Given its large deer population, it is no wonder the New Forest was commandeered by William the Conqueror in 1079 as a hunting ground. The Hamptworth estate, which is set within the new Forest National Park, alone boasts 300 fallow as well as muntjac and roe and it offers prime stalking opportunities.
Unfortunately, it is not only legitimate stalkers who have been enjoying Hamptworths sport in recent times. The estate made national headlines during the past few weeks after dozens of deer carcases, which appeared to have been shot with a rifle, were found in the forest (News, 3 March). Estate owner Donald Anderson said: Since December last year, we have found around 25 dead or dying fallow on the estate. We think someone, who is perhaps mentally unwell, is trespassing on the estate with a rifle. The idea that it could be poachers has been ruled out as the mystery shooter has not taken the venison.
Estate stalker Jim Joyce has been patrolling the estate at night between 6pm and 4am with other estate staff. Patrols are also carried out by David Kenyon, who is the British Deer Societys director for England and Wales and runs the estates shooting lodge, Langley Wood House, with his wife Kate.
We are there purely to observe, said Jim. The police advised us not to approach a suspect, merely to note down any number plates if at all possible. But so far we have not actually caught anyone on the estate. There has been a lot of media interest in the story. The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Classic FM, BBC South Today and BBC Radio 4 all ran stories. We hope that the national and local press interest will have scared the perpetrator away. We have not found a carcase for more than three weeks now, added Jim.
Wiltshire police dog section has introduced patrols and carries out training on the estate. Donald added: We hope that the presence of police dogs and their handlers both day and night will discourage the offenders from returning. This initiative is also of great benefit to the dog section as the estate provides them with large open spaces on which to train.
Prime woodland stalking
The estate is made up of 3,000 acres, 68 per cent of which is woodland, meaning the stalking is first class, explained Jim, who took me out stalking on the estate. Jim was a heating engineer for most of his adult life until he finally followed his dream to work as a gamekeeper and stalker five years ago. The night before my stalk, I stayed at Langley Wood House, which was refurbished 18 months ago to accommodate up to 10 Guns at any one time. Not only did the lodge provide proper kennelling for my Bavarian mountain hound, but the wardrobe in my bedroom was equipped with a gun cabinet for my rifle. By giving you the keys to your own gun cabinet, your rifle is secured in your room under your control, said David.
At 5.30am the next morning I met Jim in the lodge car park. It is important that we get to the high seat while it is still dark. It will give the forest a chance to settle again after we disturb the deer and wildlife with the Land Rover, he said. The plan was to sit in the high seat for a couple of hours until it was fully light. If after that time we had not glassed any deer, we would stalk on foot. The high seat was located between a Douglas fir plantation and a silver birch crop, so I had to be mindful of bullet deflection and make sure I had a clear line of sight should the quarry appear on the rides to the left, right and front of me.
Sighting the quarry
As Jim and I waited for the deer to emerge from their forest couches, a woodcock startled us by passing only a few feet in front of our faces. My ears strained to hear the sound of deer through the birdsong. On two occasions, I heard sticks snap behind us, but nothing stepped out of the shadows. As I scanned the edge of the conifers for the outline of an ear or leg, Jim lightly tapped me on the arm and pointed to the ride in front of us. A lone fallow doe was browsing on a holly bush 80 yards away. The deers dull grey winter coat was perfectly camouflaged against the bare understorey. I waited until the doe was occupied with feeding, then shifted my Browning X-Bolt .243 on to the lagging-covered rail on the high seat. To my frustration, as I lined up the doe in the cross-hairs, it moved into the silver birch plantation. As it quartered away from me, I waited for it to stand still between the trees so that I could take a clear shot. At about 100 yards, the deer finally paused and I took aim and squeezed the trigger.
The doe immediately bolted and crashed into some rhododendrons. You definitely hit it, Jim reassured me. Nonetheless, we remained in the seat for 10 minutes to allow time for the adrenaline coursing through the deers veins to wane. Back on the ground, we found only two drops of blood and one lot of pins. To my relief, the doe was stone dead underneath the rhododendron bush. Congratulations, that is a good engine-room shot, said Jim. As our chiller is only a five-minute drive from here, we will gralloch it at the lodge.
Since completing my Deer Stalking Certificate Level One with the British Deer Society last March, I have been keen to develop my skills towards Level Two. As we winched the carcase off the larder floor, Jim kindly agreed to talk me through gralloching. The lower legs were kept back for training my Bavarian mountain hound, which uses the adrenaline scent excreted from the hooves to track wounded deer. To train it to do this, I will have to strap the deers legs on to the back of my legs and lay a scent for the dog to follow.
The bullet had obliterated the heart, but the liver was bagged up for breakfast. After the 28kg carcase was tagged and labelled, part of it was sent to the estates smokery before finally being sold in the farm shop. All the estate businesses are intertwined. Stalkers pay to shoot the deer, which helps to minimise deer damage to trees that are used for timber. This is imperative because forestry is one of the principle business enterprises on the estate. The venison is then sold either in our farm shop or to a local restaurant, said Jim.
Hamptworth estate is an active member of the local Deer Management Group. There are about a dozen members, which represent around 20,000 acres, said Jim. We meet twice a year to compare cull records and offer each other support, The group clearly has its limitations, however. Some members are very secretive and will not reveal how many deer are on their piece of land, explained Jim. There is also conflict about how to manage them. Some farmers want to cull large numbers, but the estates that sell stalking only want to manage the numbers. By and large the group is an effective tool and helps to co-ordinate culling.
With only a few days until the fallow doe season ends, I am pleased to say that we are now very close to meeting our cull target for this year.
For more information about the estate, visit www.theshootlodge.co.uk or www.hamptworthestate.co.uk.