Stalking test

Chris Dalton juggles tasks and experiences plentiful ups and downs while guiding two visiting Irish clients on their final DSC Level 2 witnessed stalks.

Credit: Frank Sommariva / Getty Images

Being a professional stalker involves a lot more than just pulling a trigger. As Chris Dalton well knows, at various times you may need to be landscape manager, hunting guide, performance coach, technical expert, chauffeur, host and more besides… and that was never truer than during a four-day trip to their Kinnaird estate in Perthshire, with red hind the main quarry on the list.

Chris wouldn’t just be stalking – he’d be with two Irish guests, Padraig and Killian, both of whom were looking to complete their DSC Level 2 and needed to get the witnessed stalks.

At the same time, Chris was trying to film for The Shooting Show, all without compromising the stalks or the witnessing. So that’s enough to be getting on with…

“Padraig and Killian are regulars from Ireland,” says Chris, “and I’m happy to say they both got their qualification during the trip. So that was the main aim complete – and with time for a few bonus stalks too!”

All in all, a dozen deer were shot between the three over four days, with another guest, Storm, joining in too (he just needed one more cull deer to complete his quota of witnessed stalks).

The weather was conducive to stalking, though it was extremely cold, with snow still covering the ground at higher elevations – which is always a challenge when trying to stalk in to fairly close ranges undetected.

“I took Padraig out on the first morning,” says Chris. “We spent the day on the hill, finishing his Level 2 in rather relaxing fashion considering how much prep goes into getting it.”

On a management level, the aim was to take a few reds, as the estate has quite a large cull tally to achieve. With the stalk taking place in the depths of winter, it was mainly the calves they would be aiming to take, or any old hinds with weak, small calves.

Not all these would make it through to the spring anyway, so it made sense to thin out the herd in line with the principles of sound management.

“We’re fairly selective about what we’re shooting now – we’re not taking any of the decent hinds at all, or hinds with good calves. We’re taking off the ones that we think might have an issue in the cold weather or heavy snowfall. Some of the weaker ones.”

Chris and Padraig had a successful day, taking three deer: two calves and a hind. Padraig’s well-practised stalking and marksmanship was matched by Chris’s guidance and efficient retrieval and processing with the quad, and of course deer dog Zosia’s keenness to locate the deer – a well-oiled team indeed!

“We took the machine out on the hill, loaded up with dog and client. All of which made it a more efficient operation – it wasn’t long before we had the deer loaded up, then back in the larder, tagged up and ready to go to the dealer. I managed to get one of the shots on the reds on camera too, so we’ll even be able to make a film out of it.” Sometimes, things just go right.

Killian on one of his post-assessment stalks captured on film

And sometimes, they go wrong. On the other side of the estate, Killian had an issue – a rifle malfunction. Something was obviously not working – it wasn’t just that he was missing, the rifle actually had one or two misfires too. If you’re doing your Level 2 assessment, have set up and stalked into a deer only for that to happen, you can imagine how disconcerting it can be.

Thankfully, there was no harm done and no wounded deer, but it can be a difficult scenario to be in. Killian did recover, though, and managed to complete a successful stalk to achieve his Level 2. The rifle has since gone back to the dealer and thankfully functioning far more reliably now. 

The camera had been left in the pick-up for that one – “we were witnessing stalks, and we didn’t want to do anything that mess up their chance of getting a cull deer while they were being witnessed,” admits Chris.

But the boys did manage to get some stalking footage featuring Killian after he had completed his Level 2. He shot another couple of deer at that point. One of them wasn’t a red hind, though – it was an opportune roe doe.

In fact, this was a fairly key time to finish off the cull for the females of both species, getting it done well before the season officially ended. This sort of forward planning is necessary on Kinnaird – there’s a big game-shooting operation as well, and the various interests needed to operate together without getting in each other’s way.

So particularly before the end of January, there was only a limited number of days when stalking could safely take place, and these needed to be taken advantage of. 

Dog development

Chris even had another job that we haven’t mentioned yet: deer dog trainer. “I’ve had Zosia with me,” he says. “There’s still a lot of pup in her – she’s still playful – but she’s clearly got a really good nose on her.

“She has worked out what it’s all about, tracking and finding deer – that’s not an issue. But I need to work on her steadiness a bit. That said, she’s coming along nicely, even surprising me.

“You would think that on the open hill you wouldn’t need a dog, but believe me, we have needed a dog over the last few days! None of the deer have run, none of the deer have been wounded, they’ve all gone down within 20-30 metres of the shot location, but it doesn’t matter.

“On the hill, you often can’t get any closer than 200-220 yards. When you’re shooting from that distance on the open ground, you wait a little while for the other deer to move off, then you move in to thick heather to try and find what you think is a very easy calf laid down in thick heather exactly where you shot it… It often turns out to be incredibly difficult.

“There is no particular point of reference – all the hill looks the same, and somewhere amid this, in a clump of heather, you’ve got to find a deer that blends in really well with the heather.

“So if you don’t have a dog, you have a problem. You’ve got to really search hard to find them.

“Zosia is great in this regard – you cast her off and she’s on it instantly. A couple of times she was searching for deer quite a way in front us, and just started to bark a little bit on the find – which is good and something I’ll encourage.

“She loves being on the quad bike, which is another bonus. She’s  a real character and you do hear some choice language from me when she does things she’s not supposed to do, but she’s getting there very well.” 

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