Country Matters: Alone in the killing fields
It is a curious fact that while many species of birds and animals are struggling to survive in Britain, deer are flourishing as never before. In the Scottish Highlands the number of red deer has risen to an all- time high of 350,000, mainly because winters have turned so mild that natural mortality has been greatly reduced, and stalkers cannot shoot enough to keep the population stable. In English woodlands harsh weather rarely claims many victims, but otherwise the story is much the same: deer keep increasing and spreading, and in many areas they are causing serious damage to trees and farm crops.
My own main interest is in fallow deer, which come out on to farmland to feed at night, and return to cover at or soon after first light. The best time to catch them in the open is just as dawn is breaking.
So it was that on Sunday night I set my alarm clock for 5.20am and went to bed hoping that Monday would dawn dry. When I looked out, the sky was full of stars: a great start. As always, there were many things to remember before take-off: feed Jemima, my young Labrador, make a quick cup of coffee, assemble rifle, bolt, ammunition, knife, rope for dragging, cap, gloves, binoculars, stick. Then it was into the Jeep and away for the 25-minute drive to the estate on which I cull.
Half a mile short, I stopped on a stretch of open lane to test the wind. A cold breeze was blowing from the north - ideal for my purposes. Away to my right the horizon had already started to lighten. No time to lose. Two minutes later I stopped in a gateway under some trees, got out, loaded five rounds into the .243, and set off for a high seat on the upper edge of a steeply wooded bank, looking out over fields.
Rain had fallen earlier in the night, but frost had come down in the small hours, and the grass of the woodland ride crunched slightly underfoot. Jemima, though still not a year old, has learnt the form brilliantly, and followed silently at heel, sitting down whenever I stopped, lying flat if I crouched.
We approached the high seat warily, on a path that winds uphill through fir trees. By the time I'd sneaked up the ladder to the platform, the horizon was flaring deep orange, and I didn't need binoculars to pick out the five black shapes silhouetted against the blaze of dawn, barely 90 yards out in front of me. Three does and two fawns. By now last year's fawns have stopped feeding from their mothers, and are easily mature enough to survive on their own. So - three perfect targets. Immediate action!
Not so fast. The beasts were on the skyline: a bullet would probably go straight through any one of them and on across country.
The deer were grazing towards my right, moving on a few steps at a time. If only they'd turn towards the wood and head my way! But no; without any inkling of danger, they carried steadily on, and disappeared into safety over the curve of the hill.
Under the clear sky, the light was strengthening by the minute. Back on the ground, I hustled towards another promising field and came cautiously up behind a stone wall to scan the grass meadow. The sole occupant was a big dog fox, mousing.
On, then, beside the wall separating field on my right from wood on my left. Suddenly in the trees a stick cracked. We'd been spotted. I looked over the wall. Six does and fawns were charging downhill through the trees. A hundred yards off, they stopped to look back. By then I was kneeling, rifle levelled over the wall. One doe was standing clear. Background safe? Yes or no? Yes. I held the cross of the telescopic sight steady on her heart and squeezed the trigger.
At the shot the whole group wheeled, fled and vanished downhill to my left. I put Jemima on a lead and came down to the place where they'd been standing. No body. But deer often run after a heart-shot, and on that steep slope a stricken beast could have travelled a long way. I searched for pins (bristles of hair cut by the bullet) and spots of blood. Nothing. Had I missed? For 100 yards we followed the tracks of the group, angling downhill through ash and hazel. Jemima was heaving mightily on her lead, but there was still no blood, and I assumed that in her inexperience she was scenting the whole bunch, rather than a wounded animal.
Back to the impact point for a more thorough search. Jemima, let go, put her nose to the ground and began working methodically in the opposite direction, right-handed down the slope. Soon she disappeared into the valley, way below me. After a while I followed - and when she came back, three or four minutes later, she was soaked to the skin.
Obviously she'd been in the river at the bottom. Surely she wouldn't have gone swimming on such a cold day unless drawn by some special lure? I went on down until water was showing through the trees. Scanning with binoculars, I picked up a smooth, rounded hump, like the back of a hippo.
There was the doe, dead in the stream. To extract it, I too had to go in, nearly waist-deep, wrestle the body ashore, then drag it 250 yards up a one-in-three slope rendered greasy as butter by weeks of rain.
So our operation concluded at 8.30am. I was not in a pretty state: hands and jacket covered with blood and mud, torso soaked with sweat, boots full of water, feet like ice. But Jemima had confirmed that she is a star in the making, and between us we had moved one notch nearer to our elusive target.
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