So, I took last Friday (9 May) off work so that I could have a day of stalking as a client of Malcolm (sikamalc) down on his ground in West Sussex.
Now, I am pretty new to stalking, and this would be my fourth attempt to actually get a deer to my name. I'd been out once with a stalker in Cornwall (nice bloke called Scott Milne), and twice before with Malcolm, and for whatever reason we'd seen no shootable deer. Not that I hadn't enjoyed my time out, but I was pretty eager to open the score book if for no other reason than that as a civil servant with a wife and baby to feed, I've got nearly no money for beer, let alone stalking.
We started at first light, this time Malc was guiding another client, and had put me in the capable hands of Tommo (sorry if that's not how you like it spelt!). All I knew about him was that he was about my own age, had a taste for Haribo and few, if any, inhibitions. Malc suggested an area for Tommo to take me, and even identified a specific buck we might look for, as a small part of his permission is about to have a housing estate built next to it which will make it more or less unstalkable. This was across some fields and crossing the railway line into that piece of woodland. So, that is where we set off to.
We started in a field I recognised from my previous outing with Malcolm. Tommo nitrogenated the hedge whilst I loaded my rifle and then we set off following the hedge line of the field down towards the railway line. We were still quite a distance from where we were heading, and not being especially stealthy, when a shot rang out. I am not given to Schadenfreude, and I try to take genuine pleasure from other people's success, but a small part of me did cringe at that sound: surely the others hadn't already made a kill? Five minutes into the stalk - a quick call went through to Malcolm to find what the situation was. Yes, the shot was them, but it was a fox, and sadly his chicken-worrying days were far from over. I can't really justify it, but somehow if they had shot a buck so early it would have put a bit more pressure on me to make a success of my own stalk. Nothing to do with Malc's other client, a top bloke, and I couldn't be more pleased that his day was also to lead to success, but, having been out three times previously and come back with nothing, I think it may have left me thinking that I'd never bring it off if other people were manageing it so easily. Anyway, as I said, no such worry.
As we continued to work our way down the field, Tommo saw a buck tearing at the trees at the railway fence. We couldn't tell if he was a four- or six-point head, so a quick call to Malcolm was made to establish if he would cost me £25 or £100 to shoot. We set up and spent a good few minutes watching him, during which time we startled another roe in a patch of woodland at right angles to us. To be honest I was so excited about having a deer in my cross-hairs that I could actually shoot, that I didn't really care about the other one. From where we were the buck was further than I would have been happy shooting, but then a train passed through and the buck, irritated at having his breakfast disturbed so noisily, began to trot away from the line towards where we were hiding in the hedge. With the words "stalking just got easier", Tommo confirmed that it would be a £25 buck, and my pulse quickened; well-rested and comfortably set up on the sticks, I watched that buck through my scope as it came closer and closer to us. It never stopped moving, and at some point well within 100 yards of us, caught our scent or spotted us - I don't know which - but it shot off proper deer-fast towards the top of the field and away from. Perhaps a real pro would have seen and taken a safe shot, I can't say. I cannot even remember if I took the safety off. I was enormously pleased just to have seen something that would be legitimate!
We then made our way through the wood to where the roe we had spooked had been. We didn't see it, but came through to another field where we started walking along the railway fence looking for the bridal path Malc had told us crossed the line into the piece of woodland where the suggested buck had been seen. As we were doing this however, we saw another buck above the field we were now in. We worked our way back the way we'd come to edge of the field. Keeping low and close, we worked our way up the reverse of the hedge line to close up on the space to this second buck. There was a little clump of brambles, bushes and stumpy tree growth into whose shadow the buck had grazed. Tommo told me to stay close. We went low and slow to where we thought the buck should be. We were so close, I wound the scope down to its lowest magnification. If we were 30 yards away I would be surprised. So damn close we were! However, this buck perhaps had a reason to be so bold. The only backstop that afforded itself was the grassy embankment of the tennis court in the garden of a rather grand-looking house immediately behind, and there was I, at about 0630ish with an unmoderated 308! Whilst we agonised over whether or not to wake the household, within seconds of Tommo saying "right let's wake up the neighbours" the buck calmly walked into their garden and so ended this stalk. Absolutely thrilling, despite not having the chance of a shot.
