am.” That information threw the previous night’s strategy right out of the window. Winter Belt was on my boundary and it ran at right angles to the busy main road into town – also, the area this buck was working would be out of the wind. I decided to try for this buck as it would be a useful one to take out for geographical reasons, and the area’s sheltered aspect gave me extra confidence in him putting in an appearance.
Kevin emerged from the inn and I was soon retracing my route towards town. Ten minutes later I cut the engine and rolled into a gateway on the north end of Winter Belt. Closing the doors softly, I let Kevin get the feel of my Merkel Helix, practising mounting it on and off the shooting sticks. Kevin had arrived late the previous evening and there wasn’t an opportunity for him to test the rifle on the target, hence the familiarisation exercise. After a few dry fires in the dark to get a feel for the trigger pull, he followed me as I slowly walked down the headland next to the poplar belt.
Two thirds of the way along the headland that ran rapidly downhill, I picked a suitable poplar just inside the belt. The tree would provide a backrest and adequate cover for my guest. After some adjustment I got the tripod at the correct height for Kevin to shoot from with minimum movement and laid down to the left of Kevin, using my roesack as token cover to hide behind.
I’ve always felt that the birth of a new day is something special to behold, especially in the spring and summer when most are still in their slumber and animal activity is at its height. Even before the first touches of light, there was activity close by thanks to our cautious approach. The piping of teal close by on the drain was audible above the wind, and brought back memories of flights long past, targeting this diminutive wildfowl in similar conditions. A barn owl ghosted past, unaware of our presence, committed as he was to finding voles and remaining airborne.
The downside was the wind; it was blowing a real hooley from a westerley quarter
An amber-grey dawn soon spread its way to life in the east. This encouraged the rooks to become vociferous from their lofty parliament across the way in Beechwood rookery. The corvids must have been the pheasant’s alarm call, as cock after cock crowed out his joy of surviving the season and alighted all around us, stretching and preening before setting up half-hearted sparring engagements with rivals.
This could be tricky, I thought, but the birds soon moved off in a quest to fill their crops before getting back into the business of showing off to the hens. I checked my watch and marvelled at how the time had passed – it was 6.33am. Right on cue, a buck emerged from the drain side, almost directly in front of us at about 120 yards. Kevin had seen him too, and looked enquiringly at me. I gave the nod; he slowly raised the rifle on to the sticks and I picked up the buck in my Swarovski binoculars. He was coming along the bankside and closing fast.
Kevin had the rifle half-mounted and was waiting for the call, and of course for the buck to stop. I felt the buck was probably more middle-aged than old, but he was a boundary buck and close to a busy road. The decision was made: “Shoot him when I stop him,” I whispered, and Kevin fitted to the rifle. I barked out my version of a roebuck’s challenge call and the bucked stopped dead, probably more in shock than recognition of my roe-speak. The bullet was away an instant later and the buck reared and fell forward to the shot. Kevin worked the action of the Helix and I said, “Cover him,” while watching the beast kick his legs in extremis through the Swaros. But all was as it should and we walked in to the dead buck five minutes later.
The gralloch was performed quickly and just in time for a visit from the keeper, who arrived in his ATV to soak up a bit of well-earned glory for his effective intel. Pleasantries and thanks exchanged, we headed back to the inn for breakfast via the larder. It was here, after watching the weather forecast over a full English, another change of plan was decided.
Inclement conditions were one thing, but the wind was forecast to increase to gale force in the evening, and with it heavy rain too. This being so, I offered to take Kevin out on a midday outing. He readily agreed and we were soon back out spying all the sheltered areas where I expected to find roe. The sun had come out and I felt sure we would see some activity. It wasn’t long in coming – three family groups totalling 10 animals in the lee of a long wood in Hamkill Bottoms – no doubt back in bevvies because of the harsh weather.
Deploying the draw scope from the vehicle, I decided on the northernmost group of four. One of the two bucks looked a real old stager, indicated by his thick neck, body mass and gait. Positioned as they were, we would have the wind and not risk spooking one of the other groups.
The stalk was on. We snuck down the cover side of a long hawthorne hedge that fell rapidly downhill. Making ground quickly when bent double is no mean feat and certainly has a comical aspect to it, which was not lost on Kevin. I deemed a faster approach than normal was the best bet, as I feared they would soon return to the woods where they normally resided at this time of day.
The hawthorne hedge became thinner as we neared our quarry, and our progress fell into a normal stalking advance as we fell to our knees and alternated between shuffles and crawls depending on the hedge or lack of it. Half an hour later we were parallel to the four deer; this is when the buck decided to chase off the young buck belonging to the bevvy. Kevin looked crestfallen but I felt sure he would come back, and advised him to set up the sticks ready for his return. The Primos tripod was quickly deployed and the rifle rested at half mount.
It was tense time, but eventually the buck pushed his way back out of the woodland to rejoin the bevvy. Kevin mounted the rifle and drew a bead on a roebuck’s vitals for the second time. I knew the buck sported a heavy trophy that would be medal standard. But Kevin deserved it – he’d helped to support the Gamekeepers’ Welfare Trust, a charity close to my heart – so I gave the order to shoot.
The rest was history, and made the opening day of the season a special one for Kevin and me. He’d grassed a buck of a lifetime – definitely a bronze if not a silver BASC medal – helped a worthy cause, and his joy was infectious. It was an interesting start to the 2015 season, which certainly promised to be a memorable one.