David Barrington Barnes admits that British summers may not all be about soaring temperatures, but rain or shine, the key to grassing deer is getting out there.
One morning last summer I took out Stuart, an Australian stalker. At home, he was a member of a syndicate, with the main quarry being fallow deer. We met at 3.30am as arranged, and walked and stalked until just after 8am.
We were lucky, with the sun finally breaking through patches of thin mist shortly before we finished. I was able to show Stuart a young roe buck and a muntjac doe – the first time he had seen these species. As a sheep farmer, Stuart was also interested in the fields of growing arable crops and the generally green landscape.
When we had finished stalking, we debriefed, with Stuart showing me that he had got a good grip of English low-ground ‘still hunting’. His one query related to our hours of business! He said that in his Australian stalking he did not go out until well after sun-up, when he hoped to catch the fallow deer on sunny banks and faces.
Why, he asked, did we have to start before dawn? I told Stuart that much of the ground we had covered would be walker or farm worker-disturbed by mid-morning and that the deer on my ground moved and fed more freely first thing and were often couched by sun-up.
I am not sure if he believed me, but I know well enough that I have to make early starts and late finishes to catch out most of the deer I shoot.
As it happens, I was out early this morning and encountered three muntjac does feeding within 50 yards of well-walked farm tracks. At 6.30am I then stalked and shot a young roebuck in the field margin. This youngster was also feeding close to a footpath.
Four beasts seen, all feeding hard in locations that would be disturbed later in the morning. I feel certain that if Stuart was stalking here, he would soon get into the same routines as I do, and would go out whether it’s sunny or not.
Deer enjoy a benign, sunny morning as much as deerstalkers, but both have to take conditions as they find them. This morning, for example, it was grey and cloudy overhead after overnight rain, but all the beasts seen were feeding greedily.
Before my friend Jason Simpson emigrated to New Zealand, we had a huge number of early-morning summer outings in a wide range of weather. We adopted the fly fisherman’s mantra that “when the fly is on the water there is always hope” and shot beasts on good and bad days because we were out on the ground.
Of course, we enjoyed the dry, sunny mornings more than the wet ones, and I have an enduring recollection of one such morning, walking and stalking through the grass and cow parsley. Bullocks Wood yielded a fine muntjac buck followed by an old roebuck.
I dragged both beasts down the last belt ready for extraction and, finding a convenient sunny bank, sat down and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. My young friend found me there and observed I that I must the happiest deerstalker in England. How right he was!
On another sunny morning in the roe rut, I used a ditch and hedge to approach a big wood and, having identified a comfortable spot perhaps 100 yards from it, called for some minutes without success. A combination of my early start, poor prospects and warm sun on the back of my neck conspired to make me nod off.
I woke up 20 minutes later to see a cull buck cautiously emerging from the wood and approaching my position. That was a lucky one, and serves as a reminder that in the height of the rut, bucks will respond in sunshine or rain provided that they can hear the call.
Some experts say that calling does not work in the rain, the theory being that rain suppresses the rut. While a prolonged period of wet, windy weather during the rut may have that effect, I have witnessed behaviour that counters that.
I recall stalking one muggy evening in north-west Norfolk as a massive, black thundercloud boiled up and approached from the south. Anticipating a drenching, I settled down under a round thorn bush that overlooked a couple of acres of rough grass and wild flowers on the woodland edge.
The rain came, and when the storm was at its height, a roe doe and buck jumped out of the wood and chased on the grass. After a few minutes, the buck mounted the doe with the rain drops literally splashing off his coat. It had to be seen to be believed!
The sun is also important in hill stalking. Early in the red deer season – in August in particular – the warmth of the sun causes red deer to head for high ground, not least to escape from the midges. I recall one day on the north coast of Scotland when the wind dropped and the sun came out, causing millions of midges to hatch.
I witnessed a veritable trek of red deer intent on getting away from them up on the high tops. It was, alas, too late in the day for us to follow them, and we remained low down being eaten alive by the midge hordes. If you are making a day of it on the high tops, the sun of course assists spying revealing deer that would not be visible on a dull day.
Later in the year, when the sun stays lower – if it comes out at all – it makes spying really difficult as the stalker, having to head into it to retain a favourable wind, is blinded by the low sun and reduced to walking on without having located deer that may be ahead of him.
Only last season, I had a problem not previously encountered that denied me a shot at the stag I was stalking. I had to approach this stag from below, using a deep burn for cover. After a long, wet stalk, often in the burn itself, I attained a good firing position, with the stag, which was holding a big parcel of hinds, to my south-west.
The bright afternoon sun was directly behind him. I was slightly below the stag, with no option of getting any higher. Such was the glare of the sun that I could not see the stag through the scope at all.
With increasing frustration, I tried putting a makeshift sunshade above the objective lens, but it made no difference. Eventually the hinds became suspicious and made off with the stag following them without offering a shot. If ever there was a stag saved by the sun, he was the one.
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