Tommo and I were now once again away from the railway line so we moved along a field. Entering the next we saw, grazing the crops and grass at the far edge, yet another four-point buck. So we went up into the treeline above the field to try and work our way towards him. The treeline contained a mossy ditch, and we lay there for at least five minutes, possibly a lot longer. The ditch was brilliant, soft-shaded and allowed me to adopt a rested position with the buck comfortably in the centre of my sights. The range was probably a little over 200yds, though I felt pretty confident that the position was so secure that if I shot I would have hit. I was lying there willing Tommo to invite me to shoot, but he didn't, so I didn't say anything and after watching the buck a little longer we continued to the end of the tree line and into the opposite corner of the field the buck was in. We were now at the opposite corner of the field from which we'd first seen him, looking down the field, at bottom of which was the railway line. The occasional passing trains seemed not to bother the buck too much. We inched our way around the corner of the hedge line into the field. The buck was happily crunching away at the foliage, and there we were about 120yds above him, the field gently sloping down and him facing up though not quite at us, but not quite broadside. Tommo set up his sticks, and I rested the rifle and made ready. "Wait until I say", I was told, and I did. Which shows the value of being guided by a pro. I wasn't quite comfortable, and the buck just wasn't presenting himself broadside. I twitched a little trying to make my stance a little easier, at the same time Tommo told me I could shoot now if I was ready. The same moment the buck turned again, and I was again told to wait. It felt like a long time, it probably wasn't. Then Tommo said OK.
I squeezed the trigger. The rifle barked, a relief as it was a round I'd loaded myself - I would have been mortified if it had misfired! If there was recoil I didn't notice it.
The buck leapt the four or five feet into the hedge.
"F***" I said, too loudly. I'd missed. How could I have missed? The position was good, the hold was good. I'd never shot a deer before, only rabbits, squirrels, pigeons and pheasant, all with an air rifle. All died without running. I would have sworn that I shouldn't have missed. I might not have perfect shot placement, but I couldn't have missed altogether, could I?
Tommo told me I hadn't missed. Apparently the buck kicked out in a way that indicated a hit. I'd tried to observe the fall of shot, but hadn't picked up on that.
We went down the field to see where he was. Tommo told me to look for blood and hair. I don't remember if we saw any before he pointed into the hedge. And there was my buck, facing back 180 degrees from the direction in which he'd jumped. His little antlers had caught in the hedge and were holding his head up in an ominously lifelike way. I think that must have spun him around too which is why he was facing back at us. Initially I thought he was still alive, I even thought I could see his chest moving a little, but I think that was a combination of imagination and worry that I had cocked it up.
At my request, Tommo took me through a field gralloch. I was relieved and even a little proud to see that the bullet had actually struck where I'd Intended it to. Apparently I ought to have been aiming a little lower. The bullet had pierced both lungs and exited without destroying the heart or liver. Altogether a good quick kill, and the animal was dead within 10 feet of where it had been shot. The first kill I'd made with my first centrefire rifle, and made with the ammunition I'd loaded for it. Pleased? Maybe just a little!
We then headed back to the bothy for a full English breakfast, enroute discovering that Malc's other client had also successfully stalked and shot his first roe buck. So all in all about as a good a morning as we could have hoped for.
Of course I bought the carcass, and a local butcher is hanging and butchering it for me. The liver went straight into the deep freeze, and the heart went into a curry, some of which was then blitzed up for my six month old son, who loved it.
So, massive thanks to Malcolm and Tommo for an amazing day, my first roe, buck and deer. Come winter I will be back again. Especially to Tommo whose skill and experience were substantially responsible for getting me as close as I did get to all three of the bucks we stalked.
Cheers, I'll be back. Maybe not until the winter cull season, but I will be back and I can't recommend you highly enough.
Very very pleased.