Deer stalking – advice for newcomers
Deer stalking is one of the fastest growing fieldsports in the UK. Simon Barr offers some advice for newcomers.
If, like me, you are desperately keen on fieldsports, the seven-month wait until winged game reappears in your life is quite a painful one. To remedy this void, have you ever considered deer stalking as a sporting pursuit? In Britain there are six resident species of deer living wild. With over one and a half million deer in the countryside needing management and at least two species to hunt every day of the year, the UK is the perfect place for any eager deer stalker.
Personally, I find the craft of hunting deer the perfect antidote to a high octane, full-on work life. Creeping around the woods trying to outwit an animal that has evolved over the millennia as a prey animal is a humbling and unique experience. Hunting and gathering is one of our most ancient instincts and tapping back into this primeval trait is something quite special. Your senses will become heightened and you'll see wildlife in a way that you've been too busy or noisy to notice before. Best of all, it will give you the excuse to get another dog! But how do you go about getting into this most ancient activity?
If none of your immediate friends are deer stalkers, gaining access into the sport can seem a tad daunting. To the uninitiated, deer stalking presents many unanswered questions: Which species can be shot when? What do you do with a dead deer? What equipment is needed? What training is available? Like anything shooting related, a little knowledge and advice from the right people can help put you on the correct course and prevent you wasting time and money.
Hunting mammals is wildly different from shooting birds and without question, your first job should be to sign up for some basic training. A little understanding will establish a few key factors, giving you confidence when you first get your crosshairs on a mammal with organs the size of yours. After all, even though you are learning, the animal's welfare is still of paramount importance.
There are a number of outfitters, guides and organisations that offer ‘an introduction to stalking' day courses. Once you have proved a basic level of competence, you will be accompanied to shoot your first deer. You will need to demonstrate safety with a rifle and accuracy at shooting a deer target in the vitals, halfway up the body, just behind the shoulder in a five-inch circle. It sounds like a simple task, but believe me, the first time you have to do this for real, it can be an adrenaline-filled rollercoaster. Paper is a more ethical place to make mistakes than fur, but once you have safely mastered the rifle and have shown an aptitude for marksmanship, it is time to go and see if stalking is for you. I have a sneaking suspicion, if you have read this far, it will be.
The feeling of satisfaction you will get from doing the job properly is incredible. Having outwitted a beast on its terms, then hauling some of the finest wild meat available back for your tribe is a base-level wholesome experience. So, let's just assume, like I did, you fall in love with stalking after your first successful outing and are itching for more. Where do you turn next in this journey?
The deer stalking community in Britain is incredibly good at communicating and encouraging newcomers. There are scores of dedicated Facebook groups and stand-alone forums to advise beginners on how best to get into stalking. One of the most widely used forums is The Stalking Directory, which now has almost 12,000 members nationwide. A brilliant way of quickly meeting like-minded people is to register as a member and simply introduce yourself. You'll receive a warm welcome and numerous offers to help you in your quest to get into deer stalking. Administrator for The Stalking Directory, Alex Matthews, recommends newcomers to make contact with experienced stalkers in their local area. “It always helps to have someone nearby for advice and to act as a mentor,” he says. “In the past, deer stalking has been viewed as somewhat of a closed shop. I think forums like ours have opened up communication between hunters of all walks. It has encouraged people into the sport who otherwise wouldn't have tried or known where to start. The forum provides opportunities for people to gain understanding and experience in deer stalking which, in many cases, is offered completely free of charge thanks to generous donations from our members.”
Licence and training
Next, you'll need to apply for a firearms certificate. This process can be long and protracted, so for god's sake make sure you fill the forms in correctly, otherwise they can be returned only for you to join the back of the queue. Although not a legal requirement, a firearms officer may ask a couple of things of you before granting you the right to kill deer with an appropriate rifle. Have you done your Deer Stalking Certificate 1, and have you got a mentor? If the answer to both of these is no, they can refuse your application on the grounds of a lack of experience. The UK is one of only three European countries where hunter training is not compulsory. However, I personally think if you are taking your sport seriously, and in order to enjoy it more, formal training is not only informative but highly enjoyable.
By far the best course out there for a beginner is the British Deer Society's excellent Deer Stalking Certificate 1. The three-day course, which is run at numerous locations throughout the year, consists of two day's classroom instruction on the ecology of deer and all the necessary technical knowledge to stalk them unsupervised. The final day of the course sees candidates take part in a shooting assessment and tested on field safety. If you don't have your own rifle, the BDS can lend you one for the shooting test and provide Hornady ammunition. The course costs £275, which includes all assessment fees, DMQ registration and a comprehensive 284-page manual. To take the course, you'll also need to join the BDS, which costs £71 and includes must-have shooting insurance.
