As another year begins, David Barrington Barnes turns his attentions to fallow doe and red hind.
Though New Year’s Day is not a shooting day in Scotland, I like to have a stalk on 1 January here at home in Suffolk. A fortnight on from the dreaded shortest day allows a marginally earlier start.
The after-effects of New Year celebrations tend to keep the local walkers indoors until later than usual in the morning. Deer, having suffered pressure from them over the Christmas holiday, may perhaps be moving to or from different territories.
Overall, this makes the morning of New Year’s Day a good one for a stalk. There may not be much enthusiasm among stalking colleagues for this, but one or two of my diary notes record roe and fallow does brought into the cull plan this day.
It’s a great feeling to chug back to the deer larder with a doe on the carrier of the quad; it’s a good omen for the next twelve months.
Whatever good luck touches the early rising stalker on 1 January, I regret to say that it is unlikely to last. The woods are bare and the most cautious of steps are likely to move deer sometimes seen by the stalker but more often gone away unseen.
On frosty mornings the ‘cornflakes’ effect predominates, and however carefully the feet are moved, they make a frightful racket that must alert beasts hundreds of yards away.
Some winter drilled fields may have a bite on them but others – those earmarked for a sugar beet crop in particular – will be bare brown deserts. With daylight hours still brief and the nights long, the canny fallow does can and do wait out the day before stepping out to feed.
Movement and energy expenditure are minimal and it’s gilding the lily to describe these animals as crepuscular. The occasional hungry deer may come out of the woodland in the twilight but most wait until it is properly dark. They are then nocturnal deer and safe from legitimate law abiding stalkers.
Revisiting some diary entries for the first week in January I see I shot game on the 1st, stalked (and blanked) on the 2nd and grassed a fallow doe on the 3rd. I did not stalk on the 4th, and on the 5th replenished some deer feeding places and cleaned out the estate chiller, making it ready for a minor deer moving day the next day.
In the afternoon I was lucky enough to shoot a fine muntjac buck from a wood which I rarely stalk. During the following day’s manoeuvres, six of us accounted for two fallow does and one fallow pricket.
As usual on these moving days we found the best place for a shot was well on from the wood being moved. By this I mean that the productive high seats were 500 yards (give or take) by which time the moved deer would have slowed up or stopped and were likely to present a shot or two.
This was just what happened with the does and the pricket safely taken from distant seats. In retrospect that looks like a productive week’s work with four fallow and a muntjac in the chiller – a worthwhile number to bring the venison dealer over in his van.
There was a measure of luck in what we achieved that week, but I could and did say we had made our luck by getting out on the ground and sticking at our tasks. Our five beasts had been culled in 10 outings so there were blank outings for some participants.
As the month of January rolls on, the days lengthen and hunger induces the fly fallow does to emerge a tad earlier from their woodland sanctuaries. In theory this should improve the stalker’s prospects, but much depends on the weather.
Soft, warm early mornings and evenings are ideal but rarely feature this month. Crackling hard frost creates nightmare problems, and usually stalking into and sitting in a high seat is the only game in town.
Snowfall is a different matter and, if the snow lies, it will cause deer to come out of the woodland during daylight hours – the only time this happens other than in the rut. I recall one January day on which I stalked in snow under an alpine blue sky and in bright sunshine.
Under the screen of a winding hedge I approached a parcel of fallow does, remarkably getting in to within 100 yards and taking two shots off sticks for a doe and calf. In ordinary conditions there was no way I would have achieved that.
I bled the two beasts and stalked on into a high seat, in which I basked in the sun and watched deer emerge and start to feed on the field in front of me.
There was nothing near enough to shoot so I waited and was in due course rewarded with one of a group of three animals which appeared in front of me and, on coming into range at speed, had to be stopped to enable my shot.
My all-too-rare adventures in snowy Suffolk hardly bear comparison with Scottish highland stalking in the snow. Up there, with snow on the hill, there is no better place to stalk.
I can think back with gratitude on happy days in Glenlochy, Glen Falloch and elsewhere when a fall of snow has the red deer hinds heading down into sheltered corries and open sided stands of birch and alder. I remember the climb out of the valley floor with the ever present chance of a slip on the icy shoulders of the steep hillside.
Then the chance of a shot and the retreat from the brae down the hillside dragging a hind as we went and, with luck, getting in to another before finishing on the icy track and driving cautiously back to the larder in the thickening light of the winter day.
Quite simply, one of the best days of my life.