During the red deer rutting season, I tend to spend at least one evening a week shooting over one of my mate Stuart’s permissions up on Exmoor. The deal is that he gets to keep any deer I shoot – which he then splits with the farmer, and I get to stalk some prime ground without any silly trophy fees. After it gets dark, I then switch into foxing mode to help reduce the number of lamb-killers on what is essentially a massive sheep farm.
On the day in question I was fit and well – but unfortunately, I’d missed a session there a week before due to my being down with a particularly nasty bout of gastric-flu. When I’d first awoken, I wasn’t at all sure whether the trip would be on though, as the heavens were chucking it down. A frantic check of the Met Office’s forecast, however, showed me that although we could expect a brief shower at about 9:00 a.m., after that it should be dry throughout. True to form, the weather did its own thing, and continued to throw it down until well after lunch. By then the world was thoroughly soaked – thankfully, the heavy downpours slowly died out and morphed into a series of sporadic showers. Eventually even these moved on, and we got our first glimpses of blue sky. An hour later, and the sun was shining brightly. As I looked out, I mused that maybe we would have the chance of a decent session after all!
As the hour to leave approached, I got all my kit ready. As I’d be using my Sauer .308 off sticks, there’d be no need for a bipod. This would make the rifle a little lighter, something that is very desirable on what can be very hard ground to work over. With the truck all loaded up, I set off to fight my way past collapsed hedge banks and through flooded sections of road. Fortunately, a Land Rover barely notices such things, and as I’d left earlier than necessary, I was able to trundle along slowly and enjoy the beauty of the fine landscape we have around here in mid-Devon.
Stuart and I had arranged to meet at 5:30 p.m., but as I’d arrived twenty minutes early, I knew I could take my time get everything properly organised. That done, I used the mini-thermal to check the other side of the valley in case anything was about. This included foxes, deer, and very, very occasionally, a few wild boar. The latter do a lot of damage in the area, but are so flighty that they are very rarely seen. The late afternoon sun was lighting the hillside up nicely, and given the awful weather we’d experienced earlier, it would have provided an excellent opportunity for any cold and wet animal to bask and dry itself out. There was nothing to be seen though, so I wondered if any such creatures had already warmed themselves up and were now out looking for something to eat.
As I was pondering this, Stuart pulled up. The dogs hadn’t stopped barking since I’d arrived – something that drives me up the wall, but fortunately the farmer appeared and shut them up. We had the usual chat about what had been seen and where, then set off. As we trudged up the muddy track we kept a sharp look out for any deer. Stuart’s plan was for me to go down into the far valley, while he doubled back near dark to check the steep area below the farm. In the meantime, he’d decided come with me to the top of the hill to see what was about. The farmer had seen a large stag on the bit of ground I was heading towards, and Stuart was keen for me to catch up with it. While we were on the subject, I asked Stuart to save the liver and heart from anything he shot, as we were desperate for meat for our dog.
Before we crested the hill, we spotted two hinds off to the right on some fields on the next farm, but even though there was almost certainly a stag in attendance, we couldn’t see him. Even so, it could mean that he – or a rival, could well come onto our side of the border. Still – that could wait, right now we were more interested in seeing what would be on the other side of the brow. We kept in behind a tall hedge to minimise the chances of being spotted by any wandering stags, and some ten minutes later made it through the final gate to where we could pause briefly to check out the landscape. The ground doesn’t let you see the important bits until you’ve gone another few hundred yards though, so we continued to hug the hedges and eventually got to the best vantage point.
Stuart immediately began scanning the distant covers with his Zeiss binoculars – but as he did so, I said ‘Er, what about that…?’ and pointed down below us. For just over four hundred or so yards out, was a large stag, probably weighing about four hundred pounds or so. It was slowly making its way across an open field, going directly away from us. The wind was blowing from our left to our right, so I hoped that if I could get down the hill without being seen, there was a chance I could creep up on it. Stuart was really excited – he said ‘That’s your stag – go for it, and good luck. And don’t forget there might be some pigs down there’. With that he gave my shoulder a pat of encouragement, and I was on my way.
