I instantly regretted my misguided decision not to stay overnight in a B&B near to the estate. My imprudence meant a hellishly early start. Bleary-eyed and confused, I killed my iPhone’s irritating alarm at 2.30am. After fumbling for the bedside lamp I caught sight of the neatly folded camouflage gear next to my bed and remembered why my slumber had been so rudely interrupted. My eyes widened: Chinese water deer (CWD).
On the plus side, the abandoned M25 and M1 meant my pick-up flew to Bedfordshire in no time. A double-shot latte and almond croissant later, I was pulling up to Beckerings Park, a 1,500 acre estate in the heart of CWD country. Out of the dark emerged the estate stalker, Paul Childerley, and my friend Philippe Jaeger, an aptly named sporting hack from France. As we waited for more light, we admired Paul’s vast collection of gold-medal trophies gathered from all over the world. Warthogs, kudu and springbok were mounted neatly next to rows of tusked Chinese water deer and muntjac skulls.
Paul Childerley holds all the shooting rights at Beckerings Park. He has also won the world kickboxing championship four times.
Juxtaposed with this were photographs of Paul brandishing a different kind of medal atop podiums. Spotting my confusion, he coyly revealed that he was the four-time world kickboxing champion.
“We rarely get any bother from poachers,” he said.
March’s unseasonally warm weather made for positively balmy deer stalking conditions. Low-lying mist hugged the contours of the land. Young crops were sodden with dew and in some places even frost. A yellowy, dreamlike hue drenched the oilseed rape. Grazing brown hares and canary-coloured daffodils laced the estate.
Woburn Abbey escapees thriving in East Anglia
Chinese water deer are a primitive-looking, tusked species predominantly found in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Beckerings Park is not far from Woburn Abbey, from where the ancestors of today’s population escaped. The 11th Duke of Bedford introduced a number of non-native species into his deer park at Woburn Abbey early in the 20th century. From here, two of the UK’s most prolific wild deer species – the CWD and muntjac – can be traced.
It is thought that CWD have remained fairly localised due to East Anglia being similar to their native wetland habitats in northern China and Korea. Many ecologists feel that the deer’s preference for this habitat has restricted its potential to colonise further afield. It also is believed the UK now accounts for up to 10 per cent of the entire worldwide population of CWD. The animal’s survival in its far eastern homeland is now classified as near-threatened, which makes the legal hunting of them on home turf a unique opportunity. Although localised to one area in the UK, their population is now flourishing and therefore in need of responsible, sustainable management.
Having never shot a CWD, Philippe was keen to accompany my stalk before his own outing in the afternoon. His writing for French publications such as La Chasse takes him all over the world, but this particular species has always eluded him. With just two weeks of the buck season left, we were both keen to grass a representative animal.
Our first job was to check wind direction. With no obvious breeze nagging at the trees, I squeezed my bottle of Primos white powder. The mist of fine, unscented powder is ideal for identifying subtle air currents and staying downwind of quarry.
With a .243 rifle slung over my shoulder, we quietly stalked the edges of a vast field of oilseed rape in single file. Through my binoculars, I glassed a russet-coloured animal crouched down in the middle of the field. All three of us immediately stopped. The dozing animal lifted its tuskless, teddy bear-like head to reveal its gender. We stood and stared for a minute, her ears twitched independently of one another as she strained to see what had disturbed her. Like infantry, we stealthily continued around the edge of her field, bent over to avoid breaking the skyline. Heartened by the sight of our quarry so early on in the stalk, we felt suitably optimistic.
Bedfordshire’s Beckering Park estate used to grow daffodils commercially and the remnants of that venture make for a beautiful early-morning spring stalk.
The recent stint of continuous sunshine meant the forest’s understory and buds had sprung into life, providing us with welcome cover. Until recently, Beckerings Park grew daffodils commercially, which were sold as a natural treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. The estate has now switched to more conventional crops, but the perennials continue to reign in several fields where errant bulbs have escaped the crop sprayer. There was definitely something medicinal about deer stalking through acres of these sweet-smelling flowers. Somewhat distracted by their ethereal beauty, I had not noticed Paul stop to scan the adjacent field. He signaled to Philippe and I that a deer was visible. A defiant doe was staring quizzically at us. Bathed in glorious morning light, her coat looked radiant against the sky.
“The deer here on this estate are incredibly relaxed…a sign of good management and proficient stalking,” said Philippe, as he patted Paul on the back.
“Lots of deer about, but no bucks yet,” responded Paul with a sigh, as he glassed the rest of the woodland edge. For the past 12 years Paul has also worked as headkeeper on the estate. “We put on around 35 driven days each season, mainly shooting redleg partridge,” he explained. “The fact I own all the sporting rights keeps things simple for the estate.”
Buck in the crosshairs
By now there was a gentle western breeze, so we changed tactics and decided to stalk the edges of a large ploughed field. To our right, the vast field swept down to a gentle valley. All three of us paused to scan the field and clocked a buck completely unaware of our presence.
“This is exactly the animal I had in mind for you. He could make a gold medal,” beamed Paul.
It is believed the UK is home to 10 per cent of the global Chinese water deer population.
We now had to manoeuvre ourselves into a suitable shooting position. With only a line of oak trees to shield us, we crept from one trunk to the next every time the buck looked away. Gingerly, we stalked our way to the fourth tree in the line. The topography was ideal for a safe shot and the buck was no more than 100 metres away. Paul unfolded his sticks and gently leant them against the oak. I rested my rifle on them and the side of the tree. Philippe crouched next to me and provided another anchor point for my elbow on top of his head, complete with beret. A slightly unorthodox shooting position, but incredibly stable nonetheless. The buck moved broadside. I lined up his engine room in my crosshairs, took a deep breath and squeezed off a 90grain soft nose round. Despite the buck’s reaction being encouraging, I cycled another round and watched the buck through my scope. The deer bolted 50 metres across the plough before dropping dead. Paul and Philippe erupted into congratulatory cheers. Absolute elation swept threw me.
A silver medal and an adrenaline surge
I made the rifle safe before we hurriedly walked over to the buck. “I reckon he could make a silver medal,” said Paul as he pulled back the buck’s brilliant white tusks, which measured around 7cm.
Since completing my Deer Stalking Certificate Level 1 with the British Deer Society in 2009, I have been keen to develop my skills towards Level 2. Under the watchful eye of Paul, I gralloched the 12.5kg deer in the field, saving the liver for my breakfast. Paul then caped the buck and vacuum packed it ready for my taxidermist.
“This gives a whole new meaning to a Chinese takeaway!” he quipped as he handed me the package.
Successfully stalking and shooting such an impressive buck had caused a surge of adrenaline to race through my veins. However, the effect was now waning and I was left feeling exhausted. My early start had finally caught up with me. Next time I book myself a dawn deer stalking expedition I’ll definitely climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire in the comfort of a B&B near the estate.
For more information about stalking Chinese water deer contact Paul Childerley on 07932 103193.