Friday, 23 May 2008

The Birthday Buck

I know a very nice couple in Warwickshire, Tim and his lovely wife whose name escapes me as do most, and Tim and I worked on the same project for a while. Tim was taking up stalking when I arrived and last year his birtday present turned out to be a Red Stag.

This year I'll let Tim tell the story;

Occasionally something happens that makes me think the Romans might have been right….

My birthday falls in the middle of May. Taking a leaf out of a friend’s book, I had decided to be up and out on one of my shoots by dawn on my birthday, to stalk Roe, especially as I knew that one of my birthday presents was going to be a Roesack. Is there a better way to start a birthday if you are a deer stalker?

As the appointed day drew closer, my wife decided that she wanted to come with me.

At this point, let me digress slightly, and introduce you to my wife. To put it simply, she is a deerstalker’s dreams come true.

Whilst I stalk deer with a .243 rifle, she stalks deer (and other wildlife) with a digital SLR camera. I announce that I’m going to get up at 4am to go stalking – likely the answer will be ‘can I come too?’ While I am getting the gun and ammo out of the cabinet, a flask of coffee is being prepared. Sometime later, I shoot a deer, but don’t have a roesack with me – she’ll be running to help me get the deer and my kit back to the car. I arrive home with a deer that I haven’t yet gralloched, because my shoot is only a few minutes drive from home - she’ll be helping me with the gralloch, skinning and butchering and disposal of the waste. She loves venison, provided it’s cooked at the most rare, preferably blue. Not the average wife I would suggest. Get the picture?

Back to the story….

As the appointed day approached, the weather man changed his plan for the day from being a reasonably fair day to rain. Not something to exactly maximise my enthusiasm. Strange how when they forecast rain, they’re usually right….

4 am, the alarm dragged me toward wakefulness. As I leaned over to ask my wife how she was, the reply came back ‘had a lousy night – hardly slept’. At that point, I felt the prospects weren’t exactly the best they could be, so I said ‘OK, perhaps we’ll forget it and go back to sleep then’. A firm reply came back ‘No – we’re definitely going’. ‘Oh, okay then!’

‘Do you want your presents now or later?’ she asked. I thought about it, but decided on the later option – my confidence in getting a Roe in the rain wasn’t exactly high, and I just wanted to get to the shoot as early as possible.

So we dragged ourselves out of bed, and headed for the kitchen for a quick coffee and bowl of cereal. As I looked out of the window, it didn’t look as if it was raining, and my spirits rallied somewhat. As I got the rifle etc out, my wife made the flask of coffee.

It felt very cold for a morning in May, so more layers of clothing than normal for the time of the year were the order of the day.

Normally when I shoot at this particular farm, I don’t take my sticks. The nature of the terrain is such that in most places that I see Roe, I have worked out suitable safe lines of fire to use the bipod on the rifle for that additional accuracy to be able to shoot at longer ranges. But for some strange reason, this particular morning I grabbed the sticks – which are the telescopic type. Why did I grab them? I’ll never know….

As we walked out to the car, laden with rifle, sticks and a load of photographic gear, spirits tumbled again somewhat – it was very definitely raining.

The shoot is about 350 acres of rolling farmland, mixed arable / sheep pasture, but doesn’t have any real woodland on it. However, the farm next door does have a wood which is teeming with Roe, and of course, they do stray onto my shoot, and by this time of the year, are frequently to be found living in the growing crops. I had been watching a yearling buck a few nights before, and had decided I was going to go to that part of the farm where I had seen him.

My wife’s original plan had been to go to the wood on the next farm, where she has permission to photograph, but I don’t have permission to shoot, so that we would be well separated for the usual safety reasons.

As we drove to the farm, she decided to change her plan, and come to the same place as me, partly because there was some tree cover to shelter form the rain, and partly because the place where I intended to be could have deer approach from any direction. Then, we could be next to each other, watching in opposite directions. I admitted to her that I didn’t expect to see many Roe out in this weather.

We arrived at the farm just as the light was sufficient to see where we were going, and the rain seemed to be getting heavier. As we walked down the track toward the chosen location, I was extending the legs of my sticks. One telescoped and locked okay. To my annoyance the other telescoped but would not lock. The countryside seemed devoid of its normal early morning birdsong, to be replaced by the sound of rain falling on my hat. Spirits falling still further…..