The stag was just over 400 yards out, moving fast and off to my left
Every time the stag put its head down to graze, I moved forwards, and every time it raised its head, I froze. Unfortunately being so exposed out in the open, it was very nervous, and as a result it was very careful to look absolutely everywhere. Without a doubt the main reason for this was the risk of a larger stag appearing and giving it a beating. Consequently, it was also moving quite quickly – certainly faster than I was able to go.
By the time I’d crept up to and climbed over a couple of really tricky barbed wire fences, he was out of my sight. I wasn’t about to give up though, so clung to the hedge on my right, and slowly navigated my way down the hill through all the reeds, sinking in the mud with every pace. The wind was cold, but as I’d taken the precaution of putting a piece of foam down the inside of my jacket in case I had to sit anywhere for a prolonged period, I was comfortably warm. I was going more slowly than normal though as you have to watch your footfall carefully in this valley – there are several places where an inadvertent step can result in you sinking up to your waist. This makes it a particularly challenging place to go foxing at night…
My enthusiasm was buoyed by the sound of several jays shouting in the trees below me, down by the river. That was usually a reliable sign that deer were about. I had to juggle my speed carefully – not only did I have to keep a close watch for dangerous ground, but there was the risk of being seen by nervous deer. Balanced against this was the fact that the sun was sinking fast, so there was no time to waste. I knew that if I stuck close to the hedge it’d be dark before I got to the river, since it would mean picking my way through some especially tricky bogs. Instead, I skirted them on slightly higher ground. Since I knew this was hidden from wider view by a slight rise, I gambled that with good fieldcraft I’d make it around them without issue.
Having got that far, I now had about a hundred yards to the river, with a rise before me. I knew that on the top of the bank my side there were a number of oak trees. I also knew that in October, that would mean lots of acorns lying below them. And as acorns are much loved by deer, I’d have to be really cautious to approach carefully. It’s a good job that I did, for as I raised my head, I could see the top of a reddy-brown back. Whoa! I dropped to the ground, my knees sinking in cold squelchy mud. There was no time to worry about that. Now I had to work out what to do. I hadn’t seen any antlers, so the stag must be elsewhere – but presumably not far off, as they don’t like leaving their hinds unattended during the rut. So – I had to watch out in case it appeared from somewhere unexpected. Not only would it ruin the shoot, but a territorial red stag will often attack anything it considers a threat to his harem. And that could include me, if I wasn’t careful.
My options were limited – I could crawl forwards, but that would take time and leave me very exposed if anything came from the direction in which I’d last seen the stag. No – it would be far better to worm my way down into the ditch to my right. From there, I should be able to get a decent viewpoint. I therefore shuffled my way across and down behind a medium-sized oak tree. Whilst still kneeling, I got my tripod sticks up, then transferred my rifle from my shoulder to my right hand. That done, I slid up the tree trunk until I was standing. At this point I was still hidden, so I got the stock into the tripod’s yoke, and ever so slowly edged out until I could see through the Swarovski riflescope. I’d already set the focus to just under a hundred yards, and the mag was on x10 – plenty for that distance.
I wasn’t ready for what I saw though. Expecting to see a number of red hinds, and possibly a stag, I was gobsmacked to find I was looking at a sounder of wild boar. Now I’d been wanting to catch up with these wily creatures for about two years, but up until then they’d always managed to evade me. I’d had them grunt and squeal in alarm at me from the depths of the night, I’d found the damage they’d done, and even seen them across the valley with the night vision. But I’d never had one in my sights before. The sounder was moving quite quickly, however, and it was clear that if I didn’t act in the next few seconds, they’d be out of sight. Most of them – probably about eight animals in all, were just on the wrong side of a step in the ground. They were snuffling about as they went, picking up acorns, beech mast, and anything else edible.
