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
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