Backgound: I am a novice stalker. I took my first deer with IanF two years ago, passed my DSC1 last year, and have now been out nine times altogether. Paid stalking remains an occasional treat for me at the moment.
My partner J and I spend a lot of time in North Norfolk, and have purchased venison from the Holkham Estate for several years, from Glyn and from his predecessor Julian. J is interested in butchery, she used to process her own lamb, and does the same with deer I have taken.
Earlier this year the BDS AGM was held in Norfolk, and visits were arranged to Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, to see how their park deer are managed.
The visits were fascinating, and J was treated with great kindness, special transport being laid on just for her, as she was recovering from a recent ski injury.
We took the opportunity to catch up with Glyn, and he invited us to gain more experience of gralloching, skinning and butchering at Holkham's superb larder facilities. There was also the suggestion some stalking might be possible.
Once the Fallow buck season had opened I got on the 'phone and we arranged to meet up.
We discussed our plans over a morning coffee. I wanted to gain more experience in gralloching, J wanted to improve her self-taught butchery skills, and I booked a morning and evening stalk.
A couple of days later we met up at 06:00 to accompany Glyn as he went out to cull fallow prickets. He had already made a good start on achieving his planned numbers, so it was an exercise of his skills to find and approach a suitable specimen in a safe position. We saw that park culling is a skilled and sensitive task, particularly when the public have access to the park, there are many properties scattered over the estate, and the terrain is so flat. Safe and humane shots are paramount.
Mission accomplished, the deer was taken back to the larder and within perhaps twenty minutes of the shot Glyn was preparing to demonstrate a suspended gralloch.
The game larder at Holkham is a superb facility, having been installed when Holkham used to prepare and sell directly to the public, from its own shop, and by mail order. Nowadays the retail business has been discontinued and the game is mostly sold to the local butcher and selected game dealers. Nevertheless the equipment has been retained, and later we were to use it ourselves.
Glyn demonstrated the gralloch, and meticulously took us through the examination of the organs and lymph nodes, showing the various ways of exposing them. This was my first good opportunity to practice my "Trained Hunter" skills in a clinical environment, the conditions for previous field gralloch haven't been conducive to such detailed observation.
Clean up done, we retired to the Rose Garden Cafe for a full breakfast.
Well fed, we went to the zeroing range. Hidden away inside woodland on a far corner of the estate there are target positions at 100, 150 and 200 yards, catering for most usual zeroing distances.
I used the Estate rifle, which is also Glyn's day to day culling rifle. Its a nicely presented Sako in .243, heavy SS barrel, reflex mod, laminate stock, decent Leupold 'scope.
No adjustments required, we returned to the larder for butchery training.
Glyn had some cull fallow ready, which were to be processed into burgers for sale at the forthcoming Holkham Food and Drink festival. Training was hands-on. He and J skinned and butchered the deer, he demonstrated the traditional and more sophisticated joints and cuts, seam-boning etc. and J followed. I helped out by converting these beautiful cuts into dice, ready for mincing. I nearly broke our hearts.
If you ever get the chance of buying a Holkham burger, I can assure you they are made only of the finest venison, the only addition being the special seasoning mix, about which I have been sworn to secrecy.
Two days later I met Glyn at 05:30 at our rendezvous. He entered the key code to the electric gate and we drove into the estate. We left my car near the likely end of the stalk, then returned in Glyn's 4x4 to our start point. Holkham is a large estate, of which the fenced deer park is but a small portion. The woods and fields are managed for agriculture and game shooting, and the deer are truly wild. Roe, Fallow, Muntjac and Red are all present.
The plan was to stalk within the woodland, with occasional visits to examine the field boundaries. The woodland is dense, but there are plenty of paths and drives, many used to supply the multitude of bird feeders, so the ground was easier to cover than I expected.
The wind was light, north westerly, but within the wood indistinct and potentially swirly, and unfortunately there was a steady rain, which got stronger as the stalk continued.
We stalked the length of the estate. Glyn spotted a red spiker crossing a field towards our wood, broadside on. We moved out onto the margin, I lasered it at 140 yards and I got the rifle up on the sticks. The shot would not be safe until the deer was almost at the wood, placement would have to be perfect with the light .243 bullet, but would it stop ?
