I’m fortunate enough to have shooting access to several pretty patches of ground. One is mostly sheep pasture, and when I’m on it it’s mostly after foxes. Yet on my nocturnal forays, I’d seen the occasional muntjac, albeit, and as so often, all on the wrong side of the boundary. Nevertheless, the optimist in me concluded that they could well be lying up in a small patch of dense woodland on my side.
So one day I slipped in and set up a trail camera, and a month later, after slipping back in to pick it up, I found to my delight that my pocket thicket was a veritable social club for the little chaps – and chap-esses.
This led, in pretty short order, to another visit to put in a free-standing high seat, which was then left unused for another month. I’m sure there’s merit in not disturbing things too much, but in reality the delays were due to other commitments, and I was of course itching to get in there again and take a look at the locals for myself.
Well, the May Bank Holiday gave me the chance, and on a sunny Monday afternoon I put a lightweight set of kit together, and selected my .222/20g combination to go with it as it’s proved itself to be a really handy rifle in a high seat, whilst in the thick cover a single-shot would be no disadvantage, aside from which, the range would be so short that if I missed I felt I would’t deserve a second shot.
A short quarter-mile semi-stalk from the vehicle brought me to the edge of the wood, and no sooner had I lifted my foot over the sheep fencing than I saw a fair-sized buck slipping through the firs into a patch of hawthorn and briar, where it began to bark at me.
Now I was really buzzing, excited at getting straight into the deer, but concerned that I might have blown it at literally the first hurdle. The animal was still just visible through the thicket, moving back and forth, trying to get a better look at the source of the danger it had sensed.
Standing stock still, I stared back, hoping for a chance to confirm my initial impression that it was the nice buck that had been the star of my trail-cam slideshow. A small gap in the briars was enough to confirm it, and would have given me a shot too, had I not been standing at the bottom of a bank and the buck at the top, with nothing but sky behind it.
After a few minutes it disappeared from view and the barking receded. There was no point remaining where I was, so I carefully moved up the slope, treading gingerly though the fallen fir branches and trying not to dislodge the ones still attached to the trees, and conscious of the risk of a poke in the eye if I didn’t look out. Finally, I made it to the grassy edge of the hawthorns and inched over the rise. By now, however, the buck was about 40 yards away, behind a dense clump of blackthorn.
I waited, crouched down so as to steady the rifle against one of the posts in the broken-down fence that marks the divide between the firs and the scrub, only to feel my pounding heart sink as the barking dwindled into distance and silence.
What to do now? Admit defeat and head home to re-think my strategy, or keep on to the high seat and hope for better luck in the time I had left before being recalled to domestic duties? I decided that as it was a fine afternoon, and as the spring growth might well have altered the view from the seat, I could do worse than carry on, climb up, and check things out.
At worst I could spend a pleasant hour basking in the sun, perhaps pondering where I might better site the seat, and at best I might get a chance at a different animal, maybe even one of the roebuck that pass through there from time to time. After all, I hadn’t suspected the presence of roe on this ground until the camera showed me they were there, and I couldn’t have been keener to see one at first hand.
So I sat in the seat, in the sun, and fought off the inevitable drowsiness that this, and the receding tide of adrenalin, had brought on. I watched the butterflies, a green-veined white, an orange tip, a speckled wood, and a faded and tattered small tortoiseshell –presumably a gallant old survivor from last year- that came and sunned itself on the rail of the seat. Behind and below me a cluster of iridescent bluebottles basked on a sunlit bump on the slender trunk of a young birch tree. Back in the firs a squirrel chattered, and above me a procession of mallard, Canada geese and heron respectively quacked, honked and flapped across a blue sky embellished with fluffy white clouds.
Suddenly, a pair of shrieking jays flashed across the clearing in front of me, rousing me from my reverie and reminding me that if all I wanted was to take a nap in the sun I could have stayed in the garden at home.
Newly alert, I scanned the edges of the clearing in front of me for movement, keeping a weather eye –attentive to Murphy’s Law- on the firs behind. I was just turning back from these when I caught sight of a ginger shape, trotting out of the bushes on the left of the clearing. Not a fox, but a good buck muntjac – my buck. Suddenly everything was switched on again -the detail sharper, the colours brighter- while time slowed down.
I eased the rifle onto the rail, glad that I’d attached a felt cover to the fore-end to dampen any noise, snugged the butt into my shoulder, wound up the magnification from 1X to 3X, eased the cocking slide steadily forward, and slid the crosshair down onto the buck… which began grazing.
No rush, then. The grass was long and strewn with fallen branches, but I knew I could pick my moment.
A little more to the left… a little more… That’s it! I pressed the trigger. The .222 barked, and the buck dropped, rolled over, then lunged forward, head-down, once, then again, and disappeared from view behind the edge of the blackthorn.
Waiting is always the hardest part. You’re fully charged and raring to go, convinced too that the shot was good, but still you wait, just in case. And while you do so you replay everything, first backwards, from the moment of the shot to the first step into the wood; then forwards, from the instant when the buck first sensed an intruder in his domain, to the fateful moment when he returned to reclaim it.
Time’s up. Unload. Slip down the ladder. Remove the scope and tuck it back into its case: the open sights are better for anything quick and short. Load again and set off slowly. Slowly, now. Round the corner of the blackthorns… and there he is. You know at once that he’s quite dead – the stillness of his chest and the bright pink rosette on his left shoulder tell you that -, but you touch his eye gently with a twig, just to be sure. There’s no movement.
The gralloch and extraction are a formality, but still a vital part of the ritual, especially the former: few things are more intimate. The carcase is easily bled. The top of the heart is gone. The entrails are perfect. The loamy soil yields easily to the shovel and the gralloch is soon buried.
A small business, really. An occasional stalker. A trusted gun, found by chance in a Northern gun shop. A hand-load that came right almost at once. A high seat that did so too. But it yielded a perfect little deer, full of character, that will be shared and recalled with pleasure: among friends around the dinner table; in photos that will bring back a golden past in future times; and possibly, if I get things right, as a modest, but evocative head on the wall of my study, where, for the price of an occasional dusting, he will gently remind me of what I’d rather be doing.