Already a good start to the new year/decade!
After a fantastic New Year party with our extended family and friends we finally shooed the last of them out of the door on Saturday afternoon. While my wife collapsed on the sofa with a cuppa and the paper I made my bid for freedom.
With official sundown at 4.19pm I knew I was cutting it fine, but even a chance to walk around and blow the cobwebs and whisky fumes out would be welcome. After lobbing the gear into the car I was out of town and high up on the ridge that separates the Exe valley from one of it's tributaries within 5 minutes, and shortly afterwards driving down the farm track and parked up.
A bottle of 'Sloe Gin Nouveau' I made from the berries picked here in early October was received with thanks and after a bit of banter I was off for a bimble around the fields and a peer into the woods. The clear frosty air made glassing easy and I espied a group of 7 hinds catching the last rays from the falling sun in a clearing across on the other side of the valley - not my ground though! Making my way alongside a small copse I reached one of the vantage points in the corner of a steeply sloping field that allowed complete coverage of the lower fence where it abutted another wooded area. At least three crossing points are covered from here and the clumps of hair visible on the top strand of wire combined with the churned up grass giving evidence of very recent activity.
With the tripod stool in place and the sticks opened out and ready in position, I settled down to await developments. I must have blended in with the hedge well as the normal activity of the hedgerow resumed soon after with robin, blackbirds and rabbits going about their late afternoon business. Glassing the fields higher up across the combe showed a group of deer, maybe 8-9 red hinds and calves plus a stag, feeding and untroubled by any human activity. The same couldn't be said for me though, as the presence of a pair of dog walkers was announced by the flapping of a buzzard from the mature oak in the centre of the uppermost hedge. With no footpath anywhere on this farm their presence wasn't exactly welcomed and they made off sharply in the opposite direction after I stood up and revealed myself - rather than giving them the chance to blunder across me!
With the sun now below the western horizon and it's last rays sending pink and purple stripes across previously un-noticed high-level clouds, I saw the headlights of the tractor and muck spreader making it's way across the field directly below the previously spotted deer. Two hinds were silhouetted against the skyline and very much on the alert and, as if as one, the group started drifting southwards and towards the fields and small wood on my side of the farm buildings. A quick mental calculation on my part made me think I could possibly get back and into position to intercept them before I lost the light....... maybe.
Throwing the stool into the roesack, I trudged up the field and had just about got my breathing and pulse back down to normal levels when I saw two familiar shapes emerging from the wood that I thought the larger group would be making for. Involuntarily the pulse rate went up again as the binos showed two mature red hinds feeding and unaware of my approach. Luckily the gate into the intervening field was a short distance away, and I would then be on the far side of the hedge with a couple of mature beech trees to keep in the line of sight between us for a good distance. Crouching and almost at a run I made it unobserved to within 20 metres of the final gateway into the field they were standing in before pausing to catch my breath, drop the roesack and check the wind - it was good.
Continuing on hands and knees with the sticks carefully held horizontally with a thumb between them to prevent any unwanted clacking I reached the rutted opening and successfully circumnavigated the thinly iced puddles to safely crawl into a shooting position. The passage of many vehicles over the years had thrown up a grassy berm alongside the track which gave me an almost perfect prone position, although I was certainly glad of the leather fronted Kodiak trousers to give some protection from the icy ground.
At about 200 metres I could now see two hinds and a following calf against the frosty field which sloped upwards and away from me. At my best estimate I had about 10 minutes of shooting light left so, placing the Habicht 8x56 SLC binos face down in front, I rested the flat Steyr-Mannlicher 'varmint' rifle forend on them with the thick suede sling between providing some additional padding. My left hand could then form a fist beneath the heel of the stock and regulate elevation by clenching - almost a perfect prone shooting position. I rested the crosshairs over the hind furthest out from the wood, some 60 metres from the edge, eased the safety off and set the rear trigger. I had about a minute to wait until she presented in a shootable position by quartering towards me and I could find a way into the vital area.
At the report of the 150gr Nosler BT leaving my .308 I quickly reloaded and followed her running in an arc across the field and towards me before angling in towards the wood. As she started to slow at around 100 metres distance, I briefly raised my eye from the 'scope and saw that she was now followed by two other hinds and the calf, all of which slowed as she came to a halt, still standing with her head low. Picking her out again through the scope I was aware that there were about 15 metres of decent grass backstop available before she would be framed by the wood only. I quickly decided that if she took another step I would fire again but the decision was taken from me as she buckled and fell.
With the light now all but gone the three remaining deer made off away from me and I retrieved my binos and watched them until they went out of sight. The downed hind was making no signs of movement so I gathered the rest of my gear and made my way across the field to her position. I was greeted by the sight of possibly the largest red hind I have ever seen and that includes park and farmed beasts! They certainly make 'em big down here in the Westcountry. After the usual reflex check and unloading, I hotfooted up to the farmhouse and together we brought the tractor with the front-loader on it back down to retrieve her. The field gralloch under the headlights of the tractor showed the strike as just on the point of the shoulder with the bullet tracking across the heart and lodging in the lung - there was no exit and initial carcase inspection does not indicate any excessive damage.
Here she is hung up in the barn (apologies for the quality of the pic but the beam is at about 5m so you can gauge the size)
I hope you all have a similarly successful start to the year.