Hi-tech kit is often regarded with suspicion but thermal-imaging binoculars will change stalking forever, says Graham Downing
From time to time in the stalking world there comes along some advance or technical development that is a game changer. Usually it is roundly disapproved of until it becomes clear that it brings real advantage to the stalker, at which point everybody starts using it.
When rifle scopes started to be used on the hill they were thought of as outrageously unsporting until people realised that you could shoot much more accurately, and at a longer distance, when using one. The same could be said to apply to the sound moderator, which at one time was regarded with huge suspicion.
The most recent is the thermal imager. I spent a night many years ago with the Deer Initiative carrying out a census of deer in Rockingham Forest. We had the state-of-the-art military imager from the US, which required a special import licence and costs more than £40,000.
It was a revelation — we counted the local fallow and muntjac in a way that had simply not been possible.Things have moved on apace since then. Night vision is in widespread use for foxing and pest control and has been so for several years, as the cost of technology has steadily fallen. But it is not widely accepted into mainstream deer stalking other than as a tool for counting.
Stalking law and thermal-imaging binoculars
Let us be quite clear about what the law permits. In England and Wales deer may be shot from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Providing you are using the correct rifle and ammunition you may use any sighting method you wish. But Scotland, in addition to prescribing legal shooting hours, specifically prohibits sights that are light intensifying, heat sensitive or any other special sighting device for night shooting.
So either side of the border you may spot with a thermal imager before shooting with a conventional optical rifle scope. In England and Wales you can use a thermal sight, provided it’s in legal hours.
The problem is that it is not as easy to confirm species, sex and age class through a thermal imager as it is through conventional binoculars, though it is not impossible. And, as with most things, it becomes easier with practice.
I have played with a wide range of thermal products over the past 10 years or so as technology has advanced, and I have tried to use them for spotting while out stalking.
The main problem I found was that using a standard thermal monocular in low light blasted so much light through one eye that it unbalanced my natural night vision and destroyed my ability to pick up a target, whether with binoculars or rifle scope. Some stalkers can do this by using a monocular on one eye and the rifle scope on the other, but it’s not easy.
The ‘road to Damascus’ moment came when I borrowed a pair of Pulsar Accolade XP50 thermal-imaging binoculars. With the instrument set to white hot — and thus with the potential target showing bright against a muted background — I could look with both eyes at the screen, then look away and find I still had sufficient night vision to see clearly through conventional optics.
Muntjac died that would otherwise not even have been spotted. I broke open a rather large piggy bank and bought a pair, and suddenly my ability to spot deer — which I like to think was better than average already — has gone up by several orders of magnitude. My stalking practice has changed accordingly.
I don’t usually start stalking muntjac until after harvest when, with the corn down, you can at least see into the headlands and field margins, though in mid-August the undergrowth inside the woods where muntjac lurk is still insanely thick. But not if you use thermal imaging. I got into one of my favourite high seats in plenty of time while it was still pitch dark. Within five minutes or so of scanning the bramble beds to my left I could see pinpricks of light moving behind the leafy screen. An animal of some sort — and the muntjac outline was confirmed as the creature passed through a gap in the bushes.
I had by now clocked species and speed of movement, and calculated that within half a minute it would appear out of the bushes and on the ride in front of me. Down went the thermals and up came the rifle. Sure enough, out of the early gloom stepped the buck, silhouetted cleanly against the grassy ride, and in a moment it was dead. I don’t say I wouldn’t have seen that buck without the thermals, but with them I had given myself all the time in the world to plan his demise.
Getting down from the seat I started to stalk. Even around sunrise, with the oaks still in full leaf the wood was very dark. But darkness no longer had the ability to withhold its secrets and, far back beneath the timber, I soon spotted another muntjac moving through the trees. A little work with the binoculars and I had picked up its location sufficiently well to set up the sticks, put the scope on it and squeeze off a round.
With painstaking observation and dead-slow speed I could theoretically have picked that beast up with my Swarovskis. The third muntjac, though, was the clincher. I was walking slowly along a ride, scanning the thick undergrowth on each side of me when I fancied I saw a heat signal in the brambles moving from my left, just about to emerge in front of me on the ride. Could it be another muntjac?
I set the rifle up on the sticks and inside 10 seconds the doe was standing facing me, completely filling my scope at 20 yards. A frontal chest shot ended her career.
If I had been forced to clock that doe visually as she stepped out, before responding by deploying my sticks and raising my rifle, she would have been long gone. The fact was that thanks to the thermal binoculars I was ready for her, waiting and totally static as she emerged. In the few brief moments before the lights went out, she had no real idea what I was.
Not all my outings since then have been that successful. Even thermal technology cannot conjure muntjac out of thin air. But last weekend I shot another buck from a high seat, having spotted it 40 minutes before sunrise deep in heavy cover. I had searched the spot with my Swarovskis but could not see it until I had tracked it with the thermals through a plantation of young trees and out into a field margin. Then, lo and behold, it was at last plainly visible through conventional optics.
If the jury was out on the efficacy of thermal imaging as an aid to stalking, it has now well and truly delivered its verdict for me. If you need to shoot deer, then I’m convinced it’s a killer. But does it add to the quality of the hunting experience? Probably not.
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Studying my surroundings second-hand through a thermal imager detaches me from the countryside. It’s a bit like shooting via a computer screen, and that’s perhaps just a little bit sad. I now know what those old-timers felt about the telescopic sight.
But as with the scope, I know this technology is going to change the way I hunt deer.