As a high-mileage driver, I normally hate caravans with a Clarkson-like passion. They are roadclogging, oblong, inappropriate transport with sometimes inappropriate names. I once saw one named a Marauder ? exactly what can you maraud in a slow-moving box on wheels?
However, following a stalking invitation that involved staying in a caravan, I have changed my tune somewhat. Put simply, it was one of the most memorable stalking adventures I have ever had. CIC measurer Charles Fenn had kindly extended the invitation and my good friend Jeremy Smith provided the caravan. The expedition was for sika in rural Dorset and would involve loading the ?van with everything but the kitchen sink and descending on a campsite for several days.
I was looking forward to the trip, as Charles and Jeremy are the finest company and I knew that whatever happened, it would be a laugh. But with regard to shooting a sika, I was not expecting great results. For me, the sika ? the only British deer I had yet to nobble ? had proved an elusive beast. I?d pursued them in England and Scotland on a number of occasions and was thwarted every time. I had convinced myself that this would be the case on this trip.
A lycra-clad prey?
The sika had been raiding crops and the plan was to leave each day in the wee small hours to try to intercept them coming back from the crops, and vice versa in the evening, when they emerged from the woods to feed. With the caravan in place, the awning up and bunks selected, we were off for the first evening. I saw sika nicely in range as dusk fell, but, typically, there was no stag, only a hind and a calf. However, I did witness one of the more interesting sights I have come across while stalking. In the corner of a wood, a shape emerged from the gloom, which, through the binoculars, revealed itself to be a rather attractive woman in a lycra outfit, who proceeded to jump on a singlebar fence and managed to perform a succession of yoga-like movements without once losing her balance ? very impressive. We left deerless, but returned to a well-stocked caravan that was growing on me all the time.
Using dogs for deer in the UK is part of a growing trend. Charlie?s dog Giddy is a seasoned campaigner, but Jeremy?s Labrador Chesil is still a youngster. It was fascinating to watch Chesil?s behaviour the next evening when a roe doe crossed the field. Oblivious to Jeremy in the high seat, the doe approached to within yards of Chesil, but she sat quite still at the base of the high seat. Normally, Chesil is a bundle of energy, but we all felt that she exercised great self-control until, eventually, the doe decided that it was time to leave. Chesil was barking and grumbling for a considerable time afterwards.
A few hours of sleep were snatched before we headed out under a sky that blazed with stars. I love the early hours, whether with gun or fishing rod. The muffled voices and the indistinct shapes make for good cloak-and-dagger stuff. The high seat was lashed to a mighty oak and, as dawn came up, there was only the occasional thud of acorns falling and the flap of woodpigeon to quicken the pulse. I enjoy that sense of detachment that comes from being up in the branches. As Jeremy put it, the field we were watching was almost like a stage and the animals we saw from our hiding place ? foxes, badgers, roe, sika ? were the actors on it, with the crickets providing the orchestra.
Toppling a beast
Two stags emerged a long way off and our hearts missed a beat. They disappeared into the wood and, though it was a little early for the rut, Charlie tried the sika call. Almost instantly, a stag came striding out and proceeded to roll and tear at the turf. He rose to his feet and Jeremy?s .308 toppled him, to Jeremy?s immense pleasure. It was a fine animal that weighed about 95lb, topped and tailed.
Would my turn come? The morning before the final day, I shot a nice wo-year-old roebuck that had chased a fox across the field in front of us. Charlie told me to go for it as the chances of catching a sika were looking slim. I was more than pleased with the roebuck, but there was still an outside chance that the next morning might yield a stag.
It was back to the campsite for a stalker?s breakfast gleaned from the roebuck and also for Charlie, armed only with a saw, discreetly to boil out the skulls round the back of the caravan. He did an excellent job, but he has had plenty of practice. With the awning up, collapsible chairs deployed, mugs of coffee and a couple of skulls lying around, we felt we had brought a whiff of the African safari to England. At least, there was a whiff of something in the air.
The last morning was a grey, murky affair; a different high seat and a different day. A sika hind had let out a piercing alarm call in the dark as we approached that made the hairs on my neck stand up. It was not a good start, but we pressed on. Charlie must have better eyes than me ? or posher binoculars ? but in the near-darkness, he said: ?There?s a stag about 100 yards away on the edge of the wood.? I could see nothing, but already my heart was racing. The light improved slightly and from the black edge of the treeline, a shape, almost amoebalike, slowly seemed to detach itself from the darkness and move out into the field, forming the indistinct outline of a fine sika stag. It was still too dark for a shot and the stag began to wander in the wrong direction. Charlie blew the call and, without hesitation, the stag turned, head erect, and began pacing towards us ? stopping, starting and stopping again. The seconds ticked by as it filled the scope and closer and closer it came, zigzagging until it stopped a mere 30 yards away from the seat, its body obscured by a treacherous branch that prevented a shot.
For reasons unknown, something troubled the stag. Its primeval instinct told it that something was wrong, or perhaps it saw the dog at the foot of the high seat, or heard my whisper in the semi-dark to Charlie. It turned in an instant and bounded powerfully away on effortless springs. I was crestfallen; at long last I had come so close. All was not lost, though. With the benefit of experience, Charlie let out a blast on his call and, at about 100 yards, the stag broke its stride and turned broadside for one last look. There was just enough light for a shot, the rifle cracked the silence and the stag dropped in its tracks. I had finally got one and knocked him stone dead. I reloaded and watched through the scope, but the stag did not stir. As far as mainstream British deer go, I had climbed the last mountain.
It was an eight-pointer in gleaming summer coat and in the peak of condition. When I gralloched it, it had more fat than any wild deer I had seen before ? it had certainly been feasting well. I have only eaten sika once and I thought it was one of the best types of deer meat. Unfortunately, even I could not shoehorn the beast into my freezer, so it was off to gamedealer Darren Brown?s, from where the venison would end up in the coming days or weeks on plates throughout the land. It was strange to think that those who dined on it would never know of the drama of that overcast morning. I took the heart, liver and kidneys, or I should say one kidney, as Jeremy?s dog Chesil, an experienced thief, managed to gulp one of them when I wasn?t looking. The liver was good tossed in flour and cayenne pepper and fried.
Then it was time to sort out the chariot that had remained surprisingly fragrant after three days of our presence, two dogs and lots of cooking. Who needs to travel vast distances around the globe when you can have adventures such as these on your own doorstep with great friends? While on the site, the dogs had been told off for not being on leads, we had been ticked off like schoolboys for making noise over drinks at night, and we had seen and shot some great deer. I have also been converted to the joys of caravans. In fact, the idea of meandering around the British Isles in one for a year or two, with guns and fishing rods, sounds like a pretty good plan for my old age.
I can remember all the deer I have shot with great clarity and they live on in the memory to be recalled to liven up boring train journeys or other such times. But the sight of that sika stag clearing the skyline, briefly silhouetted against the murky grey of dawn before advancing down a slope towards us, is a memory that will burn bright for a long time.