Wild endeavour

Will O’Meara treks to the furthest reaches of the Wicklow Mountains in search of a lone red-sika hybrid

With a red hind on the cover of this issue of Sporting Rifle, the editor asked if I had any red hind stories that I could contribute. I have hunted reds in Ireland, from the rugged mountains and forests of the wild west coast to the arable fields and woods of Munster, but the thing about a story in a magazine is that you really need photos to help tell it. For many years I never took photos – I’m not sure why, it just never really occurred to me. I was so immersed in the experience that I didn’t need photos – and suddenly now I did.

So I got a new story. It’s not about culling red hinds; it’s far more than that. The central character of this story is the red hybrid hind, the one that lives high in the Wicklow Mountains, the one who has no calf at foot – a yeld hind. At the end of the calendar year in Ireland, all stags are still in season, so this hunt has some, if not all, of the hallmarks of a trophy hunt, and a bit more on top.

A note on sika-red hybrids: the introduction of sika deer to Wicklow in the late 1800s saw a rapid growth population of sika and a hybridisation of Wicklow’s red deer. What we have today in Wicklow are pure sika and hybrids, but no pure reds. The hybrids have many variations, and can lean more towards sika or red. Those that are more red are comparable to Scottish hill reds. The traits of sika can be seen in many features, including the antlers, and by the presence of the visible metatarsal gland on the rear hock. I’ve seen deer that look like pure reds but for the little pale metatarsal.

Wind was the major factor in making the shot

The hybrid, as a rule, stays high. They are big-bodied, but not particularly heavy for their size – the exception being some of the hinds, which can be big and heavy and will put your drag rope to the test. Hybrids are a contentious issue, but I am a fan.

My hunt began, like so many before, with that steep climb. I know at this stage to start cold – not too many layers, just a base and a fleece and my jacket in the pack. I was on a mission, a trek to the deepest reaches of the mountain – to hybrid country.

As I stopped to take off my neck warmer and hat, I spied what looked like a deer. Binos up, and sure enough: a hind and calf, heads down and feeding. I did not expect them this low. Hitting the magic button on my Leicas gave me 480 yards – sweet, I’ll just walk 10 yards to that bush and see if I can get a photo before I shoot. I set up my tripod behind said bush and put my binos on them again. I shook my head as they took off across the skyline. ‘They are on their toes today,’ I thought. (I may have muttered something else) Well, I guess that wouldn’t have been much of a story anyway.

The hike up the mountain continued, stopping periodically to glass. I had my choice of sika as I climbed, and enjoyed watching them, but there were no hybrid hinds to be seen. I had a rocky outcrop in my sights, and on reaching it I dropped the pack, donned my Firstlite rain gear and prepared for a glassing session off my tripod. The wind howled across the ridge and made me appreciate my sheltered spot. I had hinds on the valley floor, and in my Leupold spotter I could see some red tinges at the head of the basin. I prepared to move again, and before I set off I gave a quick 360. Antlers… nice antlers at 210 yards… definitely hybrid, and bedded too. What to do?

The stag was bedded high on my ridge. I had multiple approaches to get closer, or I could shoot from here if he stood. He was nice – as nice as I’d seen in these parts. My main dilemma here was time and extraction. I had a date with the missus at 4.30pm – plenty of time to take the stag and get him out, but not enough time to take the stag and go find a hind. I circled around the stag and kept climbing. I looked back, and he was still there, bedded. “He’ll be there for another day,” I told myself.

Playing ‘hind and seek’ in trophy country

My next glassing stop was to check for animals between me and the red hybrids at the head of the valley. Sure enough, a sika stag and hinds – all sika. More hiking required to get around this lot. As I worked my way around the ridge, I picked out my route to the far side of the valley and carefully worked my way across the open ground, using whatever cover I could find and glassing every few yards.

We locked eyes at 60 yards: a hind (sika of course), calf and yearling. I froze. They stared. The seconds passed. “Beep-beep,” she shrieked in alarm, and off she went towards my deer. I tucked in beside a rock and decided the best thing I could do was wait and give things time to settle. Hopefully my presence would be forgiven and forgotten and I could continue with my stalk unseen and unscented.

As I sat and glassed, I reflected on the hunt so far: an early chance, a tough climb, savage scenery, a trophy stag, a close call, and the ever-present howling wind that made it seem all the more extreme. I set up my spotter on the Sentinel tripod and could see some hybrids now: a hind and calf alone under that big square rock, some sika out to my right, a nice sika stag on that steep bit and… a hind, a hybrid hind, did she have a calf? No, it seemed.

I kept glassing, and decided she was worth checking out. I could see a bank ahead of me at 600 yards, with a little stream om the far side of it, and then the steep hillside that my hind was on. The bank would put me within 300 yards of her. I took it slow, going into stalk mode early. I had invested a lot of the day in this, and needed to play it safe now to get a result.

I reached the bank, dropped, marked my pack and edged forward. As I crested, I smiled to see I could make another 50 yards across the top of the bank before it started to drop toward the river. I glassed before moving. I could see the whole hillside now, and confirmed that the hind was alone. She had the rear of a red hind. As she fed up to the sika stag, I glassed him and saw a nice eight-pointer – maybe bronze medal, maybe just shy of it. It was clearly 20 per cent bigger than the stag. Thoughts of the packout and how far I’d come from my Land Rover quickly wiped the smile off my face.

The hind is down – and now the hard work

I crept forward, edging slowly, watching for any change in body language. I made it to a large rock and set up. This was it – as close as I can get. I ranged the hind: 250 yards. I set up the rifle, chambered a round quietly and slipped off my gloves. The wind was serious, full value, and the stream would funnel it. The deer were calm. I tucked in behind the rock and checked my Ballistic Arc weather meter; it showed a steady 20mph. I computed it in my head: “250 yards is .25 for a 5mph, times 4 is a full mRad of wind.” I slipped in behind the rifle and waited for that broadside shot – it presented quickly. Hold a full mil left… trigger… trigger… trigger.

I watched the hind drop as the .270 recoiled and tracked her as she tumbled and stopped up on a rock. I searched upwards with the scope and picked up the stag, tracking him left as he got to the lone hind and calf and stopped. I knew the range, I knew my wind call, I had a round in the chamber. Don’t be silly Will. That inner voice of sense piped up and I listened. I would be all out to get this hind packed out and in the larder and get home in time, so let’s get to work.

I walked up to the hind, and the first thing that struck me was the size of her. As I stood there perched on the steep slope, I looked down the valley. The wind in my face turned to stinging snow. I smiled at the wild feeling of it all. A lone hybrid hind in trophy country, stiff winds, stags passed up, and miles of packing – all making for a day to be cherished and remembered.

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