The Big Freeze

Contrary to popular belief, the deer do show in the snow

Ayrshire pro stalker Chris Dalton looks back to the first days of this year’s buck season, when the deep snow raised a whole new challenge for him and his determined client

I enjoy all seasons in the stalking calendar. Each brings its own problems, admittedly, but these are far outweighed by the advantages and challenges – no day is ever the same. Most recently in 2013, we had a great summer in Ayrshire (as most parts of the country did). The heat lasted long into the autumn, with very warm days right into October. The red rut started late, and the stags seemed to have no inclination to roar and chase females until late on. Who can blame them – it was 24 degrees on 29 September.

Winter stalking, therefore, was of increased importance, and I was looking forward to the colder weather, shorter days and some of the excessive vegetation dying back. I seem to have spent ages this year wading through grass and bracken up to my ears trying to find bucks – not easy. Even the stags seemed to disappear into the cover, it was that tall. At Garryloop, which is close to most of our stalking ground, we are only three miles from the coast and the Gulf stream, so our winter climate is normally very mild and frosts do not often go below minus five degrees. We don’t get the severe weather or extremes of cold that have to be dealt with further north.

Happy hunter: Dave gets his cull buck

That said, I hadn’t forgotten the cold snap that came in the first few days of April, bringing the most snow I have ever seen in Ayrshire. The isle of Arran was devastated, with drifts over 20 feet high in places, and power lines down. I think some were without electricity for more than three weeks – exceptional, admittedly, but it does happen.

It was precisely then that I had clients booked in for early bucks. They arrived full of expectation and wearing fairly light clothing. Big mistake – Arctic parkas were the order of the day. But what do you do? Well, you deal with it. The deer are there, so you simply have to work out what they will do and be there when they do it. It’s difficult, if not impossible to move, especially when the top of the snow has frozen and formed that hard crust. Yes, you can walk on it, but it’s like walking through a bowl of cornflakes. If it’s the soft stuff, its quieter, but you drop through it and there is a big ‘swoosh’ as you do it.

So usually the best policy is to really wrap up warm and sit somewhere and wait. Deer have to feed at some stage – try to find somewhere sheltered, with a bit of green visible if possible. Under these conditions I look under the edge of the conifers, out of the wind, and you will often find places where the heather or grass has been protected from the snow or, at the very least, has only a light covering. This is where the deer are most likely to be. They are reluctant to come a long way out of cover – I find they seem to realise that they stand out like the proverbial. And when they do move in the open, everything within miles can see them.

I discussed the options with my client and ensured he took into account the conditions. He still wanted to stalk rather than sit, so that’s what we did. My options now were very limited – anything would hear us miles before we saw it, so I decided we would head into a larch plantation on a south-facing slope. The winds had been northerly and the snow should not have penetrated too deeply into the trees, so hopefully the frost would not have been too keen here. This was also the area where deer would have been able to access some food. All went fairly well and we were able to stalk under the trees by stepping onto any visible green clumps and carefully trying to float across the areas where the snow had settled. Good stalking, considering the conditions.

We made very slow but relatively quiet progress into a light breeze, and while there were loads of fresh slots and dung, we saw no deer of any sort. I was just beginning to think, “That’s that, then,” when my hound Oscar indicated very strongly to my left. He had clearly got a strong scent of deer. There was no mistaking the reaction – his nose was moving round like the Fylingdales early warning radar and his left leg was lifted in a half-point. I whispered to my client that we were close to deer. I needn’t have bothered – he had stalked with me many times before and knew Oscar, so he had seen the indication and was looking in the direction of the dog’s nose.

I trust the dog, so we go where his nose points. Very, very carefully, we moved down the slope – the problem was that this direction took us into very deep and crisp snow, and we had to cross a track through the forest, which was really compacted snow on ice. It was painstakingly slow to inch across it.

Sitting out and waiting will often see deer emerge

As we progressed yard by yard, the dog’s reactions heightened. He was very alert now and his muscles were coiled like a spring. He kept looking back at me with that look that says, “Can’t you see it yet?” No, I couldn’t – no matter how hard I glassed, I could not see a deer.

We inched forward again, and then there it was: a small brown indentation in the snow. Nothing to see really, but it just did not fit the surroundings. This is the hardest thing to teach or explain to folk – it’s almost a sixth sense, and a feeling that something just does not fit, an ear twitch or a colour or contrast. When you have been stalking a while it just comes to you, and one of the most difficult things to do as a guide is to get the client to see what you are looking at. Sometimes they just can’t see the deer, and this was the case now. We were about 45 yards away, the deer was unaware of our presence, but I just could not get my man to see what I was looking at.

Nothing for it – we had to take the bull by the horns, or the roe by the antlers. I got my man on the stick, pointed in the general direction of the deer, and warned him to be ready. I gave my best roe bark. Nothing – the buck was tucked up warm and had no intention of moving. I tried several times more and again got no response. Time for real drastic action. A snowball, nicely rolled and tossed high, landed a few feet away. That did it – up he jumped, bounded two paces and took up that classic pose, broadside on, looking back as if to say, “What was that?” By now my man had seen the buck, which was difficult to miss in snow at 50 yards, and I was about to give the ‘now’ command when the rifle cracked and the buck dropped on the spot.

We moved forward to where the roe had been. He had hollowed out a little shelter in soft snow, tucked out of the wind in the lee of an old larch with a small clump of blueberries at the front of the depression where he could feed without moving. Clever, and he was as snug as a bug in a rug. I never cease to be amazed at the survival instincts of these creatures.

We had a good end to a stalk in very challenging circumstances, but if I am honest, without the dog that buck would still be around today, and we would have ended a stalk with some nice, wintry, picture-postcard photographs but no venison for dinner.

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