Stalking is often solitary, but being in a stalking syndicate gives you plenty of people you can rely on when needed, says Will Pocklington
Some would have you think stalking permissions are to be guarded like bank details. Accounts of falling out and “never again” attempts to manage deer collaboratively are easy to come by; you only have to look. It’s a shame, really, because the benefits of sharing the privilege are many. You simply need to work with the right people on a stalking syndicate. Perhaps that’s easier said than done.
The past few years have highlighted the need for resilience when it comes to managing wildlife.
In practical terms, this means the show must go on should a stalker with exclusive rights to an area be rendered out of action. Break a leg at a bad time as a lone ranger and I imagine few landowners would sit back and watch valuable crops or young trees take a hit while you heal. Besides, culling in tough conditions is a burden worth spreading — much like the cost of new high seats or trail cams. Where deer are prolific, divvying up the job is likely the only sensible option.
Is the swelling deer population in part a symptom of too many stalkers spreading themselves too thinly?
This is where finding like-minded people who are happy to work towards the same objectives — whatever they may be — can pay dividends. Where I stalk, the gamekeeper acts as gatekeeper and deer are managed by a select few who help out on the shoot at key times of the year. Everyone appreciates the opportunity and it runs like clockwork. Areas where deer cannot be tolerated are prioritised, as others that are out of bounds come the shooting season are left well alone.
A ‘really good’ buck will be noted and left. Everyone is safe and proficient, they know the ground and they know each other. To a large degree, it’s all about trust.
Looking to find a shooting syndicate? Here’s what you need to know.
The fun part when it comes to a stalking syndicate is the swapping of stories and theories to unanswered questions. Why are we seeing more mature roe on the place this year? Where did the first pair of fallow seen for a decade come from? What is behind the rising average body weight of muntjac recorded in the larder? Changes from one year to the next are talking points. It wouldn’t be the same chewing the cud on your own.
We have mornings when three or four of us are out on different parts of the farm before meeting for coffee. We have freezer-filling venison sausage and burger-making afternoons (read more in our archives for venison recipes). We discuss the footage from trail cams (read more here for the best trail cams for stalking and monitoring) — deer behaviour, intriguing animals, people where they shouldn’t be — and we swap photos and video footage. It’s not a formal shooting syndicate; no money changes hands. Perhaps that would alter the dynamic.
Matt Leyman is a gamekeeper on a 6,500-acre private estate in south Lincolnshire where he manages a shooting syndicate of 15 members that has been running for 17 years. By his reckoning, transparency from the outset is key to a happy set-up.
Upon joining the stalking syndicate, members are briefed on the cull target, how many of each species they can shoot and the age classes and gender of priority animals. They are shown the estate boundaries and provided with maps for reference. Nothing is hidden in the small print of paperwork — details such as the rate at which carcasses can be bought from the estate are clearly outlined. There are no nasty surprises.
Matt says establishing how often different members of the stalking syndicate visit is useful. “We have eight who come on a regular basis; the remainder only make it every so often. It’s a good balance — we achieve the annual cull without there being too many people to juggle.”
Before visiting, members ring one of the keepers for an advisory date. “We have plenty of ground, so there are always options,” Matt explains, “but a conversation beforehand allows us to warn of any farm operations under way, which helps to avoid wasted journeys.”
Sharing the ground fairly is another consideration. It’s not a case of members having free rein to go where they like. “We allocate them different areas to cover, depending on how successful they have been on previous outings and, perhaps more importantly, whether they have had the opportunity to stalk on parts of the estate where there are higher densities of deer,” says Matt.
Keeping everything running as smoothly as possible is crucial, according to Matt. That might be as simple as ensuring that every syndicate member has keys to the estate larder, and that they know where everything is kept — an extra gambrel, for example, or a bone saw or cleaning equipment.
“We also make sure they have no issues with access,” Matt stresses. “Not everyone has a truck that can go off-road, so members have use of the ATV should they require it. Ultimately, the experience should be pleasurable, not hard work.”
Including the stalking syndicate in discussions on high seat placement is another conscious decision. “A number of the guys have been coming here for years now and have grown to know the ground and the habits of the deer well, so we value their input when choosing where to site new seats — particularly the more permanent types that are not so easy to move when built.”
Only a few of the stalking syndicate members knew one another before joining, so Matt always endeavours to involve them in work parties and on cull days, too. It brings everyone together and builds on that sense of community that is helped along by the syndicate WhatsApp group. “There’s also a form for members to fill out with details of their stalk, if they wish to do so. It’s for information-sharing purposes,” adds Matt.
On a broader level, the sharing of information might just be one of the greatest personal benefits of joining a syndicate. The chance to spend time with more experienced stalkers is not to be sniffed at. Fieldcraft is hard earned; without the occasional opportunity to join and observe those with many seasons behind them, are those of us not so long in the tooth missing out? Are skills and knowledge being lost? You can only learn so much from your own mistakes.
Of course, things don’t always work out. We shouldn’t brush over that. Interested to glean more on where it goes wrong for people, I spoke to James Sutcliffe, a deer officer at BASC who frequently receives calls from members asking for advice on sharing ground or joining a syndicate.
“Problems tend to arise when the end goal is not clear, communication between stalkers is lacking or greed rears its ugly head,” says James. “Perhaps the reality of what you have paid for doesn’t meet expectations. And even with all the right boxes ticked, there’s always the risk that
an unsavoury character will join the fray and wobble the wheel.
“It’s worth doing your research and seeking out positive references from current or previous syndicate members before parting with any money,” he cautions.
Stalking is, by its very nature, a solitary pursuit and therein lies much of the appeal. There’s no doubt the freedom to manage a population of deer by your own book is a nice idea — in some circumstances it might also be the most appropriate. But it’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly. And I’m not convinced, on the whole, that a patch of deer ground is better guarded than it is shared.
It boils down to what is sustainable in the long run. For us, the deer and the places where we meet.