Deer stalking is, as the name suggests, the pursuit of deer generally with the aim to kill it primarily for food. Once shot, some stalkers may want to keep the head as a trophy but this should be in addition to the harvesting of the meat for food and maybe the hide for use as a rug or other such reason. Using as much of the deer as possible for as many reasons should always be the objective. For me it’s more than that, however.
There is something about stalking which sets it apart from other field pursuits. It’s nigh on spiritual and takes us back to our inherent primitive instincts of hunting. If you miss a high pheasant there will be another one soon afterwards, if you lose a fish there may well be the chance of a better one later in the day but when it comes to stalking you may not even get the chance to see, let alone shoot one simply due to it seeing, hearing or smelling you well before you were even in range of spying the animal. Their senses outperform our own by a factor of a thousand or more. Deer are therefore a real challenge. Admittedly, species, region and environment all come into play. I’ve been able to walk up close to Roe deer in Suffolk, easily observe fallow deer in Hampshire, stalk onto many Reds in County Fermanagh, wait for Muntjac in Leicestershire to emerge at first light but Sika always seem ghostlike. I haven’t had the opportunity to stalk Chinese Water Deer (yet) so can’t comment. What is more often the case than not however, is that the moment you put a rifle in your hands and go out with the intention of harvesting an animal, they all seem to know it and become incredibly elusive!
As you may have noticed from the introduction there are six species of deer in the UK. In order of size, from largest to smallest, these are Red, Fallow, Sika, Roe, Muntjac and Chinese Water deer. Only Red and Roe deer are native here. Fallow is now accepted as a long-term naturalized species but the remaining species were only introduced within the last 150 years. The Reeves Muntjac is seen as invasive but I suppose the same label could be applied to Sika and Chinese Water deer. Muntjac however are prolific breeders and their population is growing at something like 19% per year.
Deer seasons vary between each of the four countries, species and sex. If and when you take you Deer Stalking Certificate (DSC) 1 course you will be expected to memorise these but most of us look them up on the British Deer Society (BDS) or the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) websites prior to any outing. All six species have very healthy populations in the UK. Indeed, due to the removal of any apex predator some considerable time ago their populations are larger now than they have been in the past thousand years. As a result, the damage, and sometimes danger, they pose to the environment and other inhabitants can be significant. It is estimated that some 350,000 deer are culled annually within the UK. That is a significant source of high protein, low fat, ethically sourced, and sustainable meat in anyone’s book! Distribution surveys of the different species throughout the UK is conducted by the BDS every 5 years with the results published on their website.
Gaining ‘permission’ to shoot deer is possibly one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in your quest to become a deer stalker. All deer in the UK are classed as wild animals and are not owned by any individual. This does not apply to herds that belong to an estate or animals kept for farming. Once an animal is dispatched it becomes the property of the landowner on whose land it dies. Permission, is therefore sought from the owner of the shooting rights over the land where the deer live who may be a different person to the landowner. Simply trying to determine who owns the shooting rights can be challenging therefore. Essentially though, you need to get out there and speak with people. Introduce yourself to as many people, especially rural or those involved in hunting and shooting, as you can. Someone will know someone and a chance introduction may be the door opener you need. It can be fiercely competitive however so perseverance is essential in order for you to be successful in gaining your first permission. Don’t be deterred in your mission however. Most landowners, farmers, forestry commission and other land management businesses and organisations need their deer populations managed and you are offering a free service. Your main issue will be finding land that hasn’t already got a deer management plan in place. Alternatively, you can pay per outing. I’m not a fan of this as £150 to stalk a deer that you may not even be allowed to take away with you at the end of the successful hunt seems excessive to me, especially as the deer needed to be managed in the first place so it’s a ‘win win’ for the land owner.
The benefits of deer stalking are both environmental and personal. Environmentally both the deer and the land are protected. Deer populations that grow too large offer breeding grounds for disease that can spread rapidly though a condensