British deer: Where to find them and how to stalk them.
For a small island, Britain has huge variety in its landscapes, habitats and wildlife. Compared with most of our European neighbours we have a wealth of sporting species, and that is as true for the deer stalker as for any other shooting enthusiast. As well as our native red and roe deer we have not just fallow – an honorary native that’s been with us for 1,000 years – but the more recently introduced sika, Chinese water deer and muntjac, all of which mark this country out as one of the top international stalking destinations. Each species offers its own challenge and takes us to wonderful places; from the wild Scottish hill and ancient woodlands of southern England to the Dorset heaths and secretive marshes of East Anglia.
Red deer in the Highlands
Where else to start a tour of British stalking but in the Scottish Highlands? Hill stalking was born here, and the region is still – thanks to the professionalism surrounding the sport here – seen as the number one stalking destination. This view is held not just by sportsmen from both sides of the border, but by hunters worldwide.
Red deer stalking is to be found and enjoyed in the south-west and Highland Scotland, but the classic deer forests are situated throughout the central and western Highlands. It’s here that deer, rather than grouse, usually represent the primary sporting interest. Properties in Perthshire and the southern Highlands are easily accessible, making a stalking visit of even just a day or two a practical proposition, with the Trossachs and southern Grampians providing particularly scenic stalking.
Many estates are bringing back the tradition of using ponies to carry beasts off the hill.
Here, the juxtaposition of peaks such as Ben Lawers and the mighty Schiehallion soaring above forested glens provides a feast for the senses. Glenlyon is a base for wonderful sporting opportunity, while east of the A9, Atholl Estates remains one of the classic stalking venues, encompassing over 100,000 acres divided into five separate beats, together taking some 350 stags a season. A little further north, the Cairngorms provide yet more spectacular stalking. There is tough hill climbing on estates like Gaick, with steep slopes that suddenly open out into a high plateau where you can truly feel on top of the world.
Travel west towards the Great Glen into Inverness-shire and the hill becomes noticeably wilder and more remote. South of Loch Laggan, Ardverikie’s 45,000 acres provides three beats of exceptional stalking, marching to the west with equally famous Corrour and its views down into Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. On the west coast the stalker is spoilt for choice, but one special gem is Ardnamurchan, the furthest point west on the British mainland and an estate noted for the huge bodyweight of its stags, a result of the fertile volcanic geology of the district.
The prime weeks in Scotland are throughout September and October during the rut, when the hill resounds to the roar of the stags as they battle for possession of their harems. Stalking may be let by week along with traditional lodge accommodation, or by the individual stag, and many estates have revived the attractive tradition of bringing beasts off the hill on ponies. When the stag season closes in the third week of October, attention turns to the hinds. These are usually let by the day, often with an expectation of two or more beasts per rifle. Weather conditions in late autumn may be more challenging, but the stalking is just as exciting and still offers particularly good value for money.
First brought to the UK in 1860, Scottish sika have rapidly expanded their range throughout Argyll, northwards from Inverness to Sutherland and eastwards into Aberdeenshire, with a further colony in Peebles that has extended eastwards across the Scottish borders. In the far north-west of Scotland they are creatures of the dark and dense coniferous forest and have thrived in response to the creation of perfect habitat via afforestation since the 1980s.
Sutherland does not have the tall peaks of the Highlands. Instead it is a region of low hills and lochs, of poor quality rough grazing interspersed with huge tracts of commercial forest. It is hard, tough, remote country, but it is a great place for sika and supports a plentiful population including many good quality stags.
Sika, native to East Asia, are rapidly expanding their range – particularly in Scotland – as a result of afforestation.
Unlike the pursuit of red deer on the open hill, sika stalking takes place mostly at dawn and dusk, when the animals move between the different forest blocks or show themselves among the tawny orange grasses and multicoloured mosses along the burnside between the forest plantings. It is a game of stealth that calls for great care on the part of the stalker, not to mention a good slice of luck. Alternatively, most forests have a number of strategically placed high seats or towers commanding a view over two or more forest rides. Rosehall Estate, overlooking Strath Oykel, was where sika first started to populate this part of northern Scotland and it is a good place to find this species today. There is still a plentiful population here, inhabiting the large forest blocks with which the area is now planted.
Stalking in England’s ancient southern forests
Travelling to the far north of Scotland is a long journey for most stalkers, and an alternative is to head south to the south-west coast of England. In Dorset is a flourishing sika population that derives from deer that escaped from introductions to Brownsea Island and Hyde House Park, Wareham in the 1890s. Today they offer attractive stalking opportunities.
More usually associated with the forests of southern England, however, are magnificent fallow. Established here to provide sport for Norman royalty and aristocracy, fallow deer have their heartland south of a line from the Bristol Channel to Cambridge, though they are present throughout the East Midlands, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
The forests and chases of the south-including such historic areas as Cranborne Chase, the New Forest and Ashdown Forest – are classic fallow country. Oak, birch and open heathland transforms further east in the Weald of Sussex into a hilly patchwork of ancient woods of oak, ash and beech, intersected with small pastures and arable fields that provide rich feeding for the fallow herds.
Fallow deer have been an honorary native of these shores for more than 1,000 years.
Fallow are inextricably involved with the history of the New Forest, where sporting tradition goes back a thousand years, and in the Verderers Court at Lyndhurst the fallow heads hanging on the walls are a reminder of the forest’s origins as a Royal hunting ground.
