Stalking lessons

hunters-mainEnjoying a role reversal, professional stalker Richard Scrope is guided in pursuit of a Hampshire roebuck, and learns a lesson or two in the process.

The summer months herald the start of the prime roebuck stalking season. The roebuck has been hunted across Europe for centuries and, as a quarry, it stirs great emotion – from within the youngest hunter to the most seasoned veteran. Why does this relatively small deer often have such an effect? Personally, I believe it is because hunters form a bond with the first big game animal they shoot. And due to the widespread nature of the roe, they are quite likely to be the first species for a new hunter looking to gain his wings.

As a professional stalker I tend to spend most of my time out guiding clients and not enough time in pursuit of my favourite quarry, so when Simon Barr from Tweed Media asked if I would like to attend a stalking event he was organising, I jumped at the chance. We would be stalking with Owen Beardsmore of Cervus UK and his team of very professional guides. The estate we would be stalking on covered 4,000 acres of prime roe habitat in Hampshire – a roe hunter's mecca, and a county that produces more than its fair share of medal heads, often found at the top of the leader board in the annual CiC roe review.

hunters1Spring is one of my favourite times of the year to be out stalking; the woodlands are awash with bluebells finally awakening after the winter, the does are beginning to drop their kids and the bucks are starting to claim their territories. And for me, this is an invaluable time of year when I can take stock of all the bucks on my ground and calculate my management plan for the rest of the season accordingly.

We met up with Owen and his team on the range, for the pre stalk check of zeros on the rifles. I would be borrowing a Merkel Helix RX in .243, with a Leica ER scope and shooting Hornady 95gr SST ammo. I found it rather strange being on the receiving end of a range session, but this is an essential part of every stalk. All stalkers are morally bound to ensure that they achieve a good clean kill on any quarry they shoot at, and the range session gives you confidence in your kit and will also give your professional guide some confidence in your shooting ability. As I settled down behind the rifle I felt slightly nervous about shooting in front of my colleagues. I fired three shots at the target, achieving a good group. The rifle was shooting slightly high and right. With the scope adjusted and a couple more shots to confirm, we were ready to go.

My stalker for the evening was Nigel, the underkeeper on the estate, who held invaluable local knowledge. He explained the plan to me and asked how I would like to go about the stalk. Spending much of the year as the guide I just wanted to be the guest for a change, using the opportunity to watch, learn and pick up any tips. Stalking is one of those pursuits that you never master – you can always learn something new, which is half the attraction.

As planned, we stalked down a grass valley into a high seat where we would sit until sunset, aiming to get a nice buck that had been seen in the valley on previous evenings. Along the way we spied a doe with one of last year's kids but reached the high seat without sight of any other deer. As evening encroached, we sat quietly discussing stalking, the area, and generally putting the world to rights.

Another scan of the surrounding landscape, and the picture had changed. There was something new. A wise old stalker once told me: “When spying for deer, don't look for deer, look for something that appears out of place.”  To my right there were a couple of oilseed rape fields, divided by a hedgerow, and at the top of the field a buck had just left the woodland to graze along the stewardship strip. I nudged Nigel and grabbed my Leica binos. Steadying my arms on the side of the high seat, I settled in for a proper look. His antlers were high, at least two and a half times the length of his ears. “Lets try and get him,” said Nigel, and he started the climb down. I ranged the buck – he was 604m away.

The initial part of the stalk was fairly straightforward. We used a hedgerow for cover as we crept along the bottom of the field, ensuring that we stopped regularly to make sure we did not bump into any other deer which might have alerted the buck. Keeping behind the hedge that bisected the two plots of rape, we started our climb towards our quarry. 

A halfway stop confirmed the buck was still there, but we could not get a shot through the thick hedge. Upon creeping closer our initial thoughts were confirmed – he was indeed very high but was missing his back tine points and did not have much volume; he would be a good buck to cull.

hunters2As we headed for a small gap at the top of the hedge, we both made a fundamental mistake, taking our eyes off the buck. By the time we reached the gap, he had vanished. We looked at each other in despair, only 40m from where he had been standing. Assuming we had spooked the buck, we turned around and decided to stalk down the woodland edge as the sun began to drop, catching a fleeting glimpse of a buck ducking around the corner back into the valley we had started in. We set off in pursuit, racing against the fading light. Alas, he too had vanished.

When we met up with the other stalkers at the end of the evening, one of the teams informed us they had been watching us stalk the buck. He had not vanished – he had simply laid down and we could not see him! To add insult to injury, another had emerged at the same point and the buck we had been stalking pushed him off, before following us down to the bottom of the wood and heading out into the rape field! A couple of stalkers outsmarted by a couple of roe deer!

The alarm sounded the next morning at 3:30am. I stumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed. Having got changed, I gave my spaniel a quick run before heading off to meet the others. Nigel and I headed off as the horizon was starting to lighten, settling in a high seat just before shooting light. As the first rays of the sun started to stream through the trees, illuminating the floor of bluebells, I felt Nigel tense up next to me. He raised his finger and pointed into the wood on my right. My eyes started flicking left and right, looking for the telltale sign. There he was. A wonderful old six-point buck. I positioned myself for the shot. Breath in, half out, and hold. My finger took up the pressure of the trigger, a gentle squeeze and the rifle barked. 

hunters-lastThese two stalks highlighted for me why I love the British countryside, and stalking in particular. Two stalks, one text book and one not so, but in both instances, important lessons were learned, lessons that will be drawn on in future. And the bi-product? Healthy, sustainable meat, entered into the food chain with no suffering, and minimal disturbance to the local population and wildlife. A perfect ending. 

 

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