Jaimie Dick’s flying visit to England had gone well so far. Already he had fulfilled an ambition to shoot Chinese water deer (Chinese on the menu, 4 December) and taken a fox from one of my high seats. He had spent the intervening time discussing muntjac with a view to controlling their presence in Northern Ireland, where he takes an special interest in the species as professor of invasion ecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. Now, on the eve of his departure, we decided to spend the evening in the pursuit of fallow.
A telephone call resulted in an invitation to join Dave Barratt on his ground on the border between Hampshire and Berkshire. The fallow doe season had just opened and Dave was keen to make a quick start to the cull, so the more high seats he could occupy that night, the better. Unsure of what the evening would entail, I decided to leave the dog at home — it was an unusually sunny early November evening and I didn’t want to risk leaving her in the car. Jaimie had brought his .308, but as mine was still awaiting a check zero after having a new scope fitted, I had to take the .243 instead. Both decisions, as it turned out, were to have a bearing on later events.
A comfortable seat
After a quick mug of tea and a chat, Dave loaded Jaimie on to the back of his quad bike and set off to place him in his high seat. Soon he was back for me and we were bumping over the rough tracks to my seat, which was a solid metal construction, big enough to accommodate two people in comfort and firmly fixed to a large oak. The previous occupant had even thoughtfully turned the seat over so that I had a dry plank to sit on. The sheet of foam that I carry for such occasions added to my comfort and helped to ensure I would spend the coming couple of hours without fidgeting or moving around too much. Taking care that my muzzle was pointed safely towards the ground, I chambered a round, checked that the safety catch was on, and settled down to wait.
The wind was starting to get up and the trees around me were being blown about violently. I had not been sitting for more than a few minutes when a loud report echoed through the woods, followed after a few seconds by another. As I wondered what had happened, the mobile phone vibrated silently in my pocket. I slowly fished it out to check the message, which was from Jaimie and simply said “two fallow”. Later on, he told me that the animals had appeared 50 yards away, and that when he shot the doe the follower, a buck calf, had hesitated, no doubt uncertain over the source of the moderated shot, allowing Jaimie the opportunity to take it as well.
More fallow in the bag
What an excellent start. Despite the strong winds, it was relatively sheltered and warm where I was sitting and the tree supporting my seat was stable and secure. Half-a-dozen cock pheasants fed among the scattered straw on the ride in front of me and I couldn’t suppress a smile as a young muntjac, only a few months old, seemed to be deliberately taunting one of the birds by skipping at it and repeatedly forcing it to give way. There was no sign of the deer’s mother and I decided to leave it in peace. It eventually disappeared into dense brambles at the side of the ride.
The light was just starting to fade when two more shots, one from Jaimie’s direction and another, louder one, which I correctly assumed to be Dave, announced two more fallow does in the bag. By this point, I had seen no sign of any deer and was just beginning to give up hope when I saw a movement among the trees out of the corner of my eye. Careful examination through the binoculars revealed a fallow buck — a sorrel — steadily making its way towards me. The view through the undergrowth was obstructed, so I had to wait for it to reach a clear patch where I would have a fair chance of a shot. The fallow reached the clearing and kept on walking. By now the rifle was in my shoulder with the safety catch off, but the opportunity was about to disappear.
There was only one thing for it: I pursed my lips and made a sharp squeak. The buck stopped, tensed, raised its head and looked in my direction. It was clearly about to run, but it took an instant to float the cross hairs on to its chest and squeeze the trigger. The rifle’s report covered any sound of bullet strike, but the buck jumped, both feet off the ground, before crashing into the undergrowth. I chambered another round and watched, but saw no further movement.
The light was now disappearing fast. I unloaded, climbed down and made my way carefully to where the buck had been standing when it was hit and looked in vain for any signs of bullet strike. This didn’t worry me too much. I was confident it had been a fatal shot, and knew the little 100gr .243 bullet seldom produces a sizeable exit wound on a larger deer, if indeed it exits at all. Yet there was little time left before night fell completely and the animal had to be found without delay.
I took a head torch from my bag and the search was on. Normally at this point I would have fetched the dog, which would have taken me to the buck in no time, but of course Mole was at home. Sweeping backwards and forwards across the buck’s line of flight yielded no signs of blood — had I actually hit it? I discounted the doubts and started to walk in a grid, pacing out 50 yards and turning for a few more before heading back towards the start point, marked with a tiny strobe light which I carry to clip on to the dog’s collar for night work.
By now, it was pitch-black and my small torch only produced limited light. The woodland was mainly coppice, so I felt confi dent that I was covering it efficiently, but several times I lost my bearings and had to start again. Of the buck, however, there was no sign.
Fortunately, at this point the other shot animals had been recovered, and approaching headlights announced the arrival of my fellow stalkers. This time, we formed an extended line, all with torches, and walked forward to find my sorrel lying dead to a heart shot only 20 or so yards from where I had shot it. I must have passed it several times during my solo search but failed to spot it. It’s surprising how easy it is to miss an animal, even one as big as a fallow, especially if it’s lying with its back to you and not exposing its lighter belly hair.
Back at the larder with five carcases for the evening’s work, we shared similar stories of “lost” animals and expressed relief that the buck had been recovered quickly rather than having to be left out overnight. At the same time, I made a personal resolution not to leave the dog behind next time. Ultimately, though, it was a happy Jaimie who I drove to Southampton airport the next morning with a personal score of two water deer, three fallow and a fox for three outings — not a bad average by anyone’s count.