There’s more than one way to stalk a muntjac. You can sit up and wait for them; you can creep through the woods in the hope of spotting one; you can call them in to a prepared position or, just occasionally, you can stalk them by sound.
This last option only presents itself once in a while, but when it does, it offers some of the most exciting woodland stalking to be had anywhere. Sometimes called “barking deer”, muntjac have a call not unlike the bark of a small dog. It is a familiar sound throughout the woods of southern and eastern England and is made by both bucks and does, with individual animals having recognisably different voices. Like other deer, muntjac will bark briefly when danger threatens, but occasionally they will bark repeatedly over a long period of time to announce their presence to other muntjac. It is when an animal is preoccupied doing this that it is sometimes possible to get a fix on its location and stalk right in to it.
I was up early so that I would be out in the woods well before first light. It was a raw, cold mid-March morning with the south-westerly breeze blowing light showers into the bare trees, making me thankful that I had opted for long thermals and full winter stalking kit. There had been more than two inches of rain over the previous few days, and the heavy clay soil had been deeply rutted by farm traffic, making it hard to negotiate the track that runs along the edge of the wood. Somehow I managed to find enough grass to walk on as I crept stealthily onwards, searching the gloom with my binoculars for any deer lurking on the woodland margin.
On the cusp between night and day, as dawn started to seep into the cold grey sky, I crept slowly past the edge of a deserted release pen and into a stand of ash and sycamore. The wood had not been properly managed for years and bore the scars of several winters’ gales, with fallen branches and the occasional
uprooted trunk mouldering on the ground beneath the leafless canopy. I had spotted several sets of tracks, but as yet I had seen no animals; still, I had plenty of ground left to stalk, and was in no rush to complete my morning rounds.
Then, from up ahead of me, came a single bark. It sounded a good distance into the wood, and with plenty of obscuring scrub and fallen timber ahead of me, I felt sure that it was not a bark of alarm — an indication that I had been rumbled. Nevertheless, instinctively I froze and dropped slowly to my knees, lifting the binoculars after a short while to search the woodland floor in front.
Bark! There it was again. Bark! Bark! Now the muntjac was barking repeatedly, once every eight or 10 seconds. The note kept changing in volume as the deer moved its head back and forth. I could imagine it walking around in small circles, as I have sometimes seen muntjac do, but the direction was clear enough. I guessed that the deer was no more than 200 yards away, and at each fresh bark my fix on its location became firmer and more refined.
With the wind quartering across my face, I thought it prudent to move slowly to my left. This took me a little further downwind of the sound, just in case the muntjac should take it into its head to change position. My main concern at this point was the density of the ground cover ahead. It might just be possible to stalk in to within 50 yards of where I was now certain my quarry was lurking, but would I ever be able to see it?
Nevertheless, I thought, if there is a time to stalk the woodland floor then it is now, at the end of winter — before even the dog’s mercury has opened its leaves, and while it is still possible to see through many yards of fallen debris with a good pair of binoculars, picking up the tiniest of movements and, hopefully, the grey-brown winter coat of a muntjac.
I crept forward, every sense tuned in to the stalk, locking into the sound of the barking muntjac like the skipper of a destroyer homing in to the Asdic echo of a U-boat. I couldn’t believe my luck — it was as though the creature was talking me in. Every few cautious paces I stopped to search the wood ahead of me until I had halved my initial range. Meanwhile, I had narrowed its location down to a few square yards of bramble and old, mossy tree stumps. Then the music stopped.
Had it seen or heard me? Had it realised the danger that was just a short rifle shot away? I stood and waited for maybe three minutes. It felt an age, but I had seen no flick of a white tail and heard no crashing in the brambles ahead of me that might have signalled its departure. Eventually I moved slowly forwards, checking constantly with the binoculars.
Sighting a buck
Then I saw it — a muntjac buck, and a nice one too. It was just 60 yards ahead, facing me and standing still between a couple of mossy stumps on the woodland floor. Moving with extreme caution, I edged sideways a foot to my left behind a fallen branch, which I hoped would obscure the movement as I slowly slipped the rifle from my shoulder, opened the sticks in front of me and mounted it on top of them. I carefully edged both sticks and rifle back to my right. Would he still be there? Would he have changed position or become obscured? After all, a muntjac buck rarely stands still for anyone.
But yes — he was still there, having turned just a fraction to his left. It was time for an instant decision and there was no prospect of waiting for a better presentation, so I fixed the red dot of my illuminated reticule directly on the front of his chest and squeezed the trigger. A fraction of a second after the hushed report of the .243 had sounded dully through the wood, I heard the reassuring thump of 100-gr of lead and copper striking its target, and watched through the scope as the buck collapsed like a sack of potatoes where he stood.
Walking forward 10 yards, I could see through my binoculars that the buck was lying on the ground. Half a minute later I had confirmed that it was dead. He was a good-sized adult buck that had probably been living in and around these woods for at least six or seven years. This morning, as no doubt on many mornings before, he had set out to patrol his territory, to warn off other bucks and perhaps announce his presence to any available does. Little did he know that his bark would prove his undoing, that it would not be another muntjac which responded to his call, but his mortal enemy: the stalker.
For me, it was far more than just another muntjac in the bag. It was a triumph of tactics and decision-making, an extraordinarily special stalk which, until the final few seconds, had been conducted entirely by ear. As I carried the buck the best part of a mile back to the Land Rover, my feet trod lightly on the wet clay, the cold rain was like a kiss on my face and there was no happier stalker anywhere.