This weekend, I finally went on my long-awaited first stalking trip with Sikamalc, looking for roe bucks in West Sussex. Given all the recent threads, I suspect that no-one will be surprised if I say that the weather conditions were dire. They were absolutely perfect wildfowling conditions, and we did see quite a few ducks within shootable range, something that I really didn't see much last season out on the marshes. In fact, my photos of last season seem to mostly show clear blue skies, and no ducks.
I arrived at the B&B at 12 as instructed by Malcolm, despite the taxi driver dropping me off at completely the wrong place for my first walk in the persistent rain. After lunch in the pub, perhaps dragged out by the forlorn hope that if we kept staring out of the window, it would stop raining, we went out to sight in the rifles. Ken handed me his .243 and his pretty impressive, carved stalking sticks (I have made a mental note of the design Ken, thanks), and I proceeded to put precisely none of my first three rounds into the Badger Brewery beermat that we'd liberated from the pub to serve as a target. That shook my confidence pretty badly. I accepted long ago that I was an indifferent shotgun shot, but had never had cause to think that I was anything but a decent enough rifle shot. The other chap who was there for a stalk put one of his three shots in his Badger beermat, and he wasn't best pleased either. I can only imagine that both Malc and Ken were a bit worried at this stage. I know I was, especially as Malc had regaled us with tales of clients missing several deer in a row over lunch (as a precaution, I'd decided not to join in the derision, it seemed like tempting fate). However Malcolm pointed out that the sticks were too short for me and that I was very stooped, and Ken that I was hanging about far too long to take the shot. This wasn't target shooting, which is my rifle shooting background: the general area is good enough to kill a deer. So with higher sticks, I put two on the beermat, and with faster shooting, I put two more together in a much tighter group (the two middle ones on the picture). Lesson Number 1: calm down, don't hang about, use sticks and rifles the right size for you. OK, false alarm, I can shoot deer. Now let's go and find some.
We waited until 5.30, with Ken raring to go, and set out into the rain. As I followed Ken closely, I tried to watch what he was doing and learn. I wasn't there just to kill a deer: I want to learn deerstalking. I think I trod quietly, which was helped by the fact that everything was a muddy mess, and observed that Ken entered every topographical unit (field, meadow, clearing, wood, etc) as if it was surrounded by snipers and covered in booby traps, only just peering in enough to scan it. Lesson 2: stay out of sight. I was cautiously pleased with myself when I spotted a roe buck running across a field on the slope across a line of trees from us, on the other side of a gully. When we moved into the next field, it had worked its' way back down a hedge and took a short run out of the ditch into the field we were in. Then it stopped to examine us, its' neck and head sticking out over a ridge. Unfortunately, it was a good six-pointer, and we were after yearlings and two-pointers only. Nevertheless, Lesson 3: roe tend to look back at what they're running from.
Following a hedge and a strip of woodland uphill, I spotted another roe running through the trees. A doe, perhaps the same one, emerged at the end of the wood and into the next field, where it was joined by a buck, about 80 yards away. "That's shootable, if it's a buck, shoot him" said Ken. At this pojnt, I was pretty excited, but also determined not to fluff it, and first of all, to get a good look at it. Which I did, and unfortunately, it was another big six-pointer. At this point, it ran off, only to come back with a third roe, possibly a young buck, before they all vanished into the wood, at which point the wind changed too. We saw a couple more does before moving back to the main estate for a last ditch attempt on a fallow pricket. Three fallow crossed a ride ahead of us, two with large, well palmated antlers, and a white one which Ken thought maybe a pricket. But they gave us the slip. I have to say that I was somewhat relieved as somehow, a white deer as a first one wouldn't have quite felt like a "proper" deer. Irrational, I know, but there you are. Then we lost the light.
This morning, I woke up at 4.30am to hear the wind howling outside the window and rain lashing down even harder. Malc came to pick me up, and we headed out, me with Todd the Wonder Dog between my legs, whose body language suggested absolutely no desire to be out in these conditions. This time we went into the woods, with Todd doing much of the guiding. He showed definite signs of having smelled a deer, and Malc showed me the scrapes and slots that a buck had left, but we never caught sight of him. Then a bit later, as we came round the corner of a ride, a fallow pricket walked out in front of us, perhaps thirty metres away, oblivious to our presence. Malcolm put up the sticks and signalled to me, but the deer was gone. Lesson 4: stick to the guide like velcro in the woods.
To conclude, it was a valuable learning experience, I'd definitely recommend Malcolm and Ken, they really went out of their way to show me some deer in appalling weather conditions, and I learned a lot. It's similar to wildfowling in that you have to get up really early, get really wet, pay for the privilege and go home empty-handed. And like wildfowling, it's completely brilliant and I want to do it again ASAP! Maybe with a deer at the end this time. I also recommend Gore-Tex and eBay for buying £300 Swarovski binoculars, which were a revelation.
Thanks very much to Malcom, Ken, Sandra and Todd, and see you soon!