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Rockingham Forest Blog

Valley of the Willow Brook in October

  • Writer's pictureA Deer Stalker

The view from the High Seat

A Deer Stalker


Deer stalking is carried out across much of Rockingham Forest and is the only way to control the continually expanding deer population.  You can read more about deer, the problems they cause and why deer management is necessary on these feature pages of the website.    


But we wondered about the motivations of those who are out on cold winter days deer stalking and we asked one of the stalkers to write about it. We are hugely grateful to have received the following account of what they do and why. The writer, for various reasons, has asked to remain anonymous and we are respecting those wishes.



I’m sitting in a high seat looking over a freshly cut coupe of coppice in a wood in Rockingham Forest.  The sun is just beginning to nudge the horizon. The sky, through the bare winter branches of the surrounding trees, is phasing through pinks and oranges.  It’s cold, but I am well wrapped up.  A flock of Siskins have just woken up and are lifting and turning above the poplar plantation down the hill from me, chatting away as they move from tree to tree, visiting the poplar cones for breakfast.  Other than them, it feels as if I have the woods to myself, although I know a colleague is in another high seat at the other end of the wood. I know from experience that the wood is actually full of resident wildlife: I just can’t detect it yet with my poor human senses. 

 

I switch on my thermal imager and peer through the lens at the screen as I scan the wood.  Thermal imagers are a game changer for deer managers as they will pick up the heat from an animal's’ body giving a clue to what is present, even if it cannot be seen with my the naked eye.  I detect a heat source on the ground not far from me and switch to use my binoculars.  This keeps me entertained for five minutes until I manage to put the mosaic of patterns together and realise that I am actually looking at a couched woodcock.  I revel at the perfection of the bird’s camouflage.  I am grateful for the thermal imager, but the technology is an intrusion of the modern world on what is quite an atavistic activity, the pursuit of deer.

 

There is a lot of waiting in deer stalking, but patience is often rewarded in many ways.  My vantage point in the high seat, propped up against a tree, not only gives me the greater opportunity to take a safe shot by angling the bullet trajectory into the ground, but also gives me an armchair seat to the secret going-ons of the wood.  I’ve had a juvenile Merlin perch on a nearby tree for several minutes; I’ve watched, at different times, Barn Owls and foxes "mousing" in the rough grass of the forest rides;  Badgers going about their business, trundling back to their setts after a busy night-shift.  All these things are sights I would have been lucky to see if I had just been walking through the wood.

 

My dog fidgets a little at the base of the high seat.  Her nose is lifted from where she was curled up. and it is flared and lifted as she sniffs a scent.  I raise my thermal imager and scan the wood edge in the direction the wind is coming from.  At first I see nothing but the grey ghostly images of the trees giving out their ambient light, but then a few flecks of white on the thermal’s screen betray the presence of animals moving several trees back into the wood.  Once again the dog’s nose has beaten the technology. I can tell from the glimpse I am getting that I am looking at a small group of Fallow Deer moving back into the wood to couch up after a night on the neighbouring fields where they have been grazing on crops.

 

The deer are not in an hurry, their movements within the group are erratic. Their heads are frequently turned as one or other will veer off their general course, distracted by some piece of vegetation to browse - an ash seedling perhaps. or a piece of fungi that they spot.  This is where fallow cause a problem.  They get well fed, grazing on the surrounding farmers' fields, but on return to the woodland they can’t stop themselves having a bit of dessert - nipping off the growing shoots of some regenerating coppice, knocking back the next generation of trees and effectively, when in high numbers, eating themselves out of their own homes.

 

I can see the deer in my binoculars now but they are still too far back in the trees for a safe shot, but they look as if they are heading to cross a ride within 100 metres of my high seat.  I steady myself for an ambush.   The leading doe emerges on to the ride and pauses, scanning for danger. The rifle is up and covering her but before I can shoot a follower steps forward next to her and I cannot risk shooting one for fear of wounding the other.  I watch and wait, safety-catch on. The deer cross, first a pair and then a three, and they then melt into woodland behind.   I am looking at the deer as they go, estimating their age and condition.  There are two adults, two yearlings and one of this year’s fawns.  All priority for the culling plan - unfortunately you cannot control deer populations by only controlling males.

 

I think my opportunity has gone but then another doe steps out onto the ride. She’s in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the group but stops when I give a bark. My cross hairs are already on her chest, the safety catch is slipped off and the shot is taken.  In a bound the deer is off the ride and out of sight. This is perfectly normal, but the hardest part of deer stalking.  I review my actions in my head, the sight picture and I am confident my aim was true, but until I know that the deer is humanely and swiftly dispatched I am anxious that I have done a good job. 

 

It’s a long wait as I pause for the wood to settle after the insult of my shot.  I then go through the procedure of unloading my rifle, descending the ladder of the high seat and then reloading.  Collecting my dog to heel, I slowly start stalking toward the point on the ride where the deer was standing, constantly scanning for the shot deer.  On arrival I study the ground for signs of the impact of the shot.  There is a scuff mark in the mud where the deer kicked out, but as is often the case with modern not-toxic (non-lead) ammunition, there is no blood or hair to give me any clues as to what happened.  Nothing for me anyway. I bring my dog up and slip her into her tracking harness and long line. She soon tells me what’s going on with busy snuffling in the leaf litter and then by steady tracking in the direction I had seen the deer leap.  Now that the dog has helped me, I catch a glimpse of a drop of bright pink blood, an indication of a fatal shot.  My anxiety diminishes a tad.

 

As I let my dog start to track she pulls me through the thick scrub at the edge of the ride. There’s a deer-sized gap which is perfect for my dog, but branches scratch at my face as I try and keep up.  And then the leash goes slack - my dog has reached the doe, which has only travelled fifteen metres before expiring. At the speed deer travel, that is nothing and death would have been almost instantaneous.  I am relieved.

 

Now begins the hard work, if the carcass is not to be wasted (although, in nature, nothing is really wasted) I need to start the process of hygienically turning her into venison, fit for human consumption.  I gralloch her, which is removing the main organs - heart, lungs, liver and intestines, and then move her into a sled that I collect from my truck.  The sled allows me to drag her out of the wood while protecting the venison from contaminates such as mud.  Once in my truck the deer carcass is taken away to be hung in a game chiller. Here the carcass is brought down to the correct temperature for storage until it is collected by the approved game-handling establishment or game dealer.

 

Once home I reflect on the day.  I’ve spent many years in Rockingham Forest but each day is different.  I am pleased that I have made an effective contribution to the conservation of the forest. Also some high-quality, free-range protein is now in the human food chain.  It is difficult to get a firearms certificate and I take my responsibilities to the public and to the deer seriously.  I have undertaken extensive training and have both my deer stalking certificate levels 1 and 2 and also a qualification in large game meat handling. I'm also continuing to study through attending deer management workshops and personal research.


Currently the only legal way of managing deer populations is through using a “deer legal centre fire” rifle.  People talk about replacing deer stalking with wolves but it will be generations before the complex ecological web is established so that deer numbers can by managed by natural means.  In the meantime humans need to step in or deer populations will exceed the carrying capacity of the environment, leading to environmental degradation and ultimately the deer themselves starving.

 

I do live for what some people consider a sport, but to me it so much more.  Perhaps it is a way of life, one that so few people get chance to engage in now, but which would have been familiar to our distant ancestors.  Suffice to say, I feel I am living my truest good life when I am alone with my dog, immersed in the woodland, carrying out a task vital to the forest’s continuation, in an ethically justifiable manner to the best of my abilities.   I count myself lucky to have that opportunity.







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