As I looked, one presented itself broadside, and in that instant, I put a 165 grain soft point straight into its engine room. With that, the whole sounder went berserk – not knowing where the shot had come from they couldn’t work out which way to run. Suddenly, one of them took the lead and charged over the rise and straight up the hill – directly towards where I was standing, the others following close behind. When the first ones got level with me, they were less than ten feet away – and still going like hell. There was no time to lower the magnification on the ‘scope or anything like that. This was ‘running boar’ up close and personal. They were far too near to get any chance of a shot, so I waited a second or so until they were a little further away, then raised the rifle. I tracked one and at the appropriate time pulled the trigger – it went down like it’d been poleaxed. What a result – the outcome of that mad flurry of excitement was two medium-sized boar, both perfectly shot in the chest. Not only would I have some lovely meat for the freezer, but the trimmings would mean we’d be able to feed the dog too!
I’d waited at least two years to catch up with these elusive creatures
As there were only a few minutes of light left, I had to work fast – there wasn’t time for a full gralloch, but I wanted to bleed the carcasses as soon as possible to improve the meat quality. I therefore split the bellies open and pulled the guts out – I then reached in and made a large incision around the diaphragm. This would both allow the chest cavity to drain and help cool things down. With the animals sitting upright, gravity would do much of the work for me. Now I had to try and find the stag. It would almost certainly have taken off at the first sound of a shot, but if I didn’t try, I’d never know. Before heading on up the river, I paddled out into it and washed the gore off my hands. I had to let them dry before putting my gloves on, however, so I did my best to hide them from sight as I began moving forward under the oak trees.
By now, the sun was below the horizon, and things were getting seriously dimpsy (Devonian for twilight). This was where my mini-thermal came into play – although my Leica bins were operational, using them to scan around would take far longer. The first thing I saw was a strong heat signature a few yards in front of me. Sure enough, when I checked there was a large grey squirrel foraging for acorns in the long grass. A bit further out, I got two more heat sources – one proved to be another tree rat – the other a pheasant. But there was no sign of any deer. I skirted around another bog, and checked again. Nope – apart from some sheep and some more pheasants, there was not a thing to be seen.
Just as was about to move off again, I heard a shot from the next valley, from roughly where I expected Stuart to be. I kept my fingers crossed that he’d dropped himself a stag. Considering the matter further, I decided that it might be a good idea to call the farmer straight away so that I’d get first call on the quad. My timing was good, and my call was soon answered. I’ve got a couple of pigs, I said, trying desperately to hear the ‘phone through my face veil and woolly hat. ‘What – dead ones?’, the farmer asked. ‘Yep!’ I replied. ‘Good God – two, that’s amazing! Well done!’, he said – ‘I’ll be there right away’. More or less as I got back to the boar, a set of lights appeared over the hill. We chucked one on the front of the Yamaha quad, the other on the back. I then wedged myself on the rear left seat and held on for grim death. Anything to avoid slogging all the way up that enormous hill! The bike struggled to get sufficient traction in a few places, but we made it – I jumped off to open and close the gates, but other than that, it was a much easier return journey than if I’d had to do it on foot.
Back at the farm, we saw Stuart’s silhouette walking across the yard. We stopped next to him, and as there was no obvious sign of a stag, he asked what I’d shot. The farmer pointed to the front – it was, of course, completely dark by now, so it took him a moment to realise that it was a boar. ‘Bloody hell – a pig!’, he announced excitedly. ‘Look behind me’, I replied. He then came around and said ‘Wow – another one – well done!’ At this, he stuck his hand out to congratulate me, knowing how hard and how long I’d been looking for these wary animals. We unloaded the carcasses in one of the sheds where I’d have enough light to finish my butchery work, and the two of them set off to collect the pricket stag Stuart had shot. I was just finishing up when they returned. All in all, it’d been a very successful evening. Normally, I’d have gone back out to look for foxes, but as the lambing season was still some way off, I decided that my time would be better spent getting my two carcasses washed out and into my chiller. I spent much of the journey home reflecting on the hunt, and ended the day with a much-needed meal before retiring for the night. Another day done!
18th October 2012