Fallow deer in Suffolk
Steve Rawsthorne heads to Suffolk, where he is faced with the challenge of controlling increasing fallow numbers.
The shooting world is blessed with so many warm and generous characters, unlike most of the modern business world. Some years ago, while shooting as a guest of one of my Holland & Holland Shooting School clients, I was sitting next to a chap at lunch who, it turned out, had a deer problem on his estate in Suffolk. We talked a bit about how to manage them, and stalking in general, exchanged details as one does, finished our day and went our separate ways. He contacted me a couple of weeks later, and over the last few years we have become firm friends. Every three or four weeks during the season, I spend a weekend with him and his family, typically stalking in the morning and evening – four sessions a trip – before returning to Oxfordshire.
The crops grown in Suffolk around this area tend to be rather different to those where I live, with carrots, potatoes, sugar beet, cereals and maize for biomass production being the mainstay. Maize can be a real problem as the deer lie up in it during the day, making it very difficult to establish how many are in an area – there could be one or there could be 100. Depending on the crop, some fields will be covered in fleece, acres and acres of it, to promote germination. If deer walk over the fleece, the holes they make allow the wind to channel underneath it, causing it to lift and tear, reducing its efficacy or even causing it to blow away altogether. The deer, almost entirely fallow, will break down the ridges in potato crops, take a single bite from a sugar beet (it's difficult for them to take more because they have no top teeth) and cause devastation to carrots – and just imagine the effect of 80 or 90 fallow grazing on a field of winter wheat throughout the night!
For this trip, I would be using an unusual calibre of rifle, a Holland & Holland .244 Magnum, formed from a .375 case necked down to .244, firing a 100gr bullet at around 3,500ft/s. It was originally developed by David Lloyd who wanted a long-range bullet for stalking in the Highlands, so that range estimation was not so critical. Set it up correctly, and you can take a chest shot on a red stag at 300 yards without having to hold over or under.
The rare .244 Holland & Holland Magnum (right), alongside a .243 Win (left) and a .270 Win
Almost all of my Suffolk stalking takes place in the first hour of daylight or the last half hour of light in the evening. You will occasionally find an odd fallow or two out earlier, but due to the pressure of people shooting them, and high levels of public access, these are very much an exception. Locals tell me that the fallow deer originated as escapees from deer parks. Large areas of Forestry Commission woodland harbour them during the day, and at night they maraud out across the surrounding farmland. Typical of fallow, they have increased in numbers exponentially and their range has spread substantially. Their habit of ranging across a large territory certainly poses problems – they can be in an area every night for three weeks on the trot, but on the weekend that I am there they will disappear, leaving only tracks and droppings. Similarly, they may not be seen for a few days and then suddenly, one night in the moonlight, 30 or 40 will appear in a field, as if they have materialised from the very mist itself.
Last year, I drove up the A12 on the morning of November 1 with the intention of getting as many fallow in the larder as possible in three days, whilst also aiming to get out with my friend Steve on a neighbouring area to stalk a few reds. We have no reds in my neck of the woods, but Steve has lots, and they cause even greater crop damage than fallow.
Arriving at around lunchtime, I immediately headed out for a spot of reconnaissance. It would be dark by 4:30, so time was of the essence. I usually start an hour and a half or so before last light – driving around to see if I can spot anything out early, before parking up and then stalking in to it. Once I have shot an animal and checked it is dead, I will carry on stalking until it's dark, returning to pick it up afterwards. For the last 20 or 30 minutes, I will sneak quietly up into a high seat and sit and wait. This is when premium optics (mine are all Swarovski) really pay dividends, giving you the extra five minutes of visibility at a critical time, as the deer emerge from cover.
On this occasion, I had just dropped Andrew off and had walked a few hundred yards or so when I heard a shot. I nipped back to find that Andrew had shot a good muntjac buck which had emerged from cover as he reached the top of the high seat. I took it away to gralloch later, so the area was undisturbed. Andrew remained in the seat, in hopeful anticipation of a fallow.
There was once an old First World War rifle range on the estate and a track which ran across it. The field where it starts is called Sentry Box, so named because there used to be one there (now long gone) to stop people wandering across the range and getting shot. Early ‘elf and safety!'
As I drove past, I saw a couple of fallow out on the winter wheat, just past Sentry on Whitmores. Parking up, I walked back along the other side of a hedge, crawled through a small gap and snuck along the bottom of a ditch until I was within 150 yards of the deer. Standing up slowly, I set up my rifle on sticks and dropped the pricket with a neck shot. Being unmoderated, the second one didn't stop to see what was happening and disappeared into the forest. Upon first checking that mine was cleanly killed, I heard another shot from Andrew, so I went back to help him sort it out. Chest shot, it had run about 100 yards into the forest before expiring. It took half an hour of crawling around in the dark of the spruce trees with a torch to find it. What stands tall when alive can disappear very easily in a slight depression in the ground when it lies dead – especially with good camouflage.
The neck shot will drop an animal immediately; like switching off a light. While I know some people do not like neck shots, I am fortunate in being able to practise on our rifle range at work as much as I like, and I have excellent kit. If you are going to use neck shots, you need to practise with your rifle and sticks, bipod or high seat so that you are adept at this shot type. And it is crucial that you realise your own limitations.
The next morning I was out before first light. The stalking was all on foot now – my preferred method – and I was shooting
off sticks. I have three or four long circular routes around the estate to bring me back to where the vehicle is left. Crossing Doles through to Broomhill, I spotted a group of 20 or so fallow in the gloom on some sugar beet. There was a fairly easy route to get into position so, using the cover of some maize and a fold in the ground, I was ready within 10 minutes with the rifle on the sticks. The closest fallow were about 100m away, and the furthest were no more than 180. I selected a doe on the far side of the group and the .244 boomed out. Reloading with the controlled feed Mauser 98 action, I neck-shot the pricket nearest me and, as they milled around not knowing where to go, I shot another, also in the neck. The first doe I shot was a yearling, so there was no calf to worry about, and I was able to take another before they stampeded for woodland cover.
A minute later and all was peaceful, as if nothing had happened. Thirty seconds of action and there were four fallow on the ground.
A successful cull, by all means. The next morning I was due to be out on the reds with Steve and, as I was picking up the carcases in the rising sun, he called to say that he had just counted 117 on some sugar beet. Needless to say, the busy hour or two which followed in the larder was made that bit sweeter!