As we walked, the rain seemed to be getting heavier, then my wife changed back to her original plan, to go to the wood on the neighbouring farm. Accordingly, with a whispered farewell along the lines of ‘ring me on the mobile if you get fed up, too cold or too wet’, our paths parted.

To get to where I wanted to be, I could have continued walking along the track we were currently on although another 100 yards or so along the track my wife would turn off left onto another track toward the wood. But the wind direction dictated that I should strike off to the right and walk round the far edge of a field sown with rape. Murphy’s Law, the field border was up to my knees in grass. And, it was very wet grass.

After 40 yds of trudging through the long grass, my cammo trouser legs were thoroughly soaked, and my lower legs getting rapidly very cold. The thought of continuing like this for the best part of another half a mile, then sitting waiting for an hour or two to see if a Roe appeared made an instant decision. Turn back, and take the alternative, albeit less preferred route down the original track to my intended ambush point.

As I moved slowly down the track, I glanced across to my left, to see my wife some 150 yards down the other track to the left leading to the wood. She was standing stock still. That only meant one thing – she was watching something. As the grass where she was standing was also up to her knees that ruled out foxes, hares and rabbits.

A dark shape was about 50 yards or so beyond her, on the edge of the wheat crop. Another dark shape was against the hedge. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed a pair of Roe – a buck with very thin antlers, and what I assumed was his doe! Both looked like probably yearlings at that range.

At that moment it seemed to stop raining, and my legs no longer seemed wet or cold. It didn’t stop raining, but as usual, the stalking instinct kicked in with the turbocharger, as all senses, every muscle in my body, and my brain focussed on one goal – getting close enough to that Roe to take it. Hence, that fact that it was still raining quite heavily slipped completely out of my awareness.

I decided to put the bins inside my jacket, and not use them again, to minimise movement that might be spotted by the Roe.

To try to describe the options for a shot, the scenario was as follows. Range to Roe about 200+ yards. My wife 150 yards in front of me almost in a direct line of fire. Grass up to my knees. No backstop behind the Roe if I had been able to get a shot off the rifle bipod – which was impossible due to the depth of the grass. The only plus factors were that the wind was blowing my scent and sound away from the Roe, and the light was still relatively poor, with the cloud and falling rain.

Only one option – get at least level with my wife, and take a shot off the sticks. What a joy that I had brought them!

Every time the Roe but his head down, I moved one or two paces. As usual, those 150 yards to where my wife stood seemed like a mile. God bless her, she remained absolutely motionless. As I reached about 50 yards from her, the Roe started watching me much more intently, with that characteristic sideways movements of the head that indicated that he had seen something that possibly shouldn’t be there, but hadn’t yet quite decided whether it was a threat to him or not.

20 yards of my single paces further, and he turned around and slowly walked off away from me, the doe following him. That most dreaded view of 2 light coloured Roe rumps! ‘Stop, damn you’ I muttered silently to myself.

I kept going slowly. Eventually, they, and I stopped. I was about 10 yards behind my wife. Very slowly she looked round as she heard my approach, with a knowing look on her face. Slowly, slowly, I kept moving forward every time the Roe put his head down. When I was level with her I whispered ‘Can I take him?’. ‘Of course’ came the sibilant reply.

I suddenly realised I hadn’t put a round in the breech, and cursed inwardly.

Slowly, I set up the sticks, then very slowly moved the rifle off my shoulder. Working the bolt at the slowest speed I have ever moved it, keeping my finger on the round for as long as I could to steady it, there still came that inevitable point where the round finally stripped off the magazine, and rattled its way into the breech. It sounded like someone was jumping up and down on a corrugated steel roof. Luckily the Roe didn’t seem to hear either it, or the much more subdued click as I applied the safety.

At another interminably slow speed, I raised the rifle onto the sticks, flipping open the scope covers. Perhaps I ought to explain that my rifle has a T8 moderator on it, so it is very heavy at the muzzle end.

The Roe was now square on to me – the perfect shot – but very definitely watching me.

