Meet me at 6pm tomorrow evening and well try for a buck or two. The forecast is looking good and well try the field where I saw all those deer last week. The call came from my stalking partner Charles Fenn and, for once, the signs were propitious. Cold, wet and windy days throughout so much of April had at last given way to the promise of sunshine and a few days earlier, during a brief lull in the dreary weather pattern, Charles had seen 17 roe in one field during the evening. Their number included a magnificent three- or four-year-old buck, carrying a massive six-point head towering at least 4in above its ear tips. However, it was heavily in velvet a buck to be saved for the future. The omens looked not just good, but definitely promising.
Picture then, if you will, a deep, dense stretch of Dorset woodland fringing an extensive field of pasture, a favoured haunt of roe and sika. A thick thorn hedge runs from the edge of the wood, dividing the pasture into two fields, and terminates by a massive oak. Here Charles has a high seat, while a second, 200 yards to his left, is set against a thick, strong holly tree. We decided that Charles would take photographer Paul Quagliana with him to the oak seat, leaving Giddy, his black Labrador bitch, settled at the foot of the seat. A brilliant deer dog, she will remain still and silent until given the signal to move. I have even seen a hare pass a few yards from her with no reaction. Meanwhile, as Charles and Paul set off for the oak tree, I climbed into the holly seat.
While I was using my BSA .308, Charles chose his full-stocked Austrian-made Steyr, a rifle which, having been liberated by his uncle during World War II, was given to him 40 years ago. In calibre 6×54, and with a rotary magazine which ejects a spent cartridge, topped by a three to seven Pecar variable scope invariably set on five Charles has shot hundreds of deer with this rifle. The recommended sighting-in distance with a 159-grain bullet is 149 yards and while at that distance the drop is 0.3in, at 300 yards it is a massive fall of 21in.
As an aside, Charles, one of the old guard of roe stalkers, shot his first deer, a fallow, near Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, in 1968, using a converted .303 sporter with open sights. An enthusiastic senior member of the St Hubert Club, now under the chairmanship of Chester Eyre and his team, he told me that the club has gained the approved customised award made by Lantra (sector skills council for environmental and land-based sector) for stalker training. But back to our stalking. Despite the fact that it was a bright, sunny evening with scarcely a cloud in the sky, a bitter north-east wind made me extremely glad I was wearing my warm Finnish Sasta jacket. I slowly climbed into my seat, loaded the rifle and settled down.
Later, Charles told me that as they approached his seat, he saw a doe emerging from the wood. Heavily pregnant, she was busily feeding and somehow failed to notice stalker and snapper climbing into their seat. She was directly in front of the seat, perhaps 140 yards away, while on the far side of the hedge, 200 yards distant, was an old doe and, a short distance from her, an exceptionally good buck with clean antlers, the points shining white in the evening sunlight. He had a big, thick neck, said Charles, and I think he got a glimpse of us and probably caught our wind, for he put up his head and then darted round and vanished into the wood. Another doe, also heavily pregnant, emerged and fed for 20 minutes and then slowly moved back to cover.
An hour passed before he saw another deer and then a two-year-old four-pointer cull buck appeared in the company of a yearling doe. She skipped and played, but the buck took no notice. Gradually, the little buck fed towards the high seat and at 130 yards Charles decided to take a shot. The back trigger was set but the buck would not keep still and eventually, becoming suspicious, perhaps catching the wind, turned to move back to the safety of the woodland.
On my front nothing moved, save a hare and a cock pheasant, the one lolloping across the pasture while the bird scuttled towards me, low in the grass and, it seemed, deeply suspicious. An hour passed, and the shadows grew ever longer as the sun drifted down towards distant woodland. It was bitterly cold despite the deceptive sunlight and I shivered. Then, suddenly, I spotted the humped back of a deer feeding on the edge of the wood, perhaps 140 yards in front. A buck? A doe? Only when, at last, the animal threw up its head did I see that it was a mature doe.
Gradually, over the next 20 or so minutes, three more roe emerged, one of them a yearling buck with small, clean spikey antlers. However, all remained feeding under the woodland fringe, obviously sheltering from the wind. Three more roe joined them, including an old, very suspicious doe and another young buck, but despite occasional forays towards my seat, no buck ventured close enough for me even to consider raising the rifle. Then, at last, a possible chance of a shot! The first little buck moved across my front and stood broadside-on. I put the scope on him, but hesitated. It was still a long shot, dusk was drawing on and if I made an error he would vanish into the woodland. It was, I decided, not worth the risk and I lowered the rifle.
Gradually, colour leached from the grass, the woodland became ever darker and a three-quarter moon changed places with the sun. A few roe were still grazing, but there comes a point when the light completely fails and it is time to unload. Had there been little or no wind, I am sure we would have grassed one or two cull bucks. But it was not to be and, once again, the best laid plans were defeated.
The rest of this article appears in 1 May issue of Shooting Times.
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