Wicklow wonders

Editor-in-chief Pete Carr heads to Ireland in the hope of securing a stag from the Emerald Isle’s premier sika stalking destination in County Wicklow

Ireland is a sportsman’s destination, whether it’s with rifle, rod or shotgun. I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many of the various sporting challenges that the Emerald Isle has to offer, but never before a sika stag. Indeed, sika is the species in the UK and Ireland that I have had the least experience with these past 30 years I have been behind a rifle. South-west Scotland has produced a number of sika hinds and nobbers for me, but I had never really had the opportunity to take a mature stag until stalking guide Jason Doyle invited me over to County Wicklow to try my hand hunting the Irish way.

And so it was, after an uncomfortable flight with a budget air carrier, that colleague James Marchington and I arrived in Dublin with high hopes of successfully hunting a sika stag and capturing it on film. The additional element of a cameraman in tow made our intrepid guide wince a little, but he took on the challenge with the expected Irish humour.

The following morning dawned spectacularly, and James was quick to capitalise on the stunning scenery with the camera. As the three of us left the truck accompanied by Bavarian Mountain Hound Jake, an eerie whistle from a sika stag pierced the quiet splendour of the new dawn. No sooner had the stag expelled his lungs than another answered the challenge with that shrill, screech-like whistle similar to a bugling elk. More of the same was soon to follow – indeed, the hills were alive with the sound of sika. We had quite clearly caught the rut – bang on.

Half a mile into the stalk, we spotted the top of a singular antler cantering towards us just below a rising ridge 50 yards in front. Jason was quick to deploy the stalking sticks, and I deftly fitted the rifle in the crook they provided. But we were caught right out in the open when the stag cleared the rise. He wasn’t to be put off, though – his blood was clearly up. We had the wind, but unfortunately a fickle change in wind direction took our scent to him just as the crosshairs found his shoulder. He was gone before I had the chance to touch off the trigger.

Undaunted, we moved on. It wasn’t long before we were into more deer – so many more deer, in fact, it proved troublesome. Small groups of hinds seemed to be everywhere, and off they’d bolt, taking any attendant stag with them. It felt almost impossible to get around these hinds without one of the alert watchers clocking our attempts to skirt round them.

Eventually, across a small stream that cut a valley through the thick heather, a stag holding hinds came into view. Jason and I spied him a while and agreed he was a shooter. The hinds were happily feeding away, occasionally casting a nervous glance around them as all deer do when feeding. The stag was clearly only interested in spreading his DNA, running from one hind’s back end to another. A small crawl over the rise that dropped away to the stream would put us into dead ground and well within shooting range.
Unfortunately, just as we eased over the rise on our bellies, a hind spotted something she didn’t like, and it was in our direction. Two short, high-pitched warning whistles later, and the whole herd were on their way to the next county. Jason smiled back at my face of disbelief, and said “Plan B part 2” with a wry smile. I was convinced he was enjoying my disappointment.

One down: Now just a 40kg pack-out to get this beast off the hill

One down: Now just a 40kg pack-out to get this beast off the hill

Another half a mile put us between two whistling stags that were becoming increasingly agitated at one another’s arrogance. Boundaries were being pressed, and the stags would be locking horns soon. Jason and I slid into a small watercourse that would hopefully put us between the two beasts before they clashed. We managed to cut them off, but the shootable animal of the two decided to wallow in a peat bog. This gave me time to get clear of the heather and into a sitting position off the quad sticks.

Just as I was about to deploy the rifle, the stag rose and walked a few feet forward, looking straight at me. His competitor, now hidden, let out a shrill whistle, and this fortunately saved the situation. My stag pressed his neck forward and raised his head to reply. I told Jason I had the shot, he gave me the go-ahead, and a quick ‘ok’ from James on the camera saw the bullet on its way. The stag folded, killed instantly by a perfectly placed neck shot.

I was ecstatic. A fabulous stalk in wild country and in good company, completed by a fine shot in tricky circumstances – it doesn’t get better than that. In fact it did, that very evening – but I get ahead of myself. We first had to recover the shot beast by hand.

The estate we had been hunting allows no motorised vehicles on the moor to preserve the landscape. We would have to pack out our stag out American-style on a backpack frame. Jason took the first mile or so and I took my turn. Trust me – 41 kilos of stag on your shoulders crossing heather moorland is character-building stuff. That said, I actually enjoyed it and we all felt we had earned our trophy that morning. Reaching the truck, it seemed a fitting finish to our exertions – gaining our breath, listening to the cackle of Irish grouse while looking out across a fine part of County Wicklow.

That evening we strode out once more from the truck, but this time we would be stalking in a huge commercial forestry plantation. Jason and I with the ever-present hound Jake started stalking the margins and rides, listening to the tantalising challenge whistles issued by the heavy forest stags. Again hinds proved to be our undoing as we bumped a couple with calves in some long grass and heather. Their alarm whistles certainly wouldn’t help our cause to secure a second stag.

Sika double: A swift neck shot makes it two stags in a day

Sika double: A swift neck shot makes it two stags in a day

Twenty minutes later we were again close to an irate stag, answering the call of an improbable interloper way out on the hill. These two must have had some history, because the forestry stag was as cross as hell. His agitator was well out on the hill and wasn’t really a threat to hinds or territory. The challenging whistles were getting closer at an alarming rate. Jason quickly got us onto a hump that overlooked a glade he expected the stag to cross. Unfortunately, as we reached it I could see the stag’s antlers coming over a rise to the right of the clearing.

With no time to lose or deploy the quad sticks, I sank to a sitting position, wrapped the rifle’s shoulder strap around my arm to steady the shot, and let drive with another neck shot just as the stag spotted us and stopped. The bullet struck home a fraction after he started to turn away, taking him off his feet in a whirl of thrashing hooves. Both Jason and I were concerned at this reaction, and I thought I may have hot him low, but Jake the bloodhound was soon on the lifeless stag. Thankfully the shot had run true. Extraction this time was a much simpler affair, with a short uphill drag to the forest track.

What a day it had been. Two great stalks on quite different terrain, finished by two pleasing shots that had secured two representative trophies that will live in the memory for a very long time.

That night we enjoyed a superb venison roast dinner cooked by Jason’s partner Louise as we reviewed James’s footage of our excursions. Jason Doyle was one of the best guides I have hunted with. Professional, respectful of the quarry and landscape, and always a good man for the craic. You have to be fit, of course, to get the best from this kind of hunting. Game is hard earned here, but that’s what makes it all the more enjoyable. County Wicklow has the highest population of sika in Europe, and I cannot recommend stalking here highly enough.
For stalking opportunities in Ireland contact John Fenton:
+ 353 (0) 879857747, johnsikafenton@vodafone.ie

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