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Thermal binoculars: they get the job done

Thermal binoculars may take away some of the romance but when it comes to cull targets they really get the job done, says Jamie Tusting

using thermal binoculars

Jamie Tusting uses Night Vision Binoculars to his advantage during a morning stalk on the Burleigh estate

Thermal binoculars make a difference

When I first started stalking in earnest a few years ago, I was rather wrapped up in the romance of it. Striking out on an adventure, rifle slung over one shoulder, binoculars around my neck and a rucksack containing a flask of coffee and some food. Sometimes I’d even park my car further out from the land over which I was to shoot, simply to gain a bigger sense of intrepidness.

However, it was fair to say that my return rate was not as good as it could have been, perhaps only bearing fruit one in four or five outings. It was good fun, though. (Read our guide to the best stalking kit for winter .)

Thermal binoculars

The Pulsar Merger thermal binoculars come into their own in the early morning

Below target

My romantic ideal of stalking was brought down to earth after a brief but to-the-point meeting with the Forestry Commission. In short, we were well below the targeted cull numbers across the estate and, despite there being several stalkers across the place, our annual return of around 100 deer was a mere third of what we were being asked to do.

So it was that I strapped in and agreed to try to be more clinical about the whole process. Shortly thereafter, a brand new set of Pulsar Merger thermal binoculars arrived in the post. Once I charged the batteries, I went outside into the night, sending the dogs out just to watch them work in crystal-clear thermal clarity. I knew at once it was going to be a serious weapon in the armoury.

It took me a few outings to really work out how to deploy the thermal with the greatest impact. I had a few successes finding deer in woodlands but perhaps this was more by luck than by design. Heading out early in the morning seemed to be when the thermal binoculars had the highest hit rate.

rifle shooting

Jamie cocks the rifle, ready to take the shot

Before sunrise

Being out and about in plenty of time before sunrise allowed me to cover a large acreage very quickly, finding where the deer were feeding out on open farmland then getting myself in the right position to intercept them on their way back to a woodland.

This was the case on a morning at the end of January and, although I had misjudged the time of sunrise and the light had cracked the horizon by the time I was out and about, it didn’t take long to find some fallow deer. Switching off my headlights as I pulled into a lay-by, I quietly hopped out and scanned the side of a hill scattered with woodland and open arable land.

About 800m away I could see the little white dots of a fallow herd, strung out as they crossed a field towards a copse. The wind wasn’t in an ideal direction and I pushed on to see what else was about. Parking in another lay-by, I fumbled my way through a small belt of trees and levelled the thermal binoculars on to the fields in front of me. Five or six groups of fallow, interspersed with several large hares, were spread across the 100 or so acres I could see from my sentry post.

One group in particular caught my eye, grazing on a small grass field not far from a quarry haul road. They were straight downwind of me, about half a kilometre away, and a large limestone bund provided perfect shelter for me to get in close.

using thermal binoculars

Using the thermal binoculars during the day allows Jamie to see the fallow clearly

Clear and crisp

I set off at pace along the tarmac haul road, moving silently towards the bund. The light was starting to fill the sky and a clear, crisp morning was emerging. The bund enclosed an old area of quarry workings on three sides and the sticky wet limestone underfoot clawed at my boots. It became more difficult to move quietly and so, keeping low, I climbed up the steep side of the bund to check where the deer had got to. Clear as day through the thermals, I saw them away to my left, 15 in total.

I got a good sense of their size, too. All of them were big, chunky bucks, heads swaying back and forth as they grazed gently across the grass field.

I dropped back into the quarry and squelched further forward towards them, reaching another point of the bund and crawling up the side. Reaching the brow of the bund, I had a cracking view of the field below me; the fallow were still grazing serenely around 130m away. The rangefinder on my thermal binoculars confirmed I was 136m from the nearest buck.

The light was up enough now to see the fallow without the thermal imagers. They were a magnificent yet eclectic bunch. The colour range was extraordinary, going from bright white ghosts to black shadows, with everything in-between.

Rifle shooting

Steadying himself on the brow of the bund, jamie lines up the shot

Brilliant white

While I had the quad sticks to hand, I didn’t have the confidence to stand and show myself on the skyline just to shoot from the sticks. Perhaps the woodland several hundred yards behind me would have given me cover, but I wasn’t going to risk it. I shuffled into a comfortable prone position, broke off a couple of old dead stinging nettles obscuring the scope and cocked the rifle silently. Studying the group intently, I eventually settled on to a brilliant white buck standing slightly apart from the others.

The round skidded into the ground, scarring the grass just behind the buck. He looked up, startled but unhurt. He dashed back to the others in the group and they looked around to see where the noise had come from.

At this point I committed fully, grabbed the quad sticks from behind me and stood up. The deer hadn’t seen me and I clunked another round into the chamber and composed myself on another buck, standing just off to one side of its more tightly clustered brethren.

Deer slots

Deer slots in the soft ground give away the presence of the fallow, which are grazing in small groups

This time, the round made a thud and the buck went down. The others stood for a while longer, still trying to work out what was going on. I considered taking a second, but one large buck felt like enough to be dealing with. I watched the herd for a few more seconds before they decided they’d had enough and galloped off towards the nearby woods.

I went quickly to where the old buck had fallen and equally quickly became daunted by the scale of it. It was a big fallow, perhaps topping 100kg, its thick, muscly neck holding a heavy head.

I gralloched it on the ground where it lay, checking over it and allowing myself a satisfied smile at the heart shot I’d made; a good correction on the missed shot on the first fallow. It took a while to drag the beast the 200m uphill to the quarry haul road; I’d be able to bring the car along to that point. I was sweating and exhausted by the time I got there. The local hotel was delighted to have a fallow carcass delivered a couple of days later and, in fairness, I was equally delighted not to have to butcher the vast carcass myself. I did, however, have to skin the beast before I delivered it and, as I worked away, it gave me the chance to reflect on the stalk. (Read more on gralloching here.)

Dragging fallow buck that has been shot

The shot fallow buck – a good size at around 100kg – takes some effort to drag back to the vehicle

High seat

In the past, it would have been unlikely that I’d have made my way to that particular area of the shooting ground had I not known the deer were there. I would have taken up residence in a high seat in one of the woods, hidden myself on a ride with the quad sticks or stumbled around the farmland hoping to bump into something — not, in truth, all that romantic. The thermal equipment, though, changes the game entirely; especially the binoculars. Finding deer in the dark and identifying them clearly at distance, being able to follow them, stalk them and get into a shooting position, all under the cover of darkness, takes a lot of the chance out of stalking and greatly increases the return rate. The thermal binoculars are a complete revelation.

Also consider

ATN BinoX 4K binoculars

The BinoX uses the same obsidian core found in ATN’s flagship X-Sight day/night riflescope, and an HD colour image sensor for daytime use, combined with zoom from 4-16x. Other features include geo-tagging locations, GPS tracking and built-in video recording.

Sightmark Wraith 4K 

The Sightmark Wraith 4K 4-32x50mm digital riflescope features a 1920×1080 HD sensor, providing full colour clarity in daytime. The Wraith comes with a removable 850nm infrared illuminator to provide an enhanced night-time image and accurate target acquisition up to 200 yards.

Zeiss DTI 3/35

This thermal monocular combines a 384×288 thermal sensor with 1280×960 HD LCOS display for crisp thermal imaging at extended ranges up to 1,350 yards. It gives the optical excellence that you would expect from Zeiss.