A Long Haul

12th March 2011

Terry – a friend of mine, very kindly offered me the opportunity to deal with some red deer that were destroying the kale crops on some farms near where he lives near the North Devon coast. After we’d discussed it further, he duly set to and got all the permission letters, etc. sorted out for me.

Sadly, I then caught a flu bug off my Good Lady and although it never really came to anything, it laid me low for quite a while. The main problem was that I got some kind of post-viral exhaustion, and it took some time before I felt well enough to drive over for a first sight of the land I was to be shooting over.

One Saturday afternoon in March saw me sitting in Terry’s living room, chatting to his lovely wife while he got all his kit together. A couple of minutes later I heard another male voice and glanced over my shoulder, expecting it to be one of Terry’s family dropping in – but no, it was Marcus. I greeted him with “Hi Marcus, I didn’t know you were coming along too!”, to which he said “I didn’t know you were coming!”.

Anyway – we set off, with Terry driving his BMW gangster car with Marcus accompanying him as passenger, while I followed up in my old Disco. A few miles up the road we arrived on site. The weather had been pretty poor for a couple of hours, with the grey clouds overhead producing a steady drizzle. Still, the wind was little more than a gentle breeze, and there was the hope that the last couple of hours of daylight would stay relatively dry.

Once we’d parked up we set about getting ourselves kitted out. A month or so previously, Terry had joined me for a night vision foxing session, however, the poor chap had taken some stick from me for turning up wearing the noisiest clothing in the world. Fortunately for him, the ground had been so frozen that it was impossible to take a step without all manner of unwanted scrunching sounds, and this had masked his embarrassment.

For today’s session, however, he’d sorted out some much more appropriate wear – apart from his boots, that is, which clumped so loudly it sounded like they belonged in a steelyard. After some mild teasing about this, we set off in earnest.

Terry opened the first gate we came to, but it had a sprung-loaded latch bolt that made a sound like a thousand banshees all screeching at once. I made a mental note to climb any other gates we came across. We’d chosen a route that would allow us to approach the likeliest spots without too much risk of the wind betraying us, but it wouldn’t need to at this rate…

As it was, there was nothing much to see in the first few fields, other than a large gaggle of very nervous pheasants. Fortunately, they scarpered without making too much fuss. There were, however, lots of fresh slots (tracks), and several large piles of red deer droppings, so I knew that we weren’t far from our intended prey.

Terry wisely decided that I should go ahead on my own, while he and Marcus followed up a hundred yards or so behind. Neither of them had face veils, for a start, and as I was the only one carrying a deer rifle – my much-beloved Sauer .308, along with its Swarovski glass and P8 moderator, this made a lot of sense. Every now and then I’d wave them forward so that I could ask them about the lie of the land, and then I’d go off on my own again.

After we’d crossed the first few fields, the land suddenly disappeared from before me, only to reappear several hundred feet below. It seemed that there must be an enormous cliff a few yards ahead, but Marcus informed me that it was actually an extremely steep slope. He then added that I should watch out for the edge of an old quarry face that was hidden in the bushes…

That part of the North Devon coast – near Combe Martin, has a most spectacular landscape, with high hills separated by deep valleys that plunge down towards rivers hidden in tangles of trees and scrub. This aspect, together with the overcast conditions, gave the area a malevolent feel, in a manner reminiscent of a Tolkien story. Had a hobbit appeared, or an ent uprooted itself and gone stomping off into the distance, it wouldn’t have looked out of place.

Still, I had work to do – the landowners would not be impressed if the deer continued to trash their precious kale, so I brought my attention back to the job in hand. Every few paces, I glassed the undergrowth ahead with my Nikon binos, and then moved on to the next feature. I gradually worked along the edge of the steep escarpment, doing my best to avoid being launched downwards by the combined forces of tripwire brambles and the Teflon-like subsoil.

After a couple of minutes, I spotted a dark shape amongst some gorse bushes. I knelt down and checked – sure enough, there were two red deer – both yearling hinds, about 150 yards ahead of me. While this was good news, the downside was that one of them was now staring over a rise in the ground straight at me, its ears raised in alarm. I got down lower and extended the legs of the bipod, but it was no use – I was going to need a lot more height if I was going to see my target.

I therefore crawled behind a gorse bush and had another go – this time using my sticks. Fortunately, I managed to get one end into a hole in the ground, and the other onto a small mound. They were still at a crazy angle, but at least they were nice and stable.

By the time I was ready to take a shot, the two deer had settled down and were grazing again. I steadied myself with a few measured breaths, and set the reticle on the right hand beast, but it was in the wrong position. A few seconds later, however, the left hand one turned side on, and I aimed a 165gr soft-point at its heart. A loud ‘whump’ sounding like a water-filled drum told me that the shot had been a good one. The beast leapt to one side and collapsed out of sight – it was quite clear that it would have dropped more or less on the spot, so I wasn’t worried about finding it.

