Winter in White, Spring is Coming
- Friday, 12 March 2021
Dr Simon Lee gives a comprehensive insight into the challenges involved in hunting the 'southern trinity'; Roe Fallow & Muntjac
Winter in my part of England has been a bit wet, resulting in gumboots on and a lot more mud to reveal tracks and movement patterns. This period then gave way to a week of hard frost and wind, which combined to form a hard crust of frozen leaves that were crunchier than cornflakes in the woods., requiring a stealthier step and much slower progress.
When the snow finally came, we were treated to an environment that had increased light, muffled sound and made the readings on the thermal imager a bit less open to interpretation. Normally, squirrels, the bane of the thermal spotter, kept giving me false indicators, fleeting white dots vanishing behind trees, but deer being far bigger, light the screen up like an alarm.
Having a degree of empathy with the deer, what would I be doing with all this change? Not skipping about in the middle of fields on offer is what, instead, I’d be into the woods in cover, only venturing out to explore the limited options for browsing and grazing.
So, to maximise the chances of success, it’s into the woods we go, having chosen a suitable ‘tenue du chasse’ as they say on that side of the channel. I tend to favour drab greens and browns, I can never seem to get camouflage right, DPM, digital, or Realtree!
In between prepping up a mountain of seasonal vegetables and mixing up chestnut stuffing, I’ve been planning and scheming, our patch has the ‘southern trinity’ of fallow, roe, and muntjac, so who is about?
A quick trip out under the cover of an urgent need for brandy butter, (sorry, love they’d run out...) provided me an opportunity to switch the trailcam data cards, a furtive look reveals both fallow and roe, the latter in groups of two and three, the others in a gaggle about seven or eight. Having placed three where I’d previously seen muddy slots has paid off, giving me clues to direction and number.
A quick buzz about with the drone shows roe in groups, I’m fairly new to aerial surveillance and the proximity of unhelpful powerlines cuts off further observation, so it gets put away.
Unlike myself, who is usually glued to the TV weather forecast rather than the actual news, the deer aren’t playing ball with regard to dawn and dusk. I see lighting up time is about 0730 and sunset (!) is listed as about 1630, but the timestamps on the pictures don’t tally, fallow are moving at 1030 and 2130, the night pictures showing luminous retina reflections in the unshootable dark. The roe are fleetingly captured on camera at 0815 and a solitary muntjac doe shuffles past at 1730. Previous behaviour patterns do not seem to apply, as I bite into a mince pie in irritation...
So back in empathy mode, what would I be eating, what’s out there? With a frustrating summer of inedible potatoes, now replaced by more promising winter wheat, new shoots in certain areas show a bit of damage, and in one wood a pheasant feeder has been upended and ransacked, so they’re hungry...
So, after a judicious delay between family Christmas Dinner and entertainments, I pluck up enough courage (Dutch, by this point), to ask for a trip out to shoot. This is benevolently granted by Madame, and on December 27th, the unspoken truce is over, and I’m out again.
Looking at the news, the solstice has passed a week ago but not long enough to affect lighting up times, the temperature shows -2 to a high of 1°C and flat white cloud with intervals of weak sun. Hmm, what to wear? I dislike the bulk and rustle of snow over-whites and my experiences with ghillie suits have resulted in equipment tangles and overheating, so it’s into the standard drab greens with a thermal layer underneath and slightly thicker gloves as a concession to change.
The options now extend to a route, do I stalk in on foot and risk bumping the lot with my footsteps or go static and freeze? Neither appeals and a balance between daybreak in our luxury hunting hide, (neighbours discarded upcycled shed....) and then into the woods with the sun behind me, if it breaks through, is struck.
Comfort wins out and a flask of tea is brought along with a handful of sausage rolls and a mince pie, soon a small picnic is assembled for the waiting period, as well as an inflatable cushion, the days of lying prone, covered in foliage, behind a bipod, in a scrape of frozen earth are over. It must be an age thing...
Common sense also prevails, more water and an app that tracks your location to the emergency services in the event of a serious problem is on my phone, (What 3Words has mapped out the whole world into 3m x 3m squares which will aid the cavalry if you really need it), I imagine lying there with a broken ankle describing woodland won’t help them much...
So, the game begins with the stealthy closing of the car door being ruined by the flash of the lights as the doors autolock, then the slow move to the hide and a bit of fumbling with the lock in the dark and I’m in.
As the dawn shows and a bit of colour returns, a fleeting roe is spotted as a white blip at 235m before vanishing into a hedgerow near to reappear. Headshaking, the thermos is put away and it’s into phase two, a stalk through the woods, slowly.
I often get asked, how slow do I have to go to stay undetected? I’ve learned through hard lessons that if you think you’re going too fast, you probably are, slow it down. My aim these days is to drift like deer through the woods, as I was told once, in the jungle only man is in a rush...
With a tapestry of frozen leaves and twigs underfoot, it’s slow going, five steps, stop, scan, squirrel, swear silently, and slowly onwards. This level of stealth would be practically impossible with guide and stalker, but today I’m alone and entirely responsible for my own noisy blundering.
So after an hour moving through the woods with halting deliberation, I get a white blip on the screen that isn’t hiding nuts. Gently swapping the TI for binoculars with glacial speed, I track onto the familiar black horseshoe of a fallow from behind. As I watch with my eyepieces fogging up nicely through my face cover, three more appear out nowhere at 123m.
So far my luck has held and I’ve not been detected, but they’re moving erratically away along a treeline and I must act fast to get a shot. Easing the tangled sling from my shoulder and getting the rifle up onto the sticks, the group stops abruptly and stare in my direction. The fallow pricket I’ve selected is now looking right at me. He turns slightly toward the others, but this only squares him up for a broadside shot. Pounding heart, restricted breathing but steady fingertip are brought to a climax as the rifle cracks and the spell is broken. All stealth is now gone as I cycle to reload and apply safety, all I can see through my scope is a white belly and kicking hooves.
Almost half a litre of tea is taking its toll and with the excitement, I need a comfort break before I go any further. Relieved thus, I walk up and there’s my fallow, dead as Marley, right where it was shot. Now poked and unloaded, I shoehorn him into the Roesack and stagger back through the woods to the car festooned in ancillary equipment.
The grounds keeper is shovelling logs into a barrow for the owners logburner, and seeing my beetroot face, he pauses to ask if it’s Rudolph I’ve got there (a rare wag, he’s a good man, really...) before I flop onto the tailgate with perspiration running down my nose.
Epilogue in white.
Choosing a suspended gralloch at home with tea and Mozart over hooks and branches in the field, I find my cull animal today is 68kgs and when skinned has a 3cm layer of hard white fat along it’s back and a stomach full of whole and half chewed acorns, both kidneys are wreathed in a thick layer of fat, to the point where I can’t see them and have to poke about to find them.
Not wanting to waste anything, I save the fat for candles (the melting point of deer fat negates it’s use in cookery....) and the pelt for tanning, liver and kidneys will be breakfast and the carcase will be broken down to three bags full of the best wild meat available.
After getting my friend to the chiller and cleaning up I notice that crocuses are starting to poke a bit of purple colour through the verges, spring is on its way at last!
If you'd like to learn how to stalk deer then its easy! Why not take the PDS1 Deer Stalking Certificate online via our County Deer Stalking e-learning platform. You can do so here: deer-stalking-course
And once you have finaly 'grassed' your deer you'll need to know how to butcher it. Learn from the experts by taking our Masterclass in butchery: butchery-master-class