Thermal spotters aren’t cheap but often result in more deer being shot, says Will Pocklington
An outing with thermal spotters
It was a cooler blip in that series of headlining scorchers. As I passed the yard at first light, the combine stood grey and bulky on the brushed concrete, ready to grunt into life and tackle the first of the barley after months in hibernation. Over the next few weeks, the deer’s world would change in a big way, field by field.
The roe and muntjac on my local ground have the upper hand come midsummer; high cover means low exposure. So when the farm lads start topping margins, cutting hay and bringing in the harvest, it’s a chance to catch up with the animals that have lived for a while in relative privacy. (Read more on muntjac here.)
A breeze was blowing lazily from the west when I parked the car. It had been a bright night with an almost-full moon. Would the deer have capitalised on it and now be tucked up, out of sight? I was drawn to the open ground on the estate’s western boundary, where square bales sat on a sward of short bleached grass, a strip of young maize poked from a baked-hard seedbed and weedy arable fields with large patches of bare earth sprawled away from a single belt of woodland. I was hoping to see a particular roebuck that, in an ideal world, wouldn’t partake in the upcoming rut.
Joining my usual kit was a Pulsar Helion 2 XP50 thermal spotter that I’d borrowed from my brother. It is an occasional luxury with which I have a love-hate relationship. It’s an extra item when trying to travel light, but does it earn its keep? Thermal spotters certainly speed things up — but 300 yards into the planned route, I was reminded that sometimes they move you along too quickly.
Just at the bottom of the first field, by the brook, a fox jogged into view. I wonder now if I’d have stopped him in time, had I not been hastily scanning a hedgerow 400 yards away in the Pulsar’s ‘hot white’ mode. Binoculars force you to slow down and search for the subtle telltale signs — a horizontal line, a patch of rich chestnut, the flick of an ear, the twist of an antler — so I made a conscious effort to use them more after the initial scan of each new vista with the fancier kit. (Read our list of best binoculars for hunting.)
Hares bobbed in and out of the woody stalks of oilseed rape as I padded along the remainder of the first headland. Twice I stepped around badger-made booby traps, as wasps worked feverishly to restore order in their pillaged nests. Step by step, a better view opened up before me as I climbed uphill towards a belt of young trees. One field was fenced in for cattle; the other two offered more hope of yielding something suitable for the chiller.
The hunched ginger back of a muntjac was immediately visible, stark in the early sun — no optics required. I crouched instinctively, placed the sticks and spotter to one side and shuffled to the brow of a grass track that offered a place to get settled behind the rifle prone.
I could just make out it was a buck as it weaved through clumps of sow thistles and charlock, none the wiser as I unfolded the bipod legs and followed its gait with the reticle. On reaching the next gap, he fell when my Hornady round hit his shoulder.
If I’d used one of the thermal spotters, I’d have realised the buck wasn’t alone. Beyond him in the patchy green abyss came a doe — now visible, clearly spooked and confused by the rifle’s report. She didn’t stop but disappeared among a tangle of hazel in the woodland edge.
In the space of 15 minutes, I’d gone from questioning the need to bring thermal spotters along with me to wishing I’d used it one final time. And that just about sums up my ongoing indecision as to the value of such equipment.
I often wonder how many deer I walk past or fail to spot during an outing. Would success rates improve if I used a thermal all the time? Would my stalking skills suffer? Would it take away from the purity of it all? On different days I will always have different answers.
I’m not averse to technology and moving with the times; you could argue thermal imagers rub shoulders with trail cams, quadsticks and Gore-Tex clothing — they all have their place. But these things come at a cost, so I like to make sure that I genuinely need them.
A few days later I was out again on a different part of the estate, in the final hour of daylight this time and overlooking a rough block of set-aside often favoured by roe. As the light began to fail I yearned for the borrowed thermal, which I’d since returned. Meticulously scanning two acres of grass, wild oats and docks that have gone to seed takes minutes that you don’t have. Sure enough, by the time I’d picked up a shape through the binoculars that was definitely moving — a deer and male — dusk had engulfed it.
If I were under more pressure — high densities of deer, high-value crops and a hard-to-achieve cull plan — I’d see a thermal spotter as an invaluable investment. No question.
But being away from a screen and anything digital is all part of the allure of stalking for me. Call me sentimental but, eye-strain issues aside, does gadgetry not jar a little with the escapism offered by dawn choruses, undisturbed landscapes and close encounters with wildlife? Perhaps it comes down to knowing when, where and how to use such technology, and understanding its limitations.
The means to see in darkness is useful when stalking into a high seat before first light. The ability to spot heat signatures and gain a few seconds to prepare before the quarry presents itself can also be the difference between a deer in the larder and a missed opportunity, particularly where mobile species such as muntjac are concerned.
Thermal units do not help you gain ground on a deer or get into a suitable shooting position, though, and the extra kit might be a hindrance. Wind, concealment and careful, selective movements remain key. And normal binos are still required to examine the animal in question before committing to a shot.
After the shot, when following up and finding deer, there’s an ethical and practical advantage offered by this technology that can’t be ignored. Granted, it cannot penetrate thick vegetation in X-ray fashion, but it is possible to spot animals — dead or wounded — that would otherwise be difficult to see in light or broken cover. Can you put a price on that?
In the case of a misplaced shot, there is less chance of bumping the quarry if it can be seen and approached carefully from a distance — an edge not always offered by a dog. A blood trail can only be followed with a thermal imager if still warm, however, which leaves a short time window that most will sensibly it out if they suspect the shot hasn’t found its mark.
There are, of course, other benefits offered by thermal spotters and, for many, these may tip the scales of favour. It has been a game-changer in fox control, useful for population counts or learning more about nocturnal activity — think roosting sites of wild partridges. And pretty handy for spotting people in places where they shouldn’t be, be they members of the public who have strayed from a right of way or those with more sinister intentions.
Ultimately it’s a case of carefully assessing the benefits of such gear in light of your own circumstances, and deciding if it makes sense for you. You can’t escape its hefty price tag, but you can weigh up the pros and cons and, where it’s a goer, make a real effort to balance the frequency and nature of its use so not to take away from the experience many of us yearn for. Me? I’m still undecided about thermal spotters.
Editor’s picks of thermal spotters
Combining a high-resolution HD LCOS display, a well-balanced, ergonomic design and 0.5x zoom, the DTI 3/35 is the perfect tool for stalking in challenging conditions. It’s fully integrated within the Zeiss Hunting App, meaning you can download, livestream and share your videos and images.
Pulsar Helion 2 PRO XP50
The Helion provides unprecedented thermal sensitivity, meaning the smallest temperature differences will be clearly visible even during the most difficult conditions. With 2x to 20x variable magnification, a standard 1.8m-tall object can be detected up to 1.8km away in complete darkness.
Swarovski tM 35
The tM 35 can function as a handheld thermal imager and a riflescope clip-on device. Depending on the stalking situation, detail recognition can be enhanced by switching between ‘white hot’ and ‘black hot’ mode. The tM 35 is compatible with a range of Swarovski riflescopes.
InfiRay Finder FH35R LRF
The FH35R LRF pairs a 640×512 12-micron sensor with an integrated laser rangefinder. With the cold hue setting users enjoy visually clearer images with rich details and highlight targets; the warm hue generates softer images to prevent visual fatigue during extended use.
Leica Calonox View
The Leica’s 2.5x basic optical magnification provides a large field of view, ideal for observations in the immediate vicinity. Using digital zoom up to 10x magnification — in combination with a 1280×960 pixel LCOS display and Leica’s own image processing — quarry is easily identified.