Chris Dalton is down in the East of England to introduce Chinese water deer stalking to a fellow stalker.
Recently I covered a deer stalking day down in Bedfordshire for muntjac – this month we stay down in that part of the world but move to a different quarry species.
The first part of the week was mainly controlling muntjac and fallow in the grounds of a stately home, but on the Wednesday afternoon we made the short drive north to Paul Childerley’s estate to help with the Chinese water deer cull.
Paul explained that this year, with such a dry and mild winter, the CWD had bred particularly well with retention rates unusually high, so he had a large cull to achieve.
He briefed the team to concentrate on the youngsters where possible and he wanted broadly equal numbers of both bucks and does. Most of the guys had been coming down with me for years and had, to a degree, tuned in to being able to identify the cull animals. On the face of it this seems easy. Trust me – it is not.
From a distance it can be difficult to establish the length of a buck’s tusks, or if it has any at all – and to shoot one of Paul’s many medal heads does not go down well, trust me.
The weather was good with plenty of sunshine – in fact it was more akin to late March or early April, with a real spring feel to the air. The advantage of these bright days is that it does help a bit with the identification of the bucks as it makes the tusks a little more visible.
Rick, one of my regular guests, had travelled down, and as this was his first experience of CWD stalking, he would be going out with me. He was also working towards his Deer Stalking Certificate (DSC) level 2, and wanted a bit more hands-on experience before going ‘solo’ on witnessed outings. I had the camera and hoped to record some of the activity on film.
There is a part of the estate that I have stalked many times and know it well, so Paul usually leaves me to get on with it as I know where I am going and also where the safe shots lie.
This part of Bedfordshire is quite flat, so backstops can be an issue if you aren’t familiar enough with the land. Rick wanted to try for a medal as well as assist with the cull and gain some gralloching experience; we had five stalks planned and during the early outings I wanted to concentrate on cull CWD, but at the same time we could note any good bucks in our allotted fields.
The afternoon saw us walking down from HQ along some farm tracks to our part of the estate. One thing about CWD is that they are very visible as they lie out often in the middle of large fields. Seeing them is not the issue; getting close enough to shoot one at a safe angle is an entirely different matter.
Two of the fields on my plot were planted with rape and these seemed to be favoured by the deer; we spent some time glassing these, working out which were youngsters for the cull and then if it were likely that we could approach.
I pointed out to Rick a CWD doe in company with what was clearly a young doe. The size difference was noticeable; they were feeding down the side of a hedge and gully with the wind full in our face.
With a deep ditch on our side of the hedge, it looked to me that we could get in to around 200 yards using this ditch as cover, and from there a shot might be possible.
You tend to find here, due to the field size and the fact that the deer often lie right in the middle of them, that longer shots are the norm compared to my own woodland roe stalking. Here, shooting is often required out to around 200 yards.
Watch deer stalking stories from Chris Dalton on The Shooting Show
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As it was a good training opportunity, I suggested Rick lead as if he were doing a witnessed stalk. I would follow with the camera and see how he got on. He could demonstrate the approach: selecting the correct deer in line with the cull plan, taking the shot and following up appropriately. I was immediately behind him so if anything was likely to go wrong I would intervene.
The plan worked fine, and though it was difficult walking along the bottom of a slippery and deep ditch with thick brambles along the sides, we managed it. I was more concerned about pitching in with a camera in my hand, but fortunately managed not to end up in a wet heap at the bottom of the drain.
Rick got to a point in the ditch where he was able to crawl to the other side and peep over the bank. His thumbs-up signalled that CWD were still there, so I also crossed and set up the camera. I double-checked that he was actually planning to shoot the correct deer, not the mature doe, and that he had a backstop, which he had.
So I gave the OK. The deer dropped to the shot, so that was a great start to his inaugural CWD outing: a young doe, perfect for the cull and also providing an opportunity for me to demonstrate a suspended gralloch to him.
While walking back to the larder, we watched two good bucks hanging around a maize game crop, so plans were made to try for one of these when we had finished his cull stalks.
It was the final evening outing when we went after his trophy buck. As is often the case, having seen two very good bucks on each of our previous outings, now that we had actually gone looking for them, they were nowhere to be seen!
While stalking cull deer we were tripping over decent bucks, and now we had finished our cull outings, we were overrun with cull deer. Was Murphy going to thwart us?
A change of tactic was called for. Rather than stalk, we would lie up in one of the ditches and wait. We had a lot of guys out on the ground and Chinese water deer are very mobile anyway; there is public access and footpaths here, so it seemed likely that if we sat nice and quiet, deer would move to us.
It was a lovely, late afternoon with bright sunshine, though you could feel that the temperature would drop rapidly towards sunset. But just now it was nice to sit comfortably in our ditch and survey the large field in front of us.
To our left was the maize cover crop where on each of the previous outings one or both of our big CWD bucks had been seen. We watched a doe interacting with a young buck there for some time before they dashed off; the reason for this became apparent as a good buck approached the field from the margin, smelling the ground as he worked towards where the doe had been.
- If you’re itching to get out yourself, make sure you read up on all the latest deer stalking kit you’ll need!
His meanderings brought him nicely in front of us and allowed Rick and me to have a good look at him. He was a youngish buck with a great set of tusks and would likely make gold; he was not one of the two older bucks we had earmarked on previous outings but was still a grand-looking deer.
Rick said he wanted to shoot him and from there it was easy – we just had to wait for the buck to stop when he was perfectly broadside. A few minutes later, the job was done.
We very carefully carried this deer back to the larder as he was destined for Paul, my taxidermist, in Sheffield. This time next year a gold medal CWD shoulder mount will be hanging on Rick’s living room wall.
And what should happen but, as we carefully carried Rick’s trophy back to the larder, we were watched by two much bigger CWD who emerged from the maize strip as we walked back to base. It mattered not – Rick was delighted with his stalking week, as were the team.
Roll on next year.