Optics and rifle choice
Once trained, competent and legally entitled to shoot deer, you'll need to get yourself some new toys. You'll want to use and get to know your own kit if you are taking this new pursuit seriously. “One of the most common mistakes I come across with novice clients is that they arrive with a £2,000 rifle, £300 scope and £100 pair of binoculars,” comments Derbyshire-based sporting agent Owen Beardsmore of Cervus UK. “Don't skimp on optics. Your riflescope should be your main investment when laying out for your first set-up. Identifying your quarry at first and last light and ensuring a safe and clear shot is crucial.”
With riflescopes costing up to £2,500 for the widest field of view and highest magnification variant, choosing the right one can be a bit of a minefield. German optics have always led the rest of the world in terms of quality and a shrewd purchase at the beginning of your stalking career could be viewed more as an investment than a cost. A quality range of scopes that use the very best hand-ground glass suitable for any situation in the UK are the Leica ERi series. The range, which starts at £1,300, boasts an illuminated reticule, giving deer stalkers the ability to precisely place the crosshairs and concentrate on the target – however poor the light conditions. Leica also produce a high quality entry-level binocular called the Trinovid.
Good quality optics at first and last light can make or break a hunt. Believe me, the old adage of ‘buy cheap buy twice' applies to optics. It is a false economy to cut corners on glassware.
Next, you will need some new firepower. Modern manufacturing techniques mean nearly all new rifles are accurate enough for deer stalking. It is even possible to buy a new deer-legal rifle in the UK from as little as £500, although, if you can afford it, I would personally choose one from a maker with an established track history of reliability.
A great value rifle like the new Mauser M-12 is ideal. Not only is it manufactured by one of the grand old names, I have found mine safe, supremely accurate, reliable and easy to master. An M-12 will cost from £1,490 depending on what options you go for. Not only does this bolt-action offer all you technically need, it will make you feel good using it, something I think is of great importance if you are to get the most from your newfound pursuit.
Choice of calibre is a hotly debated topic and every stalker, bar none, has their favourite. I will not go into any detail here but it is worth noting that 80 per cent of all deer stalking ammunition in the UK sold is either in .243 Win or .308 Win. My personal choice is .308 and I shoot all UK deer with 150gr Hornady SST bullets. These rounds are decisive, yet limiting on meat damage. I have floored 20-stone red stags with them and toppled 200m muntjac. These fantastic all-round bullets are available in almost any calibre and are not the most expensive.
Do your research
So, what are the pitfalls in deer stalking to watch out for? “Like any activity there is a small minority out there who would be only too willing to take advantage of a newcomer,” admits Alex Matthews of The Stalking Directory, “whether that be dishing-out bad advice, overpriced guided stalking or syndicates with no deer. The primary weapon against all of this is knowledge. It comes back to doing your research. Ask around, find out what other stalkers think, get references. Forewarned is forearmed.” British Deer Society's training manager, Dave Goffin, adds: “Stalkers are all usually experts so make sure you listen to more than one opinion, read all you can and then form your own views. The other major pitfall to watch out for is how addictive deer stalking is. If you get hooked and you're married, think about lining up a solicitor for when your wife opts to divorce you!”
In the UK, we are lucky enough to have Scotland and its plentiful world-class deer stalking opportunities on our doorstep. These can be from royal stags in the Highlands to roe does in the Borders. Each type of hunt is unique and brilliant and I strongly advise that you look into all options to determine which is the best for you. When planning to stalk in Scotland, a great starting point is the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group website where 140 providers list all their available stalking, ranging from value to premium luxury. This online resource is a great place to pick up last minute bargains. Project co-ordinator Victoria Brooks says: “Deer stalking in Scotland is a great but challenging sport. If you are going to the hill you need to make sure you have a basic level of fitness and that you are prepared for changeable weather conditions. It is not uncommon to crawl through the wet peat and heather. With the right clothing and equipment you will have the experience of a lifetime in spectacular scenery. Woodland stalking is just as challenging – patience and stealth being prerequisites.” Stalking prices in Scotland can range from £150 upwards and most estates will be able to lend visitors over 17 years old a rifle.
I hope this has whet your appetite and offered some useful pointers to get you going. My closing advice would be before you go and hunt the Monarch of the Glen, practice and hone the art by shooting cull animals. This way, when the big moment comes you will be ready for it. Deer stalking has quite literally changed my life and if you have a modicum of hunting instinct you will love it. I now use my shotgun less and have travelled the world over with my rifle in search of challenge and adventure. Seven months will pass remarkably quickly before the bird season kicks off again and you will have a freezer full of venison. So, what's not to like about deer stalking?
For more information:
The British Deer Society – www.bds.org.uk
The Stalking Directory – www.thestalkingdirectory.co.uk
Introduction to stalking courses – www.cervus-uk.co.uk
Stalking opportunities across the UK – www.venantium.co.uk
Leica Sports Optics – www.leica-storemayfair.co.uk
Mauser Firearms – www.mauser.com
The Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group – www.countrysportscotland.com