Such is my preoccupation with deer these days that the conventional calendar is unfit for purpose. My calendar now runs from 1 April to 31 March each year. When I refer here to ‘last year’ it’s the year from April 2014 to March 2015, and I am happily able to say that last year, for the first time, my team shot 100 deer. I am immensely proud of this cull, which has been achieved little by little, by sporting stalking that hasn’t spooked the surviving beasts.
My team have worked hard and put in hours of work party and stalking time to achieve our best-ever result, not just in numbers of deer culled but also in our successful culling of many more does than we have ever previously grassed. Leafing through my diaries, I can now take a retrospective glance at the daily entries, some of which leap off the page and reveal the essence of my life as a sporting rifle.
I always get out on 1 April, and last year my first weeks were not atypical. Despite lying in wait in some buck-friendly locations, I saw nothing but does! I recall my bemusement as to the disappearance of the roebucks I had been seeing regularly during February and March.
It took me until mid-month to grass my first roebuck, and I can clearly recall the excitement of waiting concealed in the woodland edge as the cull meandered back to cover after an early morning foray. Later that same morning, whilst on foot a mile away, I chanced on a muntjac buck which I shot, using a convenient hedge as both cover and rest. That morning was as magical as only fine April and May mornings can be: animal friendly and people free.
Despite lying in wait in some buck-friendly locations, I saw nothing but does
That morning yielded a couple of beasts for the cull plan and there were more like it, with muntjac and the occasional roebuck being brought to book. However, by the end of May the best of it was over, with the cover getting too high to readily see the beasts. It was time for a little fishing, a chance to cast a fly and relax for a week or two without the pressures of complying with a cull plan. By mid-July it was time to be checking the high seats for safety issues and sight lines. Interference with straps and ropes is, well, ‘not unknown’, and as I have discovered to my discomfort and danger, the sabotage of a high seat may not be apparent when the stalker climbs into it in the dark. In addition, the branches and twigs just grow like weeds and can be guaranteed to frustrate a shot unless cut back regularly. What you need to resolve these issues is one man in the high seat directing operations and the other on the ground using a pole lopper with an extending handle. This is essential preparatory work before the main cull.
For me the main cull starts in August. Last year our first three prickets were taken on 2 August. I had one, my son another and our charming young German friend, Magnus Eger, another: good sport and a great start. The following week we stuck to our task, culling roebucks, fallow prickets and muntjac.
The fallow were in great shape, with their organs cased in fat. After a summer feeding in the fields they would never be better. In fact, I shot one big fallow buck on the evening of 4 August and my game dealer obviously thought its condition too good, as he deducted money for several kilos of fat content! We kept after the prickets until the month end by when the best of it was over. The first week of September was blank, and the whole month only yielded two prickets. As in salmon fishing, the low ground stalking game changes quickly from feast to famine.
My diary gets interesting again on 1 November, when I encounter a fat fallow doe during an evening outing. The next week I had the team out in force, and the relevant page in my diary is scored with red markers which reflect the twenty beasts culled. As November moved into December, deer movement became less but we kept at it, picking up fallow does in ones and twos on days when I was not chasing a few pheasants.
January was tough, with blank outings predominating, and the nil entries against each outing in the diary bring back chilly recollections of unrewarded cold weather ambushes. Perched up on a high seat for hours at a time in sub- zero temperatures may not be that pleasant, but with thermals and beanies and layers of cold weather clothing it can be done, and adds to the satisfaction derived from a cull.
With the lengthening February days, our sport improved. Stalking on my own sometimes and on other occasions with colleagues, the cull sheet was fast filling up with fallow does. For example, after shooting a doe by myself on 20 February, our team of four rifles took ten fallow and three muntjac over the next two days.
In March I was clearing up, culling surplus does and the muntjac (off-limits to me in the game shooting season), which were now visibly feeding on flailed game covers. My entry for an evening’s outing on Friday 13 March (of all unlikely days) summed it up: “one fox, one muntjac doe and one roe doe.” These last mentioned beasts rounded the cull up to the 100. Yes: happy the centurion!