Some of you may have noticed that I have on occasion mentioned that my little brother, who we shall call Dr Pine Marten, or Doc Marten for short, is a palaeontologist. Some time ago, when he returned from the US to find that I'd become a deerstalker while he'd been away, he asked whether I could obtain for him a complete skeleton of a muntjac. Muntjac are of great interest to palaeontologists as they're a very primitive deer, and Doc Marten's particular field of interest is the evolution of mammal's joints. He's not one of those dinosaur palaeontologists who are apparently no better than Tony Robinson's "Time Team". "We've found half a metatarsal of a new species of dinosaur, which doesn't seem like much, but if we extrapolate the rest of the creature from this, we think it's probably the biggest dinosaur ever discovered! Let's have a look at our computer reconstruction. Wow! Can we have some media exposure and funding now, please?". Anyway, I obviously said that it would be pleasure to help him advance our understanding of evolution, that I could probably find someone to send me a dead muntjac through the post within a couple of days, but that I had no interest whatsoever in going about it that way. To borrow a phrase from Japanese whalers, I wanted to do this by conducting some "scientific deerstalking". That way I have the experience, the fun, the meat, he has his specimen, and the landowner has one less bluebell muncher to deal with.
A few weeks ago, yet another generous member of this forum - who I will not name without his permission as is my usual practice, although he's free to reveal himself if he wishes, obviously - offered me to come to his patch for this zoological expedition. Given that he was within ridiculously easy reach of where I live on the train, I jumped at the opportunity, and so yesterday after lunch I found myself on the train with my discretely packed science kit. A bit like Frederic Courtney Selous, only I carried all my own stuff instead of employing a hundred porters. And it was only an hour and a bit away. Well it would have been anyway if I hadn't alighted one station too early. This is a pretty uncharacteristic mistake given that I've been from London to Istanbul on the train through countries where I couldn't understand the language, and never once made an error that daft. That said, when you arrive in Constantinople, you can see the giant face of Kemal Atatürk staring at you and the Theodosian walls, whereas my destination station lacked comparable visual pointers.
My host picked me up and didn't call me a Muppet at all, because he's a good guy that way, and took me off to the woods. After explaining the layout, the prevailing winds and so on, we walked around the wood downwind, and the entered it planning to stalk all the way through, roughly following a known deer track, before leaving the wood at last light in a sheltered valley, often crossed by muntjac and roe at night. Now I've done a little bit of stalking in woods before, but usually on the way to a high seat, but this was something different. The closest thing it came near was when I'm on my own looking for woodcock, and indeed I noticed that my guide had a few pin feathers in the brim of his hat. Within five minutes of entering the wood, he stopped, having spotted a muntjac doe just ahead. He had, but I hadn't, despite having my binoculars and scouring the exact same piece of wood as him. He kept whispering coordinates relating to mossy trees, fallen branches, patches of bluebells and so on, but after about five minutes it was a passing cock pheasant that gave the doe away. "Put your rifle up, and if it presents a shot - and I'm not saying it will, and you feel confident, go for it. It's a game of patience now. It's waiting for us to move first". In the end, after sorely testing my ability to stand still with the rifle on sticks for 29 minutes, it vanished.
Perhaps half an hour later, the same happened again, only this time, the doe wasn't standing behind a lot of branches. But it was standing staring straight at us, happily chewing the cud, resolutely not presenting a broadside shot. Luckily, I now had a secret weapon: I had been taught to lean back against a tree while the rifle was on sticks, providing a rock solid rest (thanks, top tip!). This way I had ample time to observe the little doe, the triangular black mark on its' face and those beady black eyes looking at me, but not seeing anything worrying. After perhaps twenty minutes again, about 7pm, I finally had a shot. It turned, passed behind a tree, I waited for it on the other side, and as it emerged, it paused for a second, and bang! She was down. My first muntjac, and in the cause of science too! My host was kind enough not to blood me because as it turned out, the deer wasn't as sideways on as I might have hoped, and it was a pretty unpleasant and messy gralloch. The rest of the process, butchery and skeletonising hasn't been a great way to spend an evening either, but it's done! I'll make sure to post the results of Doc Marten's work too.
So thanks very much indeed to my generous benefactor for an exciting opportunity during which I learned a lot. I hope we have a chance to stalk together again!
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