Sadly not, it continued to stroll on into the wood. Perhaps it was young and naive enough that I could have stopped it with a shout or other noise, but also risked alerting everything else.
We returned to the wood to continue. Then Glyn spotted several muntjac, browsing deep in the wood. At first I couldn't see them, but then I detected movement and was on to them. Carefully we moved position to get a clearer shot, and I got the rifle up. But I couldn't see anything through the scope. I must have fogged up the eyepiece as I raised the rifle to the sticks, the rain was pouring down now and I had been having trouble with my glasses too. I could just make out faint shapes, but I couldn't shoot.
We continued the stalk, but the weather was against us and daylight rapidly brightening. Nevertheless I had enjoyed myself hugely, had a chance at several deer, learnt more fieldcraft and deer recognition, been privileged to see some private areas of the estate in the company of the Deer Keeper, and had some healthy exercise.
Four days later I was back again, this time for an evening stalk. The weather was much better, the wind had changed and this time we stalked from the other side of the estate. Several deer, mostly muntjac, were seen as we spent a couple of hours stalking into a high seat, but none shootable.
We settled in to the substantial steel high seat. No rickety deathtrap, this even had a comfy cushion. My GPS indicated last light would be 20:58, so we had about an hour to go. The seat looks up and down a wide ride in the woods, approximately 150 yards each way, maybe 30 yards across. The ride was covered with tall luscious grass.
The time passed quickly, and soon the light was fading fast. Prime time for deer. I scanned up the ride, Glyn looked down it. I checked the 'scope, and decided to wind down the magnification to make the most of the faint light.
Then Glyn nudged me. He'd spotted three faint black dots slowly move out onto the edge of the ride, perhaps 80 yards away. Muntjac !
I leant over him to rest the rifle on his side of the seat and sighted them through the 'scope. Still just black dots, I needed to wind the scope back up. In a few seconds I had it adjusted, and was waiting for the deer to settle. I slid off the safety and concentrated on the middle of the group, which seemed the least restless. It seemed like minutes, but I'm sure was only a few seconds when it stopped moving and seemed to be grazing. Broadside on, I aimed for heart/lung and shot it.
It fell on the spot. Then Glyn whispered for me to reload quickly, the third of the group hadn't bolted, and now seemed to be snuffling at the dead deer. I got it in the sights and again waited for it to settle. Within seconds I had taken the next shot. I lost the sight picture and didn't see the reaction.
Glyn asked for the rifle back and we quickly climbed down from the seat. Glyn had seen it stumble, but then run fast for the far side of the ride. It was now a judgement call. The light was almost gone, it had begun to rain, and Glyn had a good idea of where the deer had entered the wood on the far side. Rather than wait a few minutes we walked quickly to where Glyn reckoned it had gone, and began casting about.
No joy. After several minutes we decided to return to the other deer and look for the start of a trail. It was now dark and the rain was falling steadily. With handtorch and headtorch we quartered the ground. After a while Glyn 'phoned home to ask for his dog to be readied. Just then I spotted something. Not exactly blood, but a dark lump. And a grain of corn. Rumen contents. A few feet away more rumen contents, but then some dark blood. Now a lot more blood, red. Then the trail turned into a nearly continuous path of bright red blood spray. We found the deer just inside the wood edge, it had run at least 30 yards, we must have missed it by a few feet in the initial search.
Both deer were good heart/lung shots. Both also had substantial damage to rumen, liver, shoulder etc. from bullet fragments. The first deer was a juvenile male, pedicles nearly developed but still inside the skin. The second was a lovely male, with nice small antlers.
I 'phoned J and told her not to expect me home for another hour and a half
Back at the larder I performed my first suspended grallochs.
A few days later Glyn invited us back to practice more gralloching on several cull animals, and also let us use the larder to skin and quarter my muntjac, and also a couple of cull fallow which we purchased to stock our freezers. J has enjoyed completing the processing of these at home.
I look forward to going out with Glyn again, and recommend him highly. In particular the larder training was exceptional, made possible by the superb facilities and the availability of cull deer.