The heart of the hive

MB2Mark Brackstone and a hunting friend are intrigued by stories of Romania’s fallow deer and, heading to the Transylvania region, are in awe of the numbers and quality of the deer there

We only have a small pocket of fallow local to us, but one of my favourite quarry species happens to be fallow and I can’t resist the chance to hunt a trophy buck.

Each year we take a few continental clients for our old trophy roe bucks. One regular, Jost Arnold, is a German client who has been featured in this magazine on a number of occasions. After a particularly successful day’s stalking, my friend Laurie and I were participating in a celebratory beer in our local pub with Jost, chewing the fat. Jost mentioned that he had been hunting fallow in Romania and had found a fantastic area, very well organised and teeming with fallow. He said he saw literally hundreds each day. Being a sceptical bugger, I thought of all of the farmers over the years who had said ‘the field is blue with pigeons’ but upon arrival there’s only around 50-100. That said, Jost is not prone to exaggeration.

Laurie and I contacted the man in Romania, who sent us information on the fallow hunt. We were quite surprised at how expensive a good old buck would be – they value trophies on weight and consequently we agreed that we would like to hunt only one good buck each.

The next problem would be getting this past the wives. I expect there are a lot of guys reading this who will be able to relate to this unilateral problem. As it happens, my wife has always had a hankering to visit Vienna in Austria. As it’s very close to Romania, the cogs were spinning and a plan was formulating.

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The upshot of various discussions was that we would fly to Romania and have three days’ hunting. Then, as we were in Transylvania, potentially visit the fabled Dracula’s castle, before flying to Vienna for three days of R&R where our wives could make the plans, before returning to the UK.

We were borrowing rifles, which concerned me a little as rifles have often been pretty inferior when I have borrowed them in the past. However, these concerns were unfounded as they gave us two Blazer R93 rifles in 30-06, scoped with Schmidt and Benders.

We flew into Timisoara and collected our hire car to drive to the hunting area, which was a small town called Chisineu-cris near the city of Arad. I am fairly well travelled but this country’s driving skills were beyond belief. It was like they had all trained in the kamikaze school of driving. The Romanians love to overtake on bends, on blind bends, as well as straight into the path of oncoming vehicles – it really didn’t matter. On three or four occasions we went three abreast, which certainly focused the mind and caused an involuntary contraction of one muscle in particular.

We eventually arrived at our hotel and were shown to our room. After the nerve-wracking drive, I was ready for a beer. Sadly, when I opened the mini bar, it only contained water and fruit juice – and a sign that said the proprietors did not agree with drinking on religious grounds and therefore did not sell alcohol.

Laurie and his wife Janice met us in the corridor holding the same notice we were. We looked at each other’s dismayed expressions, realising we had probably found the only hotel in this part of the world that had no alcohol. Not a great start.

Our guides arrived that evening and introductions were made, though they spoke Pidgin English. They explained to us that the rut was in full swing and that we would see many fallow bucks, but should not shoot unless our guide was sure it was a good, old buck. The hunting area was a huge block of mixed forestry, mainly pine interspersed with ash and oak. It had a number of grass areas that looked like deer lawns, except these deer lawns were 16 times the size of a football pitch.

My guide explained that the area was 10,000 hectares and they tried to cull around 2,000 does. To sustain a cull of this level on a continuous basis, the population must be phenomenal. The area was, for the large part, a doe area but the bucks came in for the rut. We didn’t find out where the bucks came from, but we certainly saw the evidence of these lone bucks coming across open farmland to get to the forestry area where the rutting action took place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a clear, frosty morning when our guides arrived to collect us. We reached the forest 20 minutes later. As we drove along tracks through the woodland, I saw many fallow crossing in the headlights – a good sign.

My guide stopped the truck and put his finger to his lips, the universal sign to be quiet. I eased the door open and was immediately greeted by the noise of snorting and groaning bucks all around me, or so it seemed. I chambered a round into my borrowed rifle and set off in almost complete darkness behind my guide. We walked for a quarter of a mile, the dawn breaking and light starting to come into the black forest. There was a Continental-type high seat 100 yards ahead of me on the crossroads of two rides. We froze and lifted our binoculars, there were about a dozen or so does and a middle-aged buck beneath the high seat. The buck was parading around calling and chivvying his harem of does into a tighter group, while looking to his left where another buck was also calling.

With that, a bigger buck appeared from nowhere and charged into the group. The first buck took off like a scalded cat and the does scattered. I was transfixed watching the situation unfold. My guide signalled that we should move forward and we got to the seat.

I am a ‘get after them and make it happen’ type of hunter. I get bored and lose interest pretty quickly if I am in a high seat, wondering what’s around the corner. On this occasion, I have to say that it was amazing sitting in the seat; I didn’t know where to look first.

