Country Matters: Autumn's first glorious prize

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST armed foray of the autumn is always exciting. You can, of course, go out and prowl about the countryside at daybreak on any summer morning, but the feel of a loaded rifle slung over one shoulder inevitably raises adrenalin levels and heightens alertness - as does the hope that the expedition will end with a fallow buck in the larder.

Lucky for me, then, that Monday dawned fine. Rain in the night had left the ground wet, but by 5.30am only a few clouds still floated in the sky, and the light came up early with a blaze of orange along the horizon. The breeze was from the north, gentle but keen, and cold enough - thank heaven - to have stupefied the flies, which can be a menace at harvest time.

Reports from farmers suggested that I would find a group of seven or eight bucks out in the prairie of corn that runs for more than a mile along level ground above the wood on the eastern rim of the valley. The deer had spent much of the summer in barley fields across the lane, but now the barley had been cut and only the wheat was left.

Still, wheat is like caviare to fallow deer: they gorge themselves and grow fat on it while the season lasts. So now I felt sure I would find some gentlemen present in this cervine equivalent of Christopher's or Le Pont de la Tour.

Deer generally feed far out in the open at night, but as the light strengthens they become nervous and draw back towards the nearest wood. At the slightest sign of danger they make for cover, and once they are back in the forest the stalker's chance is gone, for at this time of the year undergrowth is still so luxuriant as to render animals invisible.

Everything thus depended on the initial contact. With the wind on my right cheek and the dawn behind me, I set off across the first field, moving silently up one of the wheel-marks left by tractors. For the first few hundred yards I was going gently uphill and had little view, but then I came over a crest and could see far down along the plain.

In the distance lay the wood. Between it and me the wheat stretched smoothly away like a living carpet, biscuit-coloured and glowing slightly in the half- light. I scanned through binoculars for tell-tale dark lumps, aware that in standing corn I was unlikely to see the whole outline of a deer; rather, I might pick out a head and ears or the horizontal line of a back. Mature bucks, with their palmated antlers, would show up most because of their size; does would be hidden except for their heads, and fawns - still less than three months old - would be concealed completely.

So much for theory. In fact the field was blank. No lumps, no dots. For a few minutes I stood still, watching for movement. There were hollows out in the middle, I knew, and beasts might come up out of them . . . but no.

Now I had to make a basic decision: whether to work left- handed or right. Instinct told me to go left first, and then swing round clockwise to come up the side of the wood, into the wind.

By then the sun was over the horizon in a splendid burst of light. Its first rays sparkled on cobwebs by the thousand and along the woodside clusters of nuts glowed greeny-white on the hazel bushes. Already the squirrels had been at them, shelling them before they were ripe. Ripe blackberries glistened under coats of dew. The whole wood boomed and droned drowsily with the cooing of woodpigeons.

Creeping on, scanning, stopping to watch, I allowed my mind to wander in search of that lovely poem by A E Housman:

'In the morning, in the morning . . . In the blue and silver morning.'

Was it my imagination, or were the seasons changing? Was this weather not exceptionally cold for August, and preternaturally autumnal? Were local farmers right in already predicting a hard winter?

Abruptly, I realised that there was an animal in sight. Three or four hundred yards ahead, slightly below me, and only a little way out from the wood, a dark blob was showing in the corn. Sinking stealthily to my knees, so that the wheat swallowed my outline, I looked through binoculars.

Sure enough, a doe. She had seen me - or rather she had seen something, though not clearly enough to give her a real fright. She stared, curious rather than alarmed, and as I searched round her with the glasses I made out six more heads. All but one were does: the odd man out was a pricket - a second-year buck. Further scrutiny showed that he had only knobs of antlers, rather than six-inch spikes, and so was a good beast to cull. This was not the herd of bucks for which I was searching, but the pricket would do.

There was only one way to approach within range, and that was by crawling straight at the deer down a wheel-mark. I swivelled my rifle over so that it was slung beneath my chest, tucked my binoculars away inside my jacket and set off on hands and knees.

The wind was perfect: straight from them to me. Stones under kneecaps . . . mud up the wrists . . . I counted 100 paces, each of about 18 inches, and came carefully up for air. The doe was still glaring, but she had not moved. The rest of the deer were unconcerned, nipping and chewing at the ears of wheat. On again, another hundred. At last the vigilant doe dropped her guard and resumed her feeding.

After the fourth hundred I reckoned I was in range and surfaced again. By then the whole group had moved slightly to the right, into a dip: better from my point of view, as it gave me a chance to kneel up, set my hinged bipod of a stick in position and settle the rifle against it.

Now it was only a matter of waiting till the pricket stood clear of the rest, in an attitude that gave me a clear shot. I waited. What a let-down it will be for the deer, I thought, when the combine comes along and all at once this great mass of food disappears. From caviare every night, they will suddenly have to rough it on grass and leaves - the equivalent of pasta.

Movement] Sudden movement - not my beasts, but others. Beyond my group, three mature bucks came cantering fast from the right, over the horizon and down towards the wood. Curses] Some other agent, far removed from me, had set them off. Now, like a fast-travelling billiard ball, they were about to send my lot flying at an angle into the wood.

On they came, looking huge. I could hear their feet ripping through the wheat. One of them had only a single horn - a more worthwhile target than my pricket. But no power on earth was going to stop them. In a few seconds they had reached the edge of the wood, and a single twang of wire came back as they leapt the fence into the trees.

The disturbance was far too violent for my group to stay put. One of the does gave a gruff bark, and the herd scattered as though a shell had landed in their midst. Away they went, bounding high over the corn, fawns visible among them now, and without a pause they, too, dived into cover.

So I was left with nothing but soaked knees and mud to the elbows. Yet what did such trifles matter when set beside the exhilaration of being out on that glorious morning, and the sight of fine, fat bucks hurtling for cover at the break of day?