Very often the fallow herds are associated with one of the ancient deer parks attached to some great house or estate, as on the Leconfield Estate at Petworth. Here, the deer park designed by Capability Brown has a splendid population of fallow used both to establish new deer parks and to improve existing bloodlines in many different countries. The estate runs to 14,000 acres and offers high quality professionally guided stalking. A further notable centre for fallow is Epping Forest to the north-east of London, from where the deer herds have spread out into the wooded Essex countryside.
There is excellent sport to be had in winter during the roe doe cull.
The south of England, and especially the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset have long been associated with high quality roe stalking. After the species died out in southern England in the Middle Ages, roe were re-established at Milton Abbas in Dorset in the early 1800s and have spread out from there to colonise the whole of the south and south-west of England. A further introduction was made near Thetford in 1884, which became the foundation of the east of England’s roe population. It is an adaptable species and while they may prefer small, mixed woodlands, they are perfectly at home in larger coniferous forests. Spring is the prime season for roebuck, the best and largest of which will normally be in hard antler by the opening of the buck season on April 1.
Dawn and dusk are often the ideal times of day for stalking, both functionally and aesthetically.
There are few things as delightful as early morning stalking in the spring woodlands of southern England, the birdsong starting as the first glimmer of light shows in the eastern sky and rising to a crescendo as dawn breaks. Dew is heavy on the grass and in the old coppice hazel woodlands, the bursting of the bright emerald leaf buds, the green carpet of dog’s mercury and the sweet smell of bluebells signals that summer is not far away. Perhaps you will stalk out of the woods and along the hedgerows, where conservation field margins and wild bird cover crops established under environmental stewardship schemes have given a huge boost to the habitat for roe and other deer species. Most stalking estates take their prime bucks in April, when the woodland understorey is still sufficiently open to see through, and the bucks are busy establishing or re-establishing their territories.
Alternatively, good bucks can be taken during the rut in late July, while there is also excellent sport to be had in winter during the all-important doe cull.
Sport in eastern England
Over the past half century, East Anglia has become a stronghold for five out of our six deer species. Establishment of Thetford Forest in the 1920s provided a foothold from which red, roe and muntjac could spread into the adjoining countryside, while in the south of the region, fallow spread from Essex into the wooded estates of south Suffolk.
Thetford Forest and the light, sandy heathlands of the Norfolk and Suffolk brecks are still as good a place as any to find first-class stalking in the east of England. The Forestry Commission itself offers a limited amount of guided stalking, while BASC members can enjoy roe and muntjac stalking under the guidance of experienced professionals on ground leased under the association’s deer stalking scheme at Kings Forest near Thetford. Both hunting on foot and high-seat shooting are possible, and there are few better places in which a newcomer to the sport can experience the thrill of woodland stalking for the first time.
The Chinese water deer is a secretive species most often found in habitat that closely matches that of their native country.
A few miles to the south is the 10,000-acre Euston estate, which has large populations of roe, muntjac and red deer; the latter being of exceptional quality. The deer are managed both to keep the herds in good order and to control damage to the estate’s productive farmland. Red and roe in particular are managed with trophy quality in mind, and Euston is noted for its CIC medal quality heads. Stalking here is focused upon the large ancient woodlands at the heart of the estate, and is well organised by Euston’s professional stalking staff.
Steadily expanding its range in East Anglia is another new arrival, the Chinese water deer (CWD). Well-established in Cambridgeshire and the broads of Norfolk and Suffolk, it is increasing its range both in the Suffolk river valleys and out across the neighbouring farmland. Stalking Chinese water deer in the Broads is a unique experience. This secretive species is usually found in the tangled alder carrs and the reed beds, which closely match the habitat in its native country. Waiting in the misty dawn for one of these small deer to creep out into the open, or stalking around the fringes of the marsh, where the quaking reed rise up into the arable countryside, is something every stalker should add to his or her list of ‘must do’ hunts.
Chinese water deer spread initially from the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn estate, and the adjoining Beckerings Park today specialises in stalking this species. There is a big CWD population on the property, including many gold and silver trophies, and stalking there is conducted both on foot and from high seats.
The Midlands and North of England
Muntjac may have a reputation as a pest, but to the experienced stalker they represent a rewarding quarry that is always on the move and demands concentration, plus decisive and accurate shooting. Most challenging is stalking on foot early in the morning or at last light, and it is particularly satisfying to take a good animal with a standing shot off the sticks that you have perhaps spotted only seconds before. High-seat shooting can be equally rewarding and productive, and is perhaps a better choice for those tackling this species for the first time.
Muntjac are small and always on the go – a quarry that demands plenty of concentration and accurate shooting.
Widespread throughout the south and east of England, muntjac can be stalked in a wide variety of locations, but the Midlands consistently produces good quality animals. Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire has a strong muntjac population and Cornbury Park on the edge of the forest offers good stalking both for this species and for fallow deer.
A little further south, Hungerford Park in Berkshire is a good venue for similar sport. With year-round breeding and no close season, muntjac may be stalked in any month, but their small size makes them difficult to spot once the grass and ground cover has grown up during the summer, and from early autumn to late spring is the best time to hunt them.
The north of England is noted for our native deer species. Some exceptional medal red stags have been recorded recently in Yorkshire, a county that also holds fine fallow populations. The roe in this part of the UK can claim to be truly home grown, having derived from native stock that spread from the Scottish borders and south of Hadrian’s Wall; the vast forests of Northumberland and Cumbria are a roe stalker’s paradise. Northumberland in particular is so often overlooked by field sportsmen intent in their haste to travel across the border to Scotland. Yet here, in Kielder and Wark forests and the gorgeous, relaxed countryside of the Northumberland National Park, is roe stalking to rival that which you will find anywhere.