Just as I got my eye to the scope, one leg of the sticks dropped by about 4 inches. Cursing inwardly again – I had forgotten about the failure to lock on the telescopic section. I adjusted my position, crouching down slightly, and moved the crosshairs. Again the leg dropped another 3 inches. How I managed not to curse loudly I will never know, but I took my left hand off the sticks, and decided to give some support to the fore end of the rifle. Now I know that’s not what we are supposed to do, but I just couldn’t risk the idea of the stick dropping again.

Crouching into what seemed an impossible stance, the crosshairs again came to bear on the shoulder of the buck. But they weren’t as steady as I would have liked – too much wavering due to not being able to lock my stance properly. Decision time – it was now or never – the Roe was still watching me intently.

With my heart pounding in my ears like the drums of the band of the Royal Marines, I thumbed off the safety, put my finger on the trigger and slowly increased the pressure.

Crack…Whooompff.

A hit!

The buck leapt in the air, then made off into the depth of the wheat, followed closely by his doe.

This time I cursed aloud – had I gut shot him, or was he just charged up on adrenaline? My heart fell back into the dungeons of despair, at the though of a long follow up through a wheat crop.

20 yards later, the buck disappeared from view into the crop, but the doe kept going for another 20 yards or so before she stopped and looked back.

Joy returned to my heart, as my wife looked at me and quietly said “I was wondering if you were ever going to take the shot!”

As we walked toward where the buck had fallen, the Doe watched us.

The buck was about 10 yards into the wheat, and a quick touch to the eyeball confirmed his passing. A small exit wound on the shoulder, and no horrible smell confirmed that the shot was good. The thin antlers and general body build confirmed a youngster – possibly a yearling. The gralloch would later confirm the bullet went straight through the heart (although I have to confess I do like those shots that do drop the deer on the spot whilst leaving the heart intact – roast Roe heart is a firm favourite in our house!).

Well, the fact that his brief flight was fuelled by adrenaline at least meant a reasonably swift death, albeit that the presence of huge amounts of adrenaline in his bloodstream might cause the venison to be just that bit tougher than if he had been completely oblivious to my presence.
The Doe kept moving away, circling round us, and watching, and I do have to admit to feeling somewhat sorry for her, as she looked for her mate. Still, she had plenty of time to find another one before the rut!

As my wife said “You were lucky – I was just on the point of deciding I was bored with standing watching them when I heard you!”, I suddenly noticed it was still raining… and my legs were cold and wet….

As home is only a 15 minute drive away, and we were only 5 minutes walk from the car, we decided to take the Roe home and gralloch it in the dry and light, on the hoist in the garage. My wife turned to me and said ‘Put the deer on my shoulders, then you pick up all the kit – which included her photographic rucksack, camera tripod, and the rifle butt style attachment I had made for her camera. It was a close thing as to which was the easier to carry – the weight of the Roe or all the various bits of kit!

In a state of elation we headed back to the car, and arrived home long before most people were even thinking of getting out of their beds.

Quickly gralloching the buck, we opted for a break for a breakfast of coffee and croissants.

As we talked over the croissants, the ‘what if’s’ passed through my mind…

….If my wife hadn’t decided to come with me despite being very tired from lack of sleep, or she had stuck with her revised plan of going to the same place as I planned to go to, I would never have known the Roe were there in that particular field.

….If it hadn’t been raining, my spirits may have been somewhat lighter, but I would have continued round the edge of the rape field, and not gone back to the track, and not chanced to see my wife watching the Roe.

…If I hadn’t taken the sticks there would not have been a shot possible.

…If I had decided to open my birthday cards and presents before setting off, the 10 or 15 minutes delay might just have been the point where the Roe decided they had browsed enough of that hedge and crop, and it was time to move on.

Was it just that hunter’s instinct that we all take for granted when everything just goes well, or was someone ‘watching over me’ on my birthday?

‘Maybe there must be a God of Hunting’ I observed to my wife ‘Maybe the Romans had it right after all…’

After butchering the deer and packing it in the freezer, we feasted on superb roast haunch of Roe that night, accompanied by a very nice red wine.

The toast at the dinner table that night was ‘To Diana – the God of Hunting!’ (And we also toasted Bacchus for his help with the wine!).
Maybe the Romans did have some things right after all……

here is the proof of the pudding;

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