After glassing the area again, I moved forwards, only to find that a few moments later a pricket stag had run out below me. I made a quick mental calculation as to whether I’d be able to recover the carcass if I shot it. I figured that it was only about 65 yards below me, and that as there were three of us, it should be doable. By then I already had the rifle on my knee – there was no way sticks or a bipod could be used where I was, and as the stag was in a perfect position, I launched another soft-point straight into the kill zone. Once again, the round thumped home and the beast fell into the brambles.

I stood up to survey the scene, and a looked behind me to see where the boys were. I was somewhat taken aback to find that somehow I was now a few hundred feet below them. I’d been so focused on stalking my quarry that I hadn’t realised that in approaching them I’d lost so much altitude. ‘Oh dearie me’ (might not be true) was the first thing to cross my mind. A few seconds later I spotted Marcus at the crest of the hill.

Until then I’d thought I was still near the top, but he was absolutely miles up. Now we were in trouble – maybe we could take it downwards instead? Still – there were more pressing matters to attend to – first we needed to find and gralloch the carcasses…

The pricket lay a few yards from where he’d been hit – although he seemed to have a good build, the pair of points on his head were the sorriest excuse I’ve even seen for antlers, some four inches long and only just rivalling my middle finger for size. Marcus soon joined me, and was kind enough to hold the rear legs out of my way while I did a hasty gut removal job, all the while trying to dig my feet into the slippery subsoil in an attempt to prevent myself from suddenly disappearing off down the slope.

That done, we set off to locate the hind. As I’d gone some way from where I’d taken the shot, I’d lost my perspective and it took a few minutes for us to work out where it should be lying. Fortunately, it had indeed only taken a couple of paces before expiring. Normally, I’d have liked to discover a good heavy animal, but on this occasion I was pleased to see that it was actually quite small.

The ground where it lay was not quite as steep as where the pricket was, so the gralloch was a bit more straightforward. Marcus, Terry and I managed to drag it three quarters of the way up the hill without too much grief, at which point we agreed that it would be best if I trekked back to the road and brought the Disco in. By the time I got back, the boys had got it to the top. As we only had a couple of minutes of light left, we wasted no time in loading it in the back and driving over to begin the mammoth task ahead of us..

Poor old Terry – who works as a plasterer and won’t see 60 again, was now suffering. His knees were giving him a hard time, and so Marcus – who was still in his 20’s and I (in my early 50’s) left him to take a breather while we set off down the steep incline to begin the retrieve. Before we started, I removed the head – after all, the lighter we could make it, the better.

When we were ready, we tried pulling the beast. But it refused to move, and both of us lost our footing and ended up on our backsides. Hmmm – time for a rethink. We went for a count of three, and by putting all our combined energy in, we successfully managed to move it. About a foot. If we weren’t careful, this was going to be a long night…

We did our best – bit by bit we shifted it, but the extreme angle of the hill, the slippery soil, and the large number of gorse stumps all conspired against us. After some twenty minutes and a lot of swearing, we’d barely got fifty yards – and we still had at least another 150 to go. At that point we retired to the truck to review the situation. I checked out the amount of rope I had with me – but it was nowhere near the length we needed. We could have gone to the farm to get a quad, but on that slope it would have lasted about two seconds before disappearing downwards into the gloom – along with whoever was unfortunate enough to be piloting it at the time.

My earlier hope that we could extract the carcass downhill was soon dashed – firstly, Terry told us that we didn’t have permission to be on the land below, and secondly he said that access to it for any kind of vehicle was nigh-on impossible. We joked about ‘phoning up the local Royal Marines base and asking for them to bring a Chinook helicopter in, but that was clearly a non-starter. With it being a Saturday evening, they’d all be in ‘serious R&R mode’ (or as civilians call it, ‘drunk’).

The only other option seemed to be for me to cut the carcass in two. In the absence of a better plan, that was what we did. Luckily, Terry’s knees agreed to let him assist, and between the three of us, we slowly inched the two halves of the beast uphill, until with great joy we eventually reached the truck. Never has a Land Rover looked so inviting!

The beast was soon loaded up – but we now had a different problem. Terry had the front passenger seat, but as I normally carry several crates of kit in the load space and these had been relocated to the rear seats, there were none left for Marcus. This meant that the only place for him to sit was on a piece of plywood on top of the carcasses! Still – he agreed that it was better than walking, so we all climbed in and set off back to civilisation, carefully skirting the crops to avoid damaging them.

Terry and Marcus had originally planned to go lamping foxes afterwards, but there was a distinctly less enthusiastic air about them as I began my journey home. I can’t think why…

Anyway – the two of them thoroughly deserved my gratitude, not only for the company, but for the cheerful way in which they set about helping me extract the carcasses. I could not have done it without them. Next time – I promised, I was going to make sure that I had at least 500 yards of rope with me. Or better than that, I’d go at first light and catch the deer on the nice flat ground. There was an addendum to the story – the next day Terry sent me an apologetic message:

‘By the way, I spoke to one of the landowners on Sunday morning, and explained our epic struggle to the top. When She finished laughing, she said, why didn’t you give me a ring, I’ve got a way to get there to the bottom of that hill with the quad and trailer’…

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