The challenge of midsummer muntjac stalking
When the cover is high, muntjac stalking can be tough, but Jamie Tusting relishes the challenge
Religiously every day, I will take my two spaniels for a half-an-hour walk in a loop from my house. We set off down the track through a wide belt of woodland, reaching a duck pond after 15 minutes, where we make a turn for home and head back across two grass fields. In the corner of the second grass field, just next to the house, there is a stile on the fence line, under which the dogs squeeze. I realised my older spaniel was getting a bit overweight when she could no longer squeeze through the gap; thankfully she’s back to gap-squeezing size now.
By walking the same route every day, I watch the changing of the seasons intimately and see the awakening of the woods and pastures after their winter slumber, moving into the lushness of spring where the green of the forest is at its richest.
Atop the stile, I always look forward to seeing the first of the cherry stones appearing, deposited there by a bird who had happily munched on the cherries produced by the tree at the end of the garden. They appear every year, without fail. Perhaps it is the same bird?
The sight of these cherry stones really marks a change of the seasons and indicates to me that summer is here in earnest. It’s usually just after the summer solstice. It coincides with the hogweed setting seed, which explodes everywhere as you brush past them, and the sticky burrs coating the dogs after every excursion.
All of this dense undergrowth provides the perfect hiding place for the deer, and the summer is a bit of a lull in the annual cycle of stalking seasons. I think perhaps this time of year is often overlooked as a prime stalking period, but for me, summer stalking provides some of the most intense and tricky muntjac stalks you can have, bringing heightened excitement and a sense of reward that I haven’t been able to replicate in winter.
Work with nature
You have to work with nature far more than when the woodland floor is bare and you can see far further. Finding the tracks through the undergrowth, taking your time to really search out the muntjac and taking the opportunities when they present themselves.
While it was a warm evening, a gilet was a welcome extra layer. Rifle over my shoulder and shooting sticks in hand, I set off down the track, the same track I take every day with the dogs. On this occasion, though, the dogs begrudged me for leaving them at home.
It didn’t take long before I came across a muntjac. It was a beautiful buck and it stepped out of the dense greenery just a short distance from where I was. It saw me immediately and bounded disappeared into some bramble.
The track through the wood allowed me to move silently, the leaves from last autumn long since losing their crunch and free of cracking twigs, intent on giving away your position. The woods here are divided quite neatly into different compartments, and the ages and styles of planting are obvious to see. On one side of me stood a 25-year-old plantation in desperate need of thinning, its closed canopy blocking the sunlight from the woodland floor. Here the undergrowth was absent and consequently, with nowhere to hide and nothing to eat, it was devoid of muntjac.
On the other side was a block of woodland at the other end of its life; old beech trees standing resolutely upright, while the neighbours they had grown up with had long since departed. The woodland floor was thick with foliage, cow parsley now groaning under the weight of bindweed and bramble. It was the perfect muntjac hiding place.
A well-worn animal track, presumably deer, meandered its way through the undergrowth and I followed it for a short while, eventually arriving on the edge of a little stream, fed by the same duck pond I walk past daily. In the distance, slowly picking its way through the woods, was a muntjac buck, but with a road not far behind it, my positioning wasn’t great.
Using the shelter of the hollow created by the stream, I crawled as quietly as I could to the right, doing my best to work a better angle. Sitting on the bank of the stream, I settled into a stable position, the rifle resting on my knee. The muntjac had been moving towards an area of thinner undergrowth, and I now overlooked the glade and was ready. The buck arrived on the edge of the clearing, appearing nervous and unsure. Only its front quarter ever appeared from the bushes; it couldn’t be convinced to come out. It slowly disappeared back into the thicket and didn’t show again.
I picked my way back to the track and moved on. It was only a short while later when I saw another muntjac, a doe this time, standing 80 yards from me, framed by two trees on either side. I was lucky to see her; the movement of her head picking up to look at me must have caught my eye. She was staring straight at me and we were both frozen still. One step forwards or back for either of us and I wouldn’t have a shot.
As slowly as I could possibly move, I unslung my rifle and set up the shooting sticks. The muntjac continued to stare at me. Again, in as motionless a manner as I could muster, I cocked the rifle, took aim and squeezed the trigger. My heart was racing at 100 miles an hour and my whole body seemed to be in fight or flight mode. It was one of the most nerve-wracking and intense minutes of my life.
The muntjac had disappeared from view with the recoil and sound of the shot ringing out. I looked for her down the scope, but I couldn’t see anything. I moved up to where she had been and, thankfully, there among some ferns was the doe.
I quickly gralloched it; moments later the flies arrived. I couldn’t believe how many flies there were, swarms of them buzzing all around me and the muntjac, carpeting the innards as I pulled them out on to the ground. One of the downsides of stalking in the warmth of late June.
It would have been a good walk home carrying the rather fat doe, so I hung it in a tree some distance from where it had been shot, and I stuffed it full of bracken, trying to keep the flies away from the flesh. It seemed to do the job and the flies were less interested in trying to fight through the green armour I had provided.
Nevertheless, I set off for home to collect a vehicle. A rustle in the trees and a flash of movement stopped me briefly. A fallow doe, heavily pregnant, was looking rather nervously at me and we watched one another suspiciously for a minute or so. She eventually cantered off, hopped a stock fence and trotted away across the field on the far side of the wood.
It was well past 9pm now, but there was still plenty of light left in the day. It makes a change from the long, dark evenings of winter. As I walked back up the track, retracing my route from earlier, the buck I had seen straight out of the blocks reappeared on the ride. I set up the rifle on the sticks, but I’m not sure I ever had any intention of pulling the trigger. I watched him graze up the ride for a short while, looking majestic, his coat glossy and rich, with his antlers just beginning to grow out. He really was a beauty.
Eventually he saw me and made a quick exit back into the undergrowth. I looked for him through the binoculars for a while, simply wanting to watch him for a
little longer. But there was no sign. I unloaded the rifle, clicked the action, slung it over my shoulder and marched the rest of the way home, the still-warm sun slowly reaching the horizon and finally calling time on that long summer’s day.