Writing this article, as I do, well in advance of publication, I turn my thoughts to those low-ground stalkers whose appearance in the field is restricted to the roebuck open season. These fairweather friends are really cherry pickers: they are hunting in prime time. In contrast, the deer manager and professional stalker operates on an ‘open all hours’ basis and at the time of year I’m writing – mid-February – it can be pretty thankless.
During the last full week, for example, I stalked on five out of the possible seven days. I had nine outings for one fallow doe and one roe doe. Out of these nine outings no fewer than five were partly interrupted or completely spoiled by passers-by.
When the deer stalker is subjected to this level of disturbance he needs the patience of a saint, particularly when he will likely have sat or stalked in temperatures below zero on February mornings that are often less than inspiring. With the ditches often well filled, it’s easy enough to go over the top of the boots and get one or two wet feet. The bombed out game covers, so prevalent in East Anglia, are worth a look as they may perhaps yield a muntjac or a roe doe, but most will be, to some extent, clammy and rat-infested and don’t encourage the stalker to linger long. It’s not all bad, though. This very morning I chanced on a young roebuck on a feed ride in a maize block standing head high, unaware. He was feeding hard and was apparently on his own.
While in truth I like this hardcore deerstalking, I have some sympathy for the summer hunter, whose appearance is timed by the flowering of the ‘darling buds of May’. Readers may recall that the television adaptation of HE Bates’s novel brought to public notice the charms of a young Catherine Zeta-Jones. In my (deer stalker’s) book, as in Larkin’s, May is the best month of the year. Without a doubt, it’s the best roe deer stalking month.
April is a month too soon – too many bucks still in velvet – and by June the bucks are too settled and concealed by cover. July and August span the roe rut. For the deer manager with his own ground, I would suggest the stalking then is insufficiently challenging to be often indulged. By September the surviving bucks have disappeared and are lying up and in October, while they are about again and feeding hard against the approach of winter, the best moments for stalking them have long gone. So, for roebuck stalking, I reiterate the unalloyed joy of stalking in the darling buds of May.
Although my diary entries are brief, I can clearly recall the two bucks I shot at Hill Farm on 12 May last year. My approach to the first of these was made behind the cover of a hawthorn hedge, and it was as the buck nibbled the tender shoots of this that I squeezed the trigger gently to secure a buck with an indifferent head – a good one to take.
Having dealt with him, I hoisted the carcase and hung it on a convenient, shaded branch with an s-hook. I then resumed my morning stalk, in the course of which I visited various plantations without finding either roe or muntjac at home.
The last leg of this stalk took me through the rough grass between the lake and the river, and here I bumped another roebuck, another cull animal, which ran and then stopped to give me a snap-shot off the sticks. This buck ran from the shot without any apparent reaction, which caused me some anxiety until I found and followed a strong blood trail to the small, sandy bank at the river’s edge where he lay.
Now, if ever there was one, that was a perfect May morning’s stalking. The early start in the true, harsh light of dawn, the first warming rays of the sun, the solitary walk before farmers and other folk were out and about, the spring flowers, the coming buds and the green bite of the grass – all these combined to please the hunter’s heart. And it was with happiness and satisfaction that I exchanged my rifle for my knife and worked on my buck with light strokes beside the silver stream.
Yes, I had stalked roebucks in April and would do so again in June, but at that special moment in that lovely place it was as if Diana, the goddess of hunting, had placed a garland of sweet scented May buds around my neck