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Stalking in the rut

Nothing stirred in the woodland clearing, save for a busy jay that flitted downfrom a beech tree to snaffle an invertebrate for its brood of chicks. Stalker Simon Freedman had been. scanning the woodland clearing from the high seat for the past half-hour with his binoculars, but not even a doe had wandered out to browse in the sultry evening air. The mercury had reached 30°C during the day, to date the hottest of the year. It was likely that the deer had bedded down during the June heat, waiting for the temperature to drop in the shade of the trees outside the clearing.

“There will be deer nearby, don’t you worry about that,” whispered Simon. “Just as they say you are never more than a few yards from a rat in London, you are rarely more than 100 yards from a deer in these woods. You wait and see.” A train rattled past on the other side of the wood, taking commuters home to Newbury, in Berkshire, and disturbing the chorus of songbirds. We instinctively looked over in its direction. As our gaze returned to the clearing, ST photographer Paul Quagliana’s hawk-like eyes spotted a roebuck not 40 yards to our left. It seemed to have appeared from the ether. A dig in the ribs alerted the stalker.

Simon had glassed the area 30 times and seen nothing, yet now we could see the young buck with the naked eye. Though it was nearly 8pm, we were only a fortnight from the longest day, so the sun still streamed through the canopy of the beech, oak and ash, putting the hazel hue of the buck’s summer coat in its best light. The deer shivered, perhaps bothered by an insect or shaking off dust from its woodland couch. Its graceful ears pricked for a moment, before it returned to the important task of browsing a bramble clump. Simon waited until the buck’s head and eyes were occupied with feeding, then he shifted his Wetherby .243 on to the wooden rail of the high seat.

New challenges

Nearing his 50th birthday, Simon has lived and breathed deerstalking for the past 25 years. He tired of pheasant shooting in his mid-twenties and looked for a new sporting challenge. When the keeper on a nearby estate took him out to stalk his first deer, he realised he had found it. Within a year he was guiding clients himself.

“It snowballed from there,” he had explained earlier, as we drank cups of tea while waiting for the evening to cool. We were sitting outside the sagging caravan that acts as Simon’s stalking HQ and provides him with a place to relax after a week in the office. “I was working shifts as an engineer when I started stalking, four days on, four days off, so I had plenty of time to develop my field skills. One day, I made my own high seat because I couldn’t afford to buy one. A Scottish stalker saw it and asked whether I could make six for him. Soon, I was battling to keep up with orders.”

Borrowing the name of the muntjac, a favourite quarry in Simon’s native Buckinghamshire, the Reeves High Seat was born. The Reeves Kennel soon followed, though Simon has since sold off that side of the company. “Almost before I knew what was happening, I was working full time on the business. We began selling equipment to fellow deerstalkers, from rifles to optics and clothing — all the different gear that I found useful when stalking myself. It has been quite an adventure.”

Patience pays

With the rut a month or so away, Simon finds that customers are already buying equipment from him. As the sun began eyeing up the southern hemisphere, we travelled to a corner of the estate where Simon often calls in a buck come late July. It was another clearing, where the forester had planted the next generation of trees. Young bracken acted like filter lamps, radiating a soft-green light across the woodland floor, while foxgloves added a dash of colour. Simon stood with his rifl e against an overturned horse chestnut and explained how a typical encounter with a rutting buck unfolds.

“I pretty much know that whenever I come to this part of the estate I will see deer,” he said. “They might be just outside the trees in the corn fields, where I could be forced to take a neck shot, as that’s all you can see, though I always take a lung/heart shot if possible. There is every chance it will have been watching me as I approach, especially in this thick cover. So I take up position, either at the base of this tree or in the high seat, and wait for 20 minutes until everything settles down again. You should never try to force the pace.”

Unlike most woodland stalking, which is conducted at first or last light, Simon believes the hunter stands as good a chance in the middle of the day against a rutting buck. “During the rut they are often active throughout the day,” he explained. “So there’s no need to get up so early.”

Frequently it is a doe that turns up first. This can be a better aid to stalking than any man-made gadget. “If I see a doe wander across the clearing, then it is often simply a case of lining up the rifle to where she has come from. Before long, a buck will trot up behind her and I’m ready. No need to call.”

If the going is slow, three short, sharp peeps on his Buttolo call are often all that is needed to get things moving. “No more than three, and I don’t tend to repeat the sequence for another 20 minutes or so. You can quickly overdo it. Be wary of using a call at other times of the year, as the deer soon get used to it. There are all sorts of noises to imitate, such as a mating doe or an alarmed fawn, but sometimes you can make it too complicated. When the bucks are at their most active, almost any noise will bring them in. I knew one old keeper who used the squeaky part from a teddy bear.”

A bright-blue dragonfly careered across the clearing, struggling to control its tail, like a helicopter entering a spin. Simon stripped back some of the fresh shoots from the chestnut to give himself a firing platform for the next time he came here.

“Once you spot a buck, patience is important,” he said. “The buck might charge in at you, leaving only four or five seconds for the shot, but you have to wait for the right moment to take a humane and safe shot. There is always more time than you think, while you might get a better opportunity for a broadside shot later on. If you stay relaxed, it will all take care of itself.”

A stalking success

Back in the high seat, Simon went into autopilot, repeating a procedure he had got down to a fine art. He brought the crosshairs of his Schmidt & Bender scope down on to the shoulder of the buck and gently squeezed the trigger.

The thwack of the Geco 105-grain bullet hitting home was drowned out by the muffled crack through the moderator, but the reaction of the buck told the story. It leaped up in the air before lunging forward towards the light of the pasture outside the wood. It stopped in the field and there was a brief moment when it looked as if it would run again, before it slumped down, dead. The bullet had passed through the lungs, leaving a trail of pink residue for 80 yards between the point of impact and where the deer now lay.

The action had taken less than 20 seconds from spotting to culling. Simon quickly gralloched the buck. “That was the ideal buck to take out at this time of year,” he said. “It was in prime condition for the gamedealer and too small to make an impression during the rut.” Then he dragged the deer back across the field, leaving clouds of pollen behind like exhaust fumes.

Shooting Times would like to thank Englefield estate for its help with this article. For more information, visit