STALK­ING: THE WIN­TER CULL

It might not be the nicest part of the year but Fe­bru­ary and March are busy months for English deer stalk­ers, writes Dom Holtam

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH DOM HOLTAM

TS Eliot once wrote that April is the cru­ellest month. I can only as­sume that he never spent two hours up a high seat in a northerly gale in Fe­bru­ary be­cause right now, I’d cut off my right arm for it to be April. Not that I’d no­tice given how numb my ex­trem­i­ties have be­come.

What­ever ro­man­tic ideas you might have about deer stalk­ing (and I’m not averse to dew-jewelled cob­webs glis­ten­ing in the dawn, etc.), they are pretty far re­moved from late-win­ter culling. Spring is just a no­tion, the weather has turned bit­ter, and ev­ery­thing is dull and wet, but with the game sea­son over and more wood­land now ac­ces­si­ble, it is time to get some deer in the larder.

I’ve also re­cently treated my­self to (an­other) new ri­fle and I’m keen to get some field use with it af­ter a few ses­sions on the range. So I’ve teamed up with our pi­geon ex­pert Andy Crow for some deer con­trol on his and neigh­bour­ing farms in Kent and Sur­rey. He is a trusted fig­ure for the landown­ers that don’t stalk and need oc­ca­sional as­sis­tance with prob­lem deer.

While tra­di­tional dawn and dusk out­ings on foot and in high seats are ef­fec­tive, fal­low are no­to­ri­ously un­pre­dictable and some­times strat­egy needs to be im­pro­vised. Andy has been stalk­ing on a neigh­bour­ing farm where a large herd of fal­low has been caus­ing prob­lems. They are of­ten out in the day but never in an area where Andy can get a safe shot. So he gets his lad to walk the main block of wood­land and the gen­tle dis­tur­bance pushes the deer into a safe po­si­tion, away from foot­paths and where he can get a safe back­stop.

‘I silently cock the Blaser with my thumb and gen­tly squeeze the trig­ger to send 170gr of Norma’s finest on its unerring path’

Andy has tucked up in ambush, with ri­fle on sticks, and trims out a pricket with a poor head, but the re­main­ing deer head off in the wrong di­rec­tion af­ter the shot and he can’t add to his tally. Still, it is one down, the farmer is pleased and Andy reck­ons the same tac­tic might work just as well again on an­other oc­ca­sion.

I’m on an­other bit of ground a mile or two away and stalk a cou­ple of blocks of wood­land on foot. These woods hold plenty of pheas­ant pens and still plenty of pheas­ants. The birds are nor­mally a pretty good in­di­ca­tor of how stealthy your stalk­ing is. If they qui­etly trot off, you are do­ing well; if they get up in a clat­ter of wings and a ca­coph­ony of alarm calls then you are prob­a­bly not!

I don’t see any sign of deer among the trees be­fore I reach my high seat. It is against a sturdy oak on a field edge with the ground dip­ping down in front and a large block of de­cid­u­ous wood­land op­po­site. It’s been a suc­cess­ful spot over the past year and I hope that the deer will have been eschew­ing the more ex­posed woods I’ve been walk­ing through and en­joy­ing the shel­ter of the lower ground.

As the last of the light dies away, so does the worst of the wind. There is a crack­ing moon ris­ing be­hind my left shoul­der, and as I scan the far tree­line one more time I see the white rump of a roe catch the sil­very light as it bounces away. What had spooked it? I track back along the shad­ows with the bi­nos and see just a whis­per of some­thing pale. It’s a deer. A melanis­tic fal­low, blend­ing per­fectly with the shadow. Just his lighter belly and legs and the tiny pricks of antler show clearly.

I raise the ri­fle, lo­cate the deer in the scope, flick on the il­lu­mi­nated red dot and wait. I’m hop­ing he will move out of the shadow a lit­tle and onto the open field to give me a bet­ter view.

But as the ris­ing moon comes free of the cloud cover it gives me an ex­tra burst of use­able light, and thanks to the ex­cel­lent light trans­mis­sion of my Zeiss op­tic, it’s enough to find the kill zone. I silently cock the Blaser with my thumb and gen­tly squeeze the trig­ger to send 170gr of Norma’s finest on its unerring path.

I use a mod­er­a­tor on all my ri­fles these days, mostly to pro­tect what’s left of my hear­ing, but

the A-Tec mod­er­a­tor on this ri­fle stops the muzzle flash from ru­in­ing my view of the tar­get and also al­lows me to hear the solid bul­let strike. The deer just drops – which will save me a fol­low-up into the woods – and doesn’t even twitch. I cy­cle a sec­ond round from habit but it isn’t needed.

I wait a few more min­utes but night has fallen now so I un­load and climb down to re­trieve my deer. Upon gral­loching I can see that a frag­ment of bul­let has hit the bot­tom of the spine, hence the deer’s in­stant col­lapse. I’m sure Andy will give me a bol­lock­ing about meat dam­age but I also know that re­ally he wants the deer on the ground. Too many stalk­ers talk about meat dam­age. It is in­con­se­quen­tial com­pared to en­sur­ing a clean, hu­mane kill. Plus, in truth, a rib-to-rib shot through the en­gine room with a ‘nor­mal’ stalk­ing cal­i­bre dam­ages very lit­tle in the way of high value meat any­way. A neck shot on a big fal­low would ruin more.

Andy brings the Po­laris over to col­lect me and the car­cass and we head out for a quick drive around with the lamp to try to add a fox to the bag, but also for Andy to see how many deer are out on his land. “Walk­ing the ground in the day is one thing but a lot of these fal­low are more ac­tive af­ter dark. We had a lot of trou­ble be­fore Christ­mas with poach­ers run­ning their dogs on lo­cal farms. Not just for deer – they would course any­thing, from rab­bits to foxes to badgers. That pres­sure has caused some groups to re­ally ‘herd up’ and it has also changed their lo­cal ter­ri­to­ries. But now they are re­turn­ing to more nor­mal ar­eas and in smaller groups. I’ve seen a lot mov­ing back into the area now and want to make sure we keep on top of them.”

With the doe sea­son fin­ish­ing on 31 March and the bucks ex­tend­ing to the end of April, time is still on our side. But as the crops sud­denly ac­cel­er­ate in the spring and the veg­e­ta­tion and ground cover be­come thicker, vis­i­bil­ity and ac­cess be­come in­creas­ingly prob­lem­atic.

So although the weather may be in­clement, there re­ally is no time like the present to get your cull beasts in the larder. Just don’t for­get your gloves…

The Blaser R8 in .308 Win with a 170gr bul­let is more than suf­fi­cient for larger deer such as fal­low

High seats can be very ef­fec­tive for dawn and dusk out­ings

Qual­ity op­tics make all the dif­fer­ence at last light

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