Ewelme Park, in Oxfordshire, was once the royal hunting ground of King Henry VIII. Nowadays, the resident fallow, roe and muntjac population is managed by Simon Freedman of Reeves, which specialises in deer management and stalking equipment. Our plan was to sit out for muntjac, but as it was 1 April there was also the possibility of shooting a roebuck. This particular block of woodland that we are visiting is lifting with muntjac, said Simon. There is normally a lot of forestry machinery travelling along the rides, but in preparation for our stalk I have asked the operatives to work elsewhere on the estate so that they do not disturb the deer.
Before heading to the 1,000-acre estate, Simon asked that I demonstrate my competency with a .243 on his range. Simon runs Reeves from his cottage in Buckinghamshire and he had a wide range of rifles for me to choose from. I settled for a Heym SR21, which he imports from Germany and I teamed it with a Swarovski 3-12×50 scope.
We then made our way to the estate with keen stalker Ben Glazier, who helps Simon with marketing. As we motored along the immaculate drive, a covey of partridges lifted in front of my truck, then peeled away in search of cover. We parked the car next to a pile of felled timber as the track to the high seat was deep mud. Ben made his way to Grain Store Seat and Simon and I carried on to Pond Seat.
We had only walked 50 yards when Simon abruptly stopped me and pointed to a trophy-quality muntjac buck feeding from a pheasant hopper. He was standing broadside to us and was oblivious to our presence. Foolishly I had failed to bring my shooting sticks, I tried to place the rifle up against a young chestnut for support, but I could not seem to steady it. As I tried to find a sturdier place to mount it, my chance was gone. The buck turned and disappeared into the conifers. Seeing that buck so early on gives you an idea of their prevalence in this woodland block. Dont worry, there will be others, Simon reassured me. But I was annoyed at myself for missing the opportunity and letting such a stunning buck get away.
We stalked the rest of the ride until we reached the high seat, which was ideally positioned at the junction of four wide rides. This was one of the first high seats that I ever put up. I made it about 15 years ago, said Simon. He first started constructing high seats purely because he could not afford to buy them. It was not until a forester ordered six high seats from me that I thought I could make a business out of it, and I have now supplied many thousands, Simon added. The business has since expanded to sell all kinds of stalking equipment and now exclusively imports Heym and Mercury rifles from Germany. As we sat halfway up a sturdy old oak, I kept alert. I was still smarting from the last encounter with my quarry and I was determined to make the most of such a beautiful, historic piece of ground.
Everything in the wood had settled and the pheasants started moving out of the cherry and peach tree plantation next to us on to the rides. The conditions seemed perfect for spotting a barking deer as muntjac are sometimes referred to. The wind was in our favour and I was comfortable with the four possible killing zones after I had practised mounting my rifle at each angle. Then, in stark contrast to the serene woodland scene before me, my car alarm went off in the distance. The siren made my stomach lurch and I felt my cheeks fill with blood. All the squirrels and pheasants that had been on the rides bolted back into the dark, safe woods. As the horn rang out across the estate, I sheepishly jogged back to the car with the keys. As I climbed up the high seat ladder for a second time, Simon suggested that perhaps a pheasant had landed on the bonnet. In half an hour, the wood will settle again. All is not lost, he said. Simon also teaches the level one Deer Stalking Certificate and is an accredited witness for level two, which perhaps accounted for his easy manner and patience.
Patience pays off
Simon and I scanned the rides for nearly an hour and saw little. I was certain I would be driving home with nothing to hang in my chiller. Then, 150 yards in front of us, a yearling muntjac buck stepped on to the ride. I wasted no time and lined up its engine room in the scope. I consciously exhaled and stalled my breath before the rifle fired a 105-grain Geco bullet into the young deer. To my relief, I watched it drop instantly to the ground. Nonetheless, I ejected the spentcase and reloaded.
After we had waited the customary 15 minutes to ensure the deer was dead, I made the rifle safe and climbed down from the high seat. Clambering down the ladder was tricky as my legs quivered with adrenaline. It was fascinating to inspect this tiny deer species up close. Some stalkers are surprised by how small muntjac are. I do not think this buck is any bigger than a cocker spaniel, said Simon, as he paced out the distance of the shot to confirm that his estimate had been accurate.
We have a lot of muntjac in this county, but they are relatively difficult to stalk on the ground. Their venison is one of the most tender compared with some of the bigger species of deer in this country, said Simon, as he gralloched the carcase on the side of the ride. As he did so, we heard Ben fire a shot from his high seat. Another young muntjac was in the bag.
Back at Simons house, he inspected the carcase and hung it to chill overnight. He explained that preparation is the key to stalking well. It is good to dissect your stalk and to discuss how you would have done things differently, but be careful not to overanalyse it, he warned. I felt that this stalk had taught me a hard but valuable lesson. Never again would I leave my car alarmed or forget sticks. Planning for every eventuality will minimise the possibility of something going wrong, he said, as he patted the bonnet of my pick-up with a smile.
For more information about Reeves, visit www.reevesuk.com or tel 01296 748741.