For the past 15 or so years I have had the pleasure of working with one of the leading fieldsports and wildlife photographers in Britain. Paul Quagliana, an outstanding performer with shotgun and rifle, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable sea angler and all-round good egg, is normally, of course, to be found behind the lens watching others perform in the field and it was high time, I felt, that we swapped places. So a few days ago, my stalking partner and CIC judge Charles Fenn and I drove to our stalking in West Dorset for an assignation with Paul and, we hoped, a roebuck.
Dawn that day was spectacular. By 4.45am, a cloudless pale-blue sky, rose-pink in the east and criss-crossed by golden aircraft vapour trails, heralded yet another day of heat and sun, and we knew that we would have perhaps a couple of hours stalking before the deer retired to the cool shade of deep woodland. Ever eager and restless, Paul had already been waiting for an hour at our meeting point, and we swiftly took on board his rifle, a BSA CF2 with the full-length Mannlicherstyle stutzen stock in .270 Win calibre, and departed to nearby woodland adjacent to several fields where there would be, we thought, a good chance of finding a suitable buck.
Roles were now reversed. Paul handed me his camera with a brief explanation, then he and Charles set off ahead while I kept 50 yards behind with my Labrador, Jodie, at heel. Pigeon cooed a non-stop greeting to the rising sun, cock pheasants crowed, rabbits scuttled for safety and, on the far side of the field, we stopped to glass a roe doe as she wandered along a tree line, her summer coat glowing red in the early sunshine. I stayed back as Charles and Paul slowly and carefully stalked along a hedgerow and through tall, dew-sodden grass. Both paused and raised their glasses, then Charles looked back to make a thumbs-up signal. They vanished from sight and I waited by a gate hoping for the sound of a shot and waited and waited, but there was only the murmur of bird life and the faraway distant rumble of traffic.
Then both returned, puzzled by the disappearance of a buck that they had spotted 100 yards away by a hedge. Only its head and shoulder could be seen above the grass, but as they slowly advanced in the hope of a shot, the animal vanished and with it the first chance of the morning. No other buck was to be seen.
Moving to new ground
Back to the Discovery and a move to fresh stalking two miles away. Once again we set off, but this time the ground was open undulating farmland with fields of corn, now well grown, thick hedges and small copses. Here, too, was to be found a hidden valley, untouched by the plough and close to a hill surmounted by a Bronze Age fort, now smothered in woodland. There was not a breath of wind and the rising sun was already offering a foretaste of the heat to come.
May is, surely, the loveliest month of the year. The hedgerows were a chequered, colourful pattern of bluebells, the rosy pink flowers of red campions and the white umbrellas of cow parsley, while yellow buttercups and dandelion clocks starred grassy patches. This was England at its very best and we were, we knew, privileged to be party to its loveliness.
Slowly and with watchful care, we worked our way towards the wild valley, pausing only to glass ahead. Under and over a barbed-wire fence and then to stand and survey the scene below us. Two hundred yards in front, two does grazed, while a third roe, a buck, worked its way uphill along a fence line towards a small wood and, even as we looked, vanished amid the trees. Charles decided to stalk carefully towards the does using the cover of an overgrown hedge, on the chance that we might spot a buck near them. At 100 yards, the does, heads up, at last spotted us and bounded away uphill. As we followed their progress we suddenly spotted a buck outlined on the crest of a hillock and well aware of our presence, though all we could see was its head and neck.
The luck turns
Time was now running out and we decided to turn back, climb the small hill where we had seen the buck and hope, on our way back to our vehicle, that we might yet be in luck. It was a slim hope, indeed. It was now 7.30am and was becoming increasingly warm. The chance of a buck appeared remote. Nevertheless, in vague hope, I kept back to allow Paul and Charles to work their way along the grassy fringe of a field of tall barley with a hedge on their left. Nothing and then! Both stopped and slowly raised glasses. The tension was palpable and as I watched they crouched to work their way forward a few feet, slowly, oh so slowly, until, happy sight, Charles carefully set up his tripod stand. Paul stood up and settled his rifle. I confidently anticipated the shot. But no! The tripod was lowered and the pair moved forward again. Once again the tripod was set up. Paul crouched, then slowly rose and shouldered his rifle.
The shot, when it came, was muted and I could distinctly hear the strike. Holding Charles Labrador, Giddy, on a lead, I tentatively moved forward to where they were both still standing. The buck had been facing Paul some 60 yards away but in tall grass, and it was not until he could take an angled
chest shot that he fired. At the strike the animal collapsed and then rose and ran towards Paul before dropping dead 30 yards away. Middle-aged with a balanced, nicely coloured head and still carrying grey winter coat, the bullet had destroyed the lungs.
Let Paul describe the action: Charles spotted the tips of its antlers as we came up the hedge. The problem was that it was in long grass and I couldnt get a shot. I had to try to get closer with a steeper angle. The background was completely safe and eventually I got within range and decided to take the shot you know the result.
As a matter of interest, Paul was using a 115-grain cartridge named Remington Managed Recoil in his .270. This is down-loaded ammunition with a reduced muzzle velocity to about 2,700fps, similar to that of a .243. The main reason for using it, Paul said, was to reduce meat damage and also recoil, muzzle flash and noise, as he does not use a moderator. However, the compromise is that the bullet has a very curved trajectory because its slower. His scope is a Leupold 3-9×50 and set on 4 power.
The buck loaded into Charles roe sack and hefted by Paul, we set off back to the vehicle, inspired by the knowledge that Charles had brought his portable stove for a hearty hunters breakfast. Bacon and eggs were on the menu, plus sliced roe liver and kidneys, all to be washed down with steaming hot coffee bliss. The stove was set up, knives and forks at the ready and all we now needed was the frying pan to produce a real hunters breakfast. The only problem was that Charles had forgotten to bring it!
Desperately, we hunted for a scrap of metal, anything to relieve Charles embarrassment and our hunger. Half an hour later we bought a metal pan in a farm shop, found a suitable lay-by and cooked breakfast. Never have roe liver,
kidneys and bacon tasted better. For once, the best-laid plans of mice and men had come right and Paul had his buck.