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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Applied Bushcraft (2): deer stalking


Martin's first Bushcraft Education article all about deer stalking.

"One Deer Stalkers perspective on Deer Stalking"

Highland Red Deer Stalking - - 508971
Perhaps the typical image of deer stalking;
Kyle Macintyre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To many people, the term ‘deer stalking’ conjures a vision of men in tweed and ‘plus fours’ taking a majestic red stag from a Scottish hillside. In reality, there are thousands of deer stalkers who will never make the trek to the Glens but will shoot a number of smaller species, close to home and for a number of reasons. I am one of those, who arise at indecent hours during the lighter months, to take to the fields, woods and hedgerows where I assume the responsibilities of Deer Management.

A male Chinese water deer (Buck) and it's impressive tusks. 

My primary quarry don’t have antlers to speak of and perhaps would have some of the unknowing and untrusting shouting ‘Photoshop’ but no! The non-indigenous Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer are smaller than some of the larger and better known species but can carry some impressive looking tusks, depending on sex and species and are an ever spreading species in England. The Muntjac are very wide spread whilst the Chinese Water Deer frequent the reedy waterways of the lower lying counties of Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk and make up the bulk of my deer management tasks.

A Chinese water deer in it's adopted habitat of stubble fields showing off it's distinctive 'teddy bear' features.

The primary skills of a successful Deer Stalker would include being able to arise early, ridiculously early, and still be sharp. Needs to be fit and active, have great observation skills, the ability to move quietly and then of course, have the marksmanship skills and equipment to ensure a swift and humane kill whilst ensuring safety and good neighbourliness to those people and animals who live nearby. One can and my opinion should, seek formal training in deer stalking to ensure a high and consistent standard among those who undertake this work.
For those who do not undertake it or understand it, what we do makes no sense and may even be offensive to them. To those who feel that way, I would seek to assure them that this is not about wildlife slaughter but about maintaining a healthy and sustainable deer population in any given area and providing a service to the agricultural communities, whilst being sensitive to the feelings of other countryside users. Many endangered plant species for instance, are under threat from the little Muntjac, who’s introduction came by way of escapes and deliberate releases from private collections in the early late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They are here to stay and breed prolifically, the doe (female) being pregnant every 7 months and if you haven’t seen one yet, its only a matter of time.

A little muntjac buck munching on acorns
An occasional winter visitor to the UK this beutiful waxwing
put in an appearance on a recent stalking trip.
For me and I’m sure I speak for almost every single deer stalker, the prize is not a dead deer, its being out in the fresh air and countryside, seeing and hearing things which can only be seen and heard in those places. On many occasions, I spend significant periods of time sitting in a ‘high seat’ this is a chair placed some meters above the ground, often in or in close proximity to a tree and provides both an improved view of the local terrain and the added safety of an angle which means that the bullet will pass safely into the ground when it passes through the deer. But sitting in the high seat has bought me wonderful opportunities and experiences which I would never have had otherwise. It’s amazing how little wildlife looks up in to the trees and so I have watched at very close quarters (often just a few yards) several species of deer, foxes, badgers, hares fighting in spectacular ‘Mad March’ style, doing summersaults and sending fur flying, rabbits, hedgehogs and stoats, too many to note in fact and perhaps two of the most special experiences have involved birds. The first a buzzard, sitting just a few yards away in the next tree, doing the same as me, watching out for a meal and the other, a woodpecker coming up the back of the tree in which I was sitting and drumming on the tree trunk just feet behind my head. I was a keen ornithologist 50 years ago and that love has never left me, so these experiences were very special.
A home made high seat, made by Martin from
salvaged lumber, ready for the close of the 2015
Chinese Water Deer Season.
Come with me now on a typical stalk: Two hours before sunrise I’m up and packing my gear, rifle checked and ready, magazine loaded, always the same number in the same pocket, License, knives, rubber gloves, torch and perhaps most important of all, BINOCULARS. You spend hours looking through binoculars and maybe only minutes or seconds looking through a telescopic sight, so these are a vital part of the trip and may make the difference between success and failure.
I like to drive to one of my many parking areas on the farm, long before sun up, then sit silently awaiting for the sun’s rays to reveal the landscape and all of its residents, which will never be completely absent but may not be what you want to see that day. As soon as it’s light enough to see and shoot I move as near silently as I can along my chosen route. If I was to be shooting from a high seat, I would move there as soon as I arrived and wait for the light whilst seated there. To anyone who likes a brisk walk, the rate of progress would drive you insane! Sometimes we only move a few paces before using the binoculars again and again.
A Chinese Water Deer is spotted lying in a bare field some 500 yards distant and the focussed work of a stalk commences. The wind is checked to ensure that the direction of approach will not be betrayed by our sent reaching the deer before the bullet and the lay of the land permits a safe shot when you do get into a firing position. On this occasion, the wind is not working against us and the stalk commences by going away from the animal initially, so that a belt of wood can be used as a screen for our approach. Across a ditch now and through the wood before a hands and knees crossing of a road and into a large dike. Fortunately the water isn’t deeper than our boots and a long slow wade is commenced toward our target. Popping up occasionally just to make sure our target hasn’t moved, we continue on our way. Getting tense now as we approach a good shooting position and range, all adjustments are made whilst in the cover of the ditch, bipod is extended and we exit the ditch to crawl through young nettles to settle for the shot.

Preparing for a shot, with a Browning X-bolt
chambered in 6.5*55mm

Wriggling up behind the rifle, and checking everything is still safe, we rest the cross hairs of the scope on the deer’s shoulder for the first time. It’s a buck, his white fangs clearly visible against his chestnut coat, he’s a nice specimen. With breathing under control, safety off and squeeze until the rifle nudges back into my shoulder and the slap of the bullet finding its mark a fraction of a second later, accompanied by a shower of hair as the buck roles over dead, twitching gently like he was running in his sleep. It was a quick and humane end to a majestic little animal.

Ready for the long walk back to the larder

After the shot, the little deer will be confirmed dead, confirmed healthy by a thorough inspection of the carcass and then gralloched (Guts removed) for an even more detailed inspection, before carefully removing to home in a clean container prior to skinning and butchering (for a full explanation of this process check out the BushScience series tomorrow). Depending on the location of the shot, this can involve some really hard work by putting the deer, possibly more than one, in a rucksack and carrying it for a significant distance back to a vehicle.
Skinning and butchery for me is an exercise in waste minimisation and we achieve that quite well I think. All of the useable meat is eaten or swapped for something else. The scraps go for dog food to a neighbour and the skins, heads and feet go to organisations who convert all of those items into useful or saleable products, including buck skin.

I feel good about the exercise I gain and the benefit that I provide to the farmer who’s crops are safer as a consequence of what I do. I do it well, safely and humanely and even benefit the deer herd by taking out as a priority, the weak and injured animals first.


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