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View from on high

A few months ago I was sitting in a high seat somewhere in Norfolk waiting for a muntjac or fallow to show. The seat was a wonderfully solid free-standing affair built from treated wood, with a proper floor and skirted with camouflage netting. It placed me a good 12ft above the ground, with clear views out to about 150 yards on either side, covering a well-maintained feed ride with grain hoppers sited every 50 yards or so. The evening took on a slightly surreal turn as I realised that it was not pheasants coming to the feeders, but duck — dozens of mallard flighting in to take advantage of the grain. As I watched, one of the biggest rats I have ever seen took over one of the feed hoppers, seeing off two other rats and a rabbit twice its size before facing down a mallard drake.

A heavy thump startled me into turning round, to find myself face-to-face with a very large peahen perched clumsily on the shooting rail. I’m not sure which of us was the more alarmed, but she launched off awkwardly, brushing my face with a wing tip and leaving me, heart thumping, to await whatever other surprises the evening might bring.

It all started me thinking about some of the other high seats that I have experienced over the years. Some have slid out of my memory, but others, for a variety of reasons, have etched themselves indelibly on it. When perched still and quiet at branch level you experience any number of close encounters with wildlife — I’ve had a woodpigeon settle briefly on the rifle barrel, a kingfisher on the shooting rail a few feet from my face, and angry squirrels chittering at the unidentified object invading their territory. One barn owl took up residence in a German-style box seat on my patch — always delightful to see, but a distinct shock to a visiting stalker who hadn’t been warned to leave space for it to exit past his shoulder when climbing in through the trapdoor base.

Caught in the act
I’ve often been told that deer don’t look up. That’s not entirely true, but I’ve found that humans are much less aware of what is going on above head height. Perhaps our more evolved senses have been dulled to the threat of predators approaching from above. Thinking themselves unobserved, people can get up to all kinds of things. Reports persist of the naked Surrey jogger who has been spotted by several people over the past few years, and occasionally a discreet cough can be necessary to warn people that somebody is watching their antics from on high…

Years ago I was sitting overlooking the edge of a Hampshire wood one warm summer’s evening, waiting for a roebuck to appear. After a short while, a rather large lady accompanied by an even larger Labrador suddenly appeared from the woodline to my right and made her way out across the meadow in front of me. As I was a guest and not really sure who she was or whether she had a right to be there, I decided to sit tight and let her make her way over the hill. After all, it was at least an hour until last light and the area would quickly settle down again after the two of them had gone. From where she was, some 60 yards or so away from me, I could hear that she was singing to herself. Obviously convinced that she was alone, the volume of the song grew and she began to dance, skipping erratically in circles. I was reminded of the old posters showing a dancing fisherman resplendent in sou’wester and sea boots telling the reader that “Skegness is so bracing”. The Labrador, with an obvious appreciation of the occasion, bounced enthusiastically around her.

What to do? Declare my presence and embarrass her or let her get on with her celebration of the evening and depart none the wiser that she had been observed? I sat as still as I could, willing her to go. Suddenly she completed a circle and came to an abrupt halt, staring in my direction. I could make out her face, flushed with exertion, peering up the rungs of the high seat and on to me. She moved in closer, looking up with a dawning, horrified look of realisation, and finally spoke.
“Are you real?” she gasped.
“I’m afraid so,” I replied. Not another word was exchanged
and the poor woman fled.

There have been some truly worrying experiences as well. One seat, built more in hope than judgement against a rather thin poplar, swayed so badly in the light wind that I spent the first hour in it terrified. The terror later gave way to a feeling of seasickness. It’s a good job that no deer showed itself that morning — I couldn’t have taken a shot even if I’d felt the platform was steady enough. It was a huge relief to climb down at the end, despite the fact that the prospect of a fried breakfast at the farmhouse was no longer quite as appealing as it had been earlier.

I remember also being shown to another seat, made of larch poles fixed crudely together with 6in nails and propped against a tree, with no attempt at any kind of reinforcement or wiring. I pointed out that one of the bottom ladder rungs was broken. “You’ll be all right,” my host reassured me, “just try not to put your weight in the centre when you climb up.” Too young and foolish to disagree, I had visions of a Buster Keaton-style descent, with rung after rung snapping beneath me, as I made my nervous way to the top.

Home comforts
An impressive newly constructed box seat (imagine a small cabin on stilts) was to be my home for another sit out. The owner was certainly proud of it. “It’ll last for ever,” he said, patting one of the supporting telegraph poles. It was certainly a pleasure to be in, roomy and warm on a cold February day. You could have got half-a-dozen people in there comfortably, the seats were cushioned, a rifle rack stood against the wall and there were even holders provided for Thermos flasks and lunch boxes. I joked about it just needing a television and microwave. “Working on it, mate, working on it,” I was told cheerfully. I spent a very enjoyable few hours in this paragon, shooting two does which were gralloched on the crossbar provided for that purpose suspended between two supports.

We swapped locations for the following morning’s stalk. I went to sit on the other side of the estate and the other guest was directed to the box seat. It must have been a bit blowy overnight. All he found was the four support poles, still concreted firmly vertical and supporting a bare platform, surrounded by the sad scattered remains of the rest of the box. I think that it’s been left that way ever since.

It’s not all bad though. A fondly remembered high seat session takes me back to Norfolk, this time in a lean-to seat against a lone tree overlooking a grassy bowl. I can’t remember a thing about the seat itself, which means that at least it must have been safe. What I can remember, though, is that it was a good year for wild raspberries and I had cut a couple of canes which were hooked over a branch to provide sustenance through the vigil. My pocket radio provided me with a Blondie concert through a single earpiece as an unnecessary but enjoyable distraction.

The evening was still and warm, and to top it off there was no shortage of deer. As I enjoyed the berries, I could see two sets of roe does with twin kids feeding away to either side of me, the kids occasionally bursting into games of chase or kicking out with their hind legs and running around in circles for no better reason than the sheer joy of it. A roebuck, far too good to shoot, wandered in from one side and couched in full view only a few yards from where I was sitting. I didn’t have my camera with me, but it didn’t really matter — it was good just to be there and watch. In the near distance, a huge Norfolk red stag made a brief appearance on the woodline before ghosting out of sight, and I could have sworn that I saw a Chinese water deer picking its way unobtrusively through the long grass. A small herd of fallow does, dappled in their summer coats, completed the picture in the far fields. All I needed now was the muntjac I had come for.

There are times when it seems as though there’s nothing better than sitting and watching the world go about its business around you. As the Blondie concert came to an end and the final bars of Heart of Glass faded away, the light was finally beginning to fail and, as if on cue, a big muntjac buck stepped out of the trees to one side of me. It was almost with reluctance that I added him to the cull, as it seemed a shame to bring such a perfect evening to a close.