Thomas Nissen feels privileged to accompany two hunters in the pursuit of the lesser-known hog deer, in one of the few areas in the world where you can hunt them free-range.
He sees the six points just above the tall yellow grass straight ahead. The rest of the animal is hidden in the grass. If the deer keeps going, it will break out into the open just in front of Jens Kjaer Knudsen and his Australian guide, Jason Devisser.
Jason has been guiding hunts on this deer species for more than 10 years. He knows the terrain and where the old deer usually will emerge after feeding on the big grasslands by the lake.
As it breaks out into the open, it presents itself perfectly. Still, something tells Jens he shouldn’t shoot this deer. He has the feeling that a better one awaits – he decides not to shoot.
The deer species Jens is in search of is the hog deer, which can only be hunted free-range in Australia and Pakistan. We are in the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia.
The hunting area’s 800 hectares run along the shores of the Tasmanian Sea. We can hear the sound of waves breaking against the infinite sandy beach – it has a hugely calming effect.
Unlike many other deer species, the hog deer is most active during the hottest hours of the day around noon, as well as in the last few hours towards sunset.
The hunt is planned around this cycle. So as the sun bounces off a cloudless sky, we head into the field each day after a late Australian breakfast.
This small deer species must drink regularly in hot periods and therefore depends on access to drinking water. So the stalk takes us along open tracks in the bush from one area of drinking water to the next.
There is a lot of active fauna in the area. Repeatedly we see females or bucks of different ages, all partially covered in high grass or native Australian bush. Often we have contact with animals in the open too, but no shootable ones.
In addition to the different sounds of waves, birds and cicadas, we regularly hear the hollow warning whistle from a hog deer that has spotted us. With that sound, all animals spin around and disappear into the scrub.
In terms of behaviour, the hog deer is like the African grey duiker. At the same time, the glands under its eye cavity, with its deep eyes and high bones under the antlers, make it look like the muntjac. Really, the deer is very much its own creature.
The afternoon offers two good opportunities. At first, we crawl through high grass to the edge of a green area with short grass on the edge of the bush. A nice buck is eating a few hundred yards away while a younger one approaches. None of them seems shootable, so Jens just studies the animals through the binos.
As the younger deer passes the elder buck, a small fight breaks out. Throwing antler against antler, they move around each other a couple of times, but the battle never gets too serious and it dies down quickly.
After the confrontation, the young deer retreats directly towards Jens and Jason. It does not see them at all. As it gets to within 10 metres, it smells them and runs away.
Hog deer appear not to have the best eyesight. Their eyes are deep in the eye cavities, and it seems quite clear that the hog deer has more trust in its hearing and smell than its sight.
This observation is emphasised when Jens and Jason stalk into an older buck. For a while they just sit 50 metres from the buck, enjoying it. They decide to move back without creating a disturbance, and as they do so a big buck breaks out of the bush, where they were sitting just a few minutes before.
It is a very good buck, so Jens quickly swings the rifle off his shoulder and places it on the shooting sticks. At the same time, the deer detects the smell of humans lingering in the grass where Jens and Jason have just been. It runs instantly, disappearing into the bush. Too bad.
Back to nature
We are hunting on one of the world’s best areas – if not the very best – for hunting hog deer. The farm’s many hectares previously housed about 1,000 sheep, but after Jason’s stepfather, Neil Page, took over the property in 2006, he phased out the sheep to give the hog deer more space.
At that time, the population of hog deer in the area was only 25-50; now they number around 500.
The success can be attributed to biotope optimisation and extremely selective shooting. Every year, only 10 bucks are taken on the property. When Neil took over the farm, a good trophy taken on the property would be about 13in. Today, only animals with 15-17in heads are shot. That is despite the fact that the soil is not particularly good in the farm’s sandy land.
Later in the day, we crawl into a couple of bucks grazing on the open meadows down towards the lake shore. Suddenly a bunch of emus slip out of the high grass.
In full speed, they run out to the lake and circumnavigate its entire width. It’s not easy to stalk deer here. Emu tend to panic and alert anything else in their escape.
Also, the numerous gray kangaroos manage to destroy one stalk after another. And the number of hog deer is so large in the area that we often bump one of the many females or young deer when stalking a big buck.
Shortly before sunset, we again have contact with a buck. It is on the meadow by the lake, where there are snakes, some of which are among the world’s most toxic.
The passion of stalking makes Jens and Jason forget they are there, while I, following behind as a photographer, cannot stop being alert to them. I once heard that the first man wakes the snake, number two annoys it and number three – me – takes the bite.
Fortunately, we reach the edge of the high grass without meeting snakes. The deer are about 150 yards in front of us. On the right, a hind and calf graze while a younger deer chews a little further away.
To get a free shot, Jens and Jason have to get even closer to the deer they are after, which grazes quietly without showing signs of nervousness.
Calmly, Jens sets himself up, pulls the ear protectors down over his ears and turns out his bipod. For a long time, he keeps his eye on the animal, enjoying the moment while waiting for the right time to deliver the shot. That time arrives as the buck turns around and grazes back against a safe backstop in the high grass.
The deer is a good one to shoot, with fine points and good trophy height. It presents itself beautifully in the evening sun’s glow. The situation is perfect; Jens curls his finger and sends off a .300 WSM bullet. The crisp echoes of the shot fall away over the uninhabited meadows, while the buck drops on the spot.
At the sound, hundreds if not thousands of ducks take air. In flocks, they slide across the lake into the sunset to land at the opposite lakeshore. Behind them, under an orange sky, a large bunch of kangaroos break cover, and even further back, some more hog deer.
This area, in such a short time, has been transformed from a commerically-driven sheep farm to a natural paradise of this level.
It’s an amazing feat and one achieved through the revenue from trophy hunting. Jens had the opportunity to take one of these unknown deer, and I the chance to photograph it. What a privilege.
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