There were does moving about constantly and bucks calling all around, making it impossible to tell whether I was hearing 10 bucks calling or 20. Every few minutes you could hear the clash of antlers. I saw a huge buck but he had broken the top off one of his palms, or paddles as my guide called them. I saw four or five really big bucks, any of which I would have loved to have taken, but my guide whispered “too small” or “not the one” when I looked at him questioningly.

I probably saw 150 fallow from my seat, so although I didn’t pull the trigger I had watched an amazing display of frenzied fallow activity. I also learned that fallow does, certainly in this area where densities were very high and maybe in an attempt to distinguish themselves, made a number of different noises. These ranged from a crooning sound to a high-pitched scream, which I had never previously heard in the UK.

On our return to the forest man’s house, we met the top men who spoke very good English. The building had chillers and a pretty sophisticated handling system, and one of the men explained that this area, until the early 1990s, had been the private hunting area for the infamous Dictator, Nicolae Ceauescu. Here he hunted fallow and invited friends and visiting dignitaries to hunt as his guests. The head forester also told me that later in the afternoon I would sit in the very same high seat that Ceauescu had sat in shortly before he was deposed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you may know, Nicolae Ceauescu was head of state between 1967 and 1989. In the late 60s, he made himself commander in chief of the military and, shortly after, the hunter in chief, effectively giving him control of all of the hunting rights. The country was split into 2,226 game management areas, of which Ceauescu set aside the best for different species for his own use. He also passed a law making it illegal for anyone, other than himself and a few select friends and guests, to kill a bear. Of course, the bear population flourished and Ceauescu still holds the record for the largest European bear as well as numerous other species.

By 1989 the population had suffered enough at the hands of this harsh leader and rebelled. Ceauescu and his wife were subjected to a two-hour trial on Christmas Day in 1989 and, after being found guilty of the charges brought against them, were taken outside and executed by firing squad.

The head forester explained that he dreaded it when Ceauescu came. If him or one of his guests wounded a buck, one way or another the foresters had to find it – or at least one identical to it, so they could claim it was the same beast. Otherwise, the head forester made the throat cutting signal and raised his eyebrows, leaving me with little doubt as to the consequences. It was a fascinating, if somewhat gruesome, insight.

Mid-afternoon, Laurie and I set out with our respective guides. My guide and I approached the famous high seat of sturdy construction on the edge of a massive deer lawn. An odd buck called in the forest and a few deer wandered around the clearing. From my seat, I could see the faces of the Carpathian Mountains and, around three miles away, many small specs moving toward us: “The bucks, they come for rutting,” the guide whispered. A few minutes later, the boom of a rifle in the distance shattered the serenity of a beautiful autumn evening. “Your friend, he shoot,” he said quietly – I just hoped Laurie had found a good buck.

Over the next hour the number of deer I could see increased without check. Fallow literally poured out of the forests and it became evident that many of the ancient stands were in the clearing; one was about 200-250 yards from my seat.

MB1With no exaggeration, I could see between 400 and 500 fallow deer, of which 150 were around the stand nearest to my seat. There were 27 proper fallow bucks, and of these probably eight were of medal quality. The activity was beyond belief, and at one point three separate pairs of bucks were locked together in combat with antlers crashing and groaning.

What seemed to happen was, as a buck tired, it would leave the arena, walk 150 yards and lie down. After resting, it would rise and run back into what looked to me like gladiators fighting in the arena. It was truly one of the most amazing wildlife sights I had ever seen.

There were two old bucks, which the guide said were suitable, but because of the constant activity I could not get a shot. One was a common colour and the other was jet black. I fancied the black one’s palms – although not as tall as the other’s, they were thicker in the beam and wider in the palm.

The light was starting to fade when the black buck broke out of the main arena. I tracked him and eased the safety off, making a mental decision to shoot the second he paused. My guide hissed, breaking my concentration. This initially frustrated me, however, in tracking the black buck I had not realised that the reason he had left the main stand was because he had seen a newcomer. One glance told me that this was a monster and, if the two bucks met, anything could happen. My guide whispered, “Shoot the big one.” I didn’t wait for it to stop trotting. I had a great rest and it was broadside only 100 yards away.

I sent the round crashing into the buck’s chest and it staggered a few paces before collapsing. I had forgotten just how loud an un-silenced rifle is: the rest of the deer headed for the forest at breakneck speed. Before my eyes, 500 deer vanished.

Although not a difficult hunt – in fact easy in many ways – it was for various reasons a very exciting hunt and a special place to have visited. If anyone was going to make a film about fallow, this would be a truly  awesome location.

On returning to the larder, Laurie had shot a fantastic old buck like mine. When they were measured, Laurie’s was a good silver and mine was a gold. We were both over the moon.

The next day we hunted without rifles but took cameras instead, and our wives accompanied us. We never did get to see Dracula’s castle. ν

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