Stalking is a sport that enriches the soul explains Hugh Van Cutsem.
It seems that the Beast from the East of 2018 was but an aberration in a pattern that seems to have developed over the last few years of unusually mild winters. The start of 2019 seems to have been no different and, as I write this in mid-February, already thermals and layers become quickly regretted when out after the does over the last few weeks.
As we bask in this unseasonable weather, it certainly makes one start to look forward to the warmer months of the summer and all the different activity that comes with that time of the year. Gone is the pressure that builds over the winter months to make sure the doe cull is completed – always a struggle when, combined with short hours of daylight, there is the need to consider the requirements of any pheasant shooting on a piece of ground. Instead there is the excitement of seeing the roebucks start to shed their velvet and reveal what they have beneath. And will they hold their territory or will a young usurper push them out?
I have to admit that for my part I rarely take people out to shoot mature bucks in April or May – I much prefer instead to photograph them in the stunning dawn light that time of year brings. I love the challenge of trying to crawl in close and unnoticed and ‘shooting’ my bucks with a camera. It’s small enough to not be a hindrance but good enough to take some cracking photos with.
As I get to know the established territories of my bucks, it does mean that it gets easier and easier to monitor their habits and appearances and that in turn makes me very reluctant to ever shoot one of my ‘own’ ones myself. The pleasure I have had of taking and archiving photos of the same roebucks over the last few years is immense and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t done it before. A high-quality photograph really does give you the chance to make an in-depth assessment of the age and quality of a buck, and there have been so many times that upon assessing a buck I’ve picked something up about it that I hadn’t previously spotted through wobbling binoculars. Anything from an extra point through to blindness in one eye. So much easier to do when you have time rather than a moving animal.
Roll forward and before we know it we are in the roe rut, that truly magical and prized time of the year for all deer lovers who want to immerse themselves in the challenge of hunting a quarry that, though distracted, is also almost more vigilant to any threat to his beloved (and his ongoing amorous intentions). I adore this time of the year, not just for the short window of opportunity and pressure it provides to remember one’s calling skills, but also for the sheer joy of being able to camp out and really get back to basics.
If your only previous experience of camping is either in a mud-filled festival field or in the boy scouts, I’d urge you to dust off your fire building skills and get out for a night under the stars. The summer of last year was a joy for this as the nights were so warm a tent wasn’t even necessary – a simple tarpaulin lean-to shelter more than did what was needed.
I had one particularly memorable session with a friend in early August in Wiltshire. We had been out looking for a particular old buck on his ground in June, and whilst we’d seen him we hadn’t been able to get a clear shot at him. Plans were made to try again and so we found ourselves parked on the edge of a beautiful crescent-shaped shelterbelt of beech trees. Plans were hastily made and then we went out in pursuit of the old boy, heading to his territorial woodland about a mile away.
After much spying and searching, he suddenly appeared over a distant horizon, the one place we were absolutely certain we wouldn’t see him – so often the way when stalking roebucks. We had a very exciting stalk in and then had to call him closer. Such was the way the wood edge was shaped and the way he cautiously made his way down towards us to investigate the squeaks, it meant there was no clear shot until he was almost upon us. Calm nerves were needed but the situation unfolding did not make that likely. On he came and then he paused, all of 30 yards away and gave us the opportunity we had waited for.
He was a wonderful old buck, with amazing swept back antlers and heavy bases – exactly the sort to take in the rut. This was a memorable end and we had finished by 8:30pm in the evening, so we headed back to the campsite in daylight, set up camp and started getting supper ready. The camp took all of five minutes and involved unfolding two camp chairs, a roll matt on the woodland floor for me, and my friend pushing his car back seat down. One venison curry on the campfire later, washed down with some cold beers and a lot of chat, and sleep called. The alarm was set for 4:30am the following morning to get out again.
Only when sleeping in complete fresh air, a gentle night breeze in one’s face, with rustling leaves on the trees overhead under a star-filled sky, does one remember that this is how our ancestors slept for millennia. I’m not suggesting that this is something we can all do throughout the year, but do try and take a night or two out this summer on a hunting trip. Sleeping in the palm of nature really is food for the soul and never has four hours sleep felt like 10.
We had an amazing morning out with everything one could hope for – a stunning sunrise and rutting bucks spotted across the Downs. The highlight though was as we sat eating our bacon and egg breakfast buttie by the campfire later that morning. Half joking, I suggested we try calling as we had seen a roebuck in the oilseed rape field below the bank on which we sat. We did call, and as we sat there with the sun in our faces, comfortably perched on our chairs, nature delivered. Not one but two bucks appeared from the field in front of us and came galloping through the meadow along the face of the wood towards us. They were oblivious to our presence but in full sight, focused only on what might be making the noise. They passed 30 yards below us, turning and bolting when they suddenly crossed our wind. My friend and I just sat there in stunned silence. Nature had yet again shown that it can never cease to surprise and excite. I returned home feeling truly privileged to be able to have had such an experience. My challenge this year is to take the children and do the same, and see if I can keep them still and quiet enough to call a buck in for us to watch. Optimistic perhaps...