Steve Rawsthorne goes stalking Chinese water deer in Bedfordshire and gets more than he bargained for.
A few days into January the phone on my desk at Holland & Holland rang and the rustic tones of my good mate Bruce rang out: “Happy New Year, fancy going out for a Chinese?” He didn't mean a takeaway, but a Chinese water deer, and of course I did. Due to commitments, the earliest we could manage was mid-February – we hoped the weather would have improved by then. Some hope. As you'll clearly remember, the floods and storms dominated for weeks.
I met Bruce at Toddington services on the M1 – not the sort of place I usually start a stalk from – and from there we drove a few miles to the stalking grounds.
Chinese water deer were introduced to the UK in 1873 at London Zoo and in the 1920s they were kept at Whipsnade Zoo, from where they escaped and colonised the area to a limited extent. Since then, further introductions and escapes from Woburn and others have contributed to our current population. Elsewhere in the world the IUCN has them listed in its ‘Red Book' as endangered and near extinction in China – the UK population is around 10 per cent of the world's total. They have no antlers, but a large and very sharp pair of tusks – much bigger than a muntjac – with which males fight and defend their territories. CWD are a primitive form of deer – tusks developed before antlers in deer species. They mate in November/December and often stay together as pairs until April. They can have up to six fawns, but more often three, of which only two commonly survive.
The weather was awful. Wind was gusting 40-50mph when we met, with the odd heavy splatter of rain, and heavy rain was forecast for 10am, so we had a couple of hours to stalk, at most. For my normal fare of muntjac, roe and fallow, I wouldn't venture out in such conditions. The best thing to wear in weather like this is a house with the heating turned up! Bruce was optimistic as he explained the CWD lived out in the open fields and sheltered in small depressions in the ground, at the base of hedges or even just behind a clump of weeds. They have a coat with long hollow hairs and a second, shorter and finer layer underneath, which keeps them warm and windproof.
We kitted up in the shelter of a barn and ventured out into a field of rape, staying close to the hedge line and glassing the fields every few yards, checking every hollow and bit of cover, not wanting to miss an opportunity.
After a quarter of a mile or so, we spotted three CWD in the middle of a field of winter wheat – a doe and two kids. Bruce spied them with his stalker's scope and said it was best to leave them for now. If we couldn't find a good buck, we might come back for them later. We saw a total of 12 that morning, so they aren't too endangered here.
Moving on through a finger of woodland we came out into a field of winter wheat with scraggy bits of cover. Kneeling, we scanned carefully. “Can you see the two out in the far corner,” said Bruce, “below the little ridge?” Although I stalk in woodland several times a week, I couldn't pick these up. Bruce talked me onto them and eventually I could make out two light brown patches and an ear. With his scope, he could see much more detail than my binos. “It's going to be your lucky day Steve, he's a gold medal head.” I hadn't expected anything like this. Just a decent stalk and a representative animal or a doe would have been ample. My excitement suddenly ramped up.
We decided to go back a little and then down a ditch lined by a hedge so that we were slightly above the two, with the wind in our favour. Most of the time our quarry would be out of sight, so we had to hope that they didn't move in the meantime. Off we set, bending double in the gaps in the hedge, crawling along the bottom of a rain-filled ditch until we reached a point where we thought they would be in view. Carefully, we raised our heads to look over the top. They'd moved! Fortunately not too far, they were about 300 yards away. I reckoned that if I crawled over the top of the ditch and along a slight fold in the ground I could get to within 200 yards of them and be in with a chance. Bruce stayed in the ditch, lucky chap, to make us less conspicuous to the deer.
I really don't like crawling in mud and standing water, but for a gold medal head, who wouldn't? It took me some 15 minutes to get into position. I raised my head and glassed the buck with my binoculars, the built-in range finder told me he was lying 204 yards away – no problem for my Holland & Holland 30-06 bolt action. I carefully and quietly set it up on its bi-pod and sighted through my Swarovski, setting the crosshairs just behind the shoulder. There was now a hell of a crosswind, so the bullet took him a couple of inches forward of my point of aim. But he rolled over, kicked a couple of times and lay still. The doe ran off, looked back and then disappeared. I stood up, reloaded and waited for Bruce. We hurried forward to see the buck – a truly fine specimen.
Photographs, gralloch and back-slapping done, Bruce suggested we go look for a doe, but I had had a great morning's stalk and didn't need to shoot anything else. We headed back to the vehicles in the now teeming rain with a sense of elation. Stalking doesn't get better than that.