You used to be able to tell what part of Britain you were in by the architecture around you. While this is still the case to a certain extent, we all know that parts of Britain have become so standardised by modern developers that many towns are starting to look the same: endless charity shops, estate agents and ever-growing rings of housing estates that have sprung up around what were once small villages. It was with this in mind that I looked forward to going stalking in the Lake District, which has largely managed to resist the modern love affair with plastic-looking red brick. I grew up about half an hour south of Windermere and it looks just the same as it did 20 years ago when I would howl through it on my motorbike.
I was going to meet Peter Robson, chairman of the north west of England branch of the British Deer Society (BDS) to look for red stag at the tail end of the season. Peter had more or less reached his cull but said there might be a chance of another stag if we came across one.
When thinking about stalking red deer there is an assumption that one has to pack one?s bags like a latter-day Victorian and head for the land of whisky and haggis. Nothing wrong with that, but there are pockets of red deer throughout England which negate the need to travel as far as the Scottish Highlands. Along with the West Country and parts of East Anglia, the north west of England holds good numbers of reds, and it is a beautiful place to go stalking at any time of the year.
Beatrix Potter?s heartland
I met Peter in the half-light of a chill April morning and, after a drive through winding lanes, we arrived at his stalking ground. We had seen some reds silhouetted in the greyness on someone else?s patch, and on the gate had been a sign for Poacher Watch. Peter explained that there is an issue with poaching in the Lakes, as there is elsewhere, and there has been a concerted effort from local police to deal with this. He said that the price of venison has remained more or less the same, and while many say that stalkers should get more for their venison, higher prices could have the effect of encouraging more poaching.
A stalk around Peter?s ground ? boggy patches amid sheep pasture and woodland ? revealed evidence of deer, but they had moved on, leaving only traces of their passing. Peter had hoped this would be a likely spot as sheep had been moved off the ground. So it was on to the next area, a patch that is synonymous with the Lake District ? the former stamping ground of Beatrix Potter and her beloved Moss Eccles tarn where she wrote some of her stories while her husband fished. It is easy to see where she got her inspiration from in this land of tumbling boulders, craggy vistas and towering larches.
Stalkers and walkers
We had set off early partly because it was the best time for stalking, and partly to avoid walkers, who flock to the area. I wondered how Peter gets on with stalking in one of the most popular National Parks in England, but he said that in all his time stalking he had only ever encountered one person who disagreed with his activities. He suggested that, generally, if you are prepared to chat with anyone you encounter, wish them good day and explain, if you need to, what you are doing, most people are perfectly friendly.
There was much evidence of deer activity ? chewed bark, hair on barbed wire and a large wallow that Peter only just stopped his dog Kiwi from entering. The stalk led us through bracken, upturned trees and past other tarns and forestry. Peter pointed out that with something as large as a red deer you have to be careful where the beast falls when you take your shot. A stag could weigh as much as 300lb and a hind around 150lb depending on the harshness of the winter, so extraction can be an issue, with tree stumps, bogs and rocks in the way. ?You need a support team to assist you,? said Peter.
We sat up on the top of Peter?s ground and viewed the stunning landscape around us. It was marred only by the remains of a campfire adorned with litter. There is nothing wrong with campfires if they are cleaned up afterwards, but it never ceases to amaze me that people visit a place because it?s beautiful and then leave a mess behind them. As a keeper once said to me,?People seem to think that beer cans burn.?
So it seemed the mighty reds had given us the slip. But walking past the tarn on the way back Peter filled me in on his background and the status of deer in the Lakes past and present. He got into shooting through friends and family,
continues to keeper part-time, was a police officer for 30 years and now works as a civilian in the control room. He remembers the days, as I am sure many readers of Shooting Times do, when it was common practice to shoot deer, particularly roe, with shotguns, as they were seen as vermin. The normal procedure on fox drives was to have BBs in one barrel for foxes and SSGs in the other for deer. This was how Peter shot his first deer. His first with a rifle was when he was 17 years old. Deer are treated with a bit more reverence now but Peter mentioned two figures who were intrumental in proper deer management in the early days: Forestry Commission rangers Herbie Fooks and John Cubby. He added that, in his opinion, the numbers of reds have remained more or less static and that reds may push roe out.
One of the issues affecting management in the Lakes, as with other parts of Britain, is how to manage deer properly when land is divided up into so many small parcels? The attitude of ?If I don?t shoot it someone else will? seems to be pravalent throughout Britain, potentially hampering the good management of all species, and it is difficult to know what to do about it.
Traditionally in this part of north west England, Peter said, most management has been carried out by gamekeepers and recreational stalkers such as himself. He thinks recreational stalkers are perfectly capable of managing deer populations themselves, and to this end the South Lakes deer management group was recently set up to encourage cooperation between stalkers in the area.
Peter favours the .30-06 for red deer, but feels the calibre is somewhat immaterial as, ?It is the rifle you feel most comfortable shooting that is important.? He has been on the BDS committee for 20 years, and Cumbria chairman for five, and feels that stalkers should be encouraged to go on deer-related courses ? his branch of the BDS runs dog-training and rifle practice days.
Soon it was time to leave the land that inspired the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and enchanted campers, walkers, mountain bikers and boaters. It was good to see that among the pressures placed on the landscape that the deer, and deerstalkers, are still quietly going about their business in an area that is visited by more than 8million people a year.