A life-long hunter writes ....
Lying in the last bit of long heather, waiting for a stag to show itself, the headstalker turned his head and commented: “Why are two grown men playing at like this?”
Rain or gales make no difference
You might well ask. Are we enjoying ourselves? Not if it’s blowing half a gale with sleet in it. Are we short of food? There is a very capable cook, busy at the Lodge. Are we just bloodthirsty villains? That depends on your point of view. All I know is that I have been at it all my life.
There?s no doubt I was born a hunter, and I will continue to be one until I?m laid out with the bag in front of the Heavenly Gates. First it was butterflies and moths, then, I blush to admit, it was stalking small birds with an airgun so inaccurate that they had every chance. Graduating to a .22, bunnies and young rooks, or branchers in May provided the finest school for careful, accurate shooting. It was out rook shooting I first saw and lusted after a scope sight. You shot into solid ground or, in those days, right into the air. In that case nobody bothered much about where the slug eventually fell. If I was keen, I suppose I was lucky, too.
A move to Devon offered the slimmest chance of big game in the form of the newly arrived roe. These I pursued relentlessly and in total ignorance of how to go about it. How desperately I wanted to shoot one! That was the bloodlust of youth. At the end of four years, I got one ? a good buck, too. By the luckiest chance, the event got me in touch with the artist and big-game hunter Frank Wallace. Keen stalker though he was, he loved the roe deer in particular and this affection soon infused my whole attitude to stalking.
Learning while stalking
One longed for a successful shot, but in studying deer habits to get better results, one learned by degrees to appreciate the roe deer?s graceful form and admire the way they somehow led an ordered life, one skillfully adapted to fit around the daily routine of their principal enemy, man.
Though roe were thin on the ground around my home in those days, the scenery was superb and with a love of stalking came also growing admiration for our rural landscape in all its beauty in the changing seasons. The spring buck season, coming at the loveliest time of year, led one to long for the spotted woodpecker?s first drum-roll, the first delicate windflowers, the amazing carpet of bluebells. These days, I feel as Frank Wallace did about the Highlands (and the Dorset woods, too, in my case) when he wrote, How my heart aches for it, now that its loveliness is out of reach. Now my ultimate pleasure is to stalk a trout in clear water.
It?s an unfortunate fact that still hunting demands absolute concentration on the job in hand and so one misses much which would be there to enjoy ? birdsong in particular. We did a programme on stalking with Jack Charlton which some may remember. My mind was on the job, and I dare say Jack?s was, too. It was only afterwards, when the sound engineer played back two hours of tape, that the sheer volume of birdsong could be heard. As he said, ?It?s like five of Ludwig Koch?s best recordings superimposed on one another!? All I remember at the time was a pheasant crowing. That?s one great advantage of using a high seat ? you can relax and actually hear what is going on around you.
A good buck
Of course there was intense excitement in getting a chance at a good buck, and some fine trophies came to me, many more to my guests. The heaviest-scoring buck that I shot myself lacked any drama, except for the hazards of taking a shot on a livestock farm when visibility in the fog was 50m.
Trying to get deer better treated meant that they had to be valued and the only way to do this was by letting stalking. Paying guests can be fun or nerve-wracking. Many of my clients have become good friends. One gave me severe conniptions when I realised he had been walking behind me all evening with a loaded rifle with the hair trigger set, not knowing how to unset it. After that they always walked in front!
One of the largest trophies taken by a guest made something of a story. He was a terribly nice chap but suffered from the most appalling buck fever. The whole high seat shook at the sight of anything with six points. I admired him for refusing to shoot while in this state, but after 10 days of it, I was desperate. Eventually I spotted this monster out in a cornfield, but in range of the wood where we were. We had a little charade: ?There?s a small buck out there, just pop it off for me please?? We advanced a bit, then I said, ?Don?t show yourself, but walk up to that big oak tree, poke your barrel round it and fire as soon as you see the target.?
That worked like a charm. The shot went off, the buck fell. When my guest walked up and saw what he had shot, emotion took hold and he wept like a crocodile. It scored about 160 points, as I remember. He deserved it for not shooting when fevered. Many can?t.
Inevitably, most of my own heart-stopping moments happened in the early days before deerstalking became culling. I detest that word ? it makes it sound as if we work in some open-air abattoir.
The trophies to keep
When moving to a smaller house made a clear-out necessary, I kept three of my trophies ? the Scottish/Wiltshire head, because it?s the biggest; a pretty six-pointer that came at the end of much work on a bit of woodland I once rented ?for four pounds a year, and a pint of cider when you see my brother?; the shield is still labelled ?Radish Great Buck? and a lovely head with long brows and the curling tops which usually indicate old age.
I seem to remember more the many occasions when I have made a fool of myself. One stands out. We had shot a stag at Glenfeshie and were loading the pony. What should appear but one of the hill roebucks ? they always used their eyesight more than woodland-dwellers. There was a chorus: ?You are the roe man ? show us how it is done!? Off I went, in full sight of the audience, did a classic stalk into a good range ? and missed it. Laughter, they tell us, is healthful. If so, the party were all the better for my exhibition. It is best to act the steely nerved White Hunter and take guests out. They always feel, in contrast to their own performance, that one would stalk noiselessly and shoot with uncanny accuracy.
Fortunately, you never have to prove it. Parading around the country with a deer rifle carries its own responsibility. Looking back, I have let off a few shots when certainly it would have been better to hold back. At the end of a lifetime of shooting, when I surrendered my precious firearms certificate I found myself saying, ?My boy ? you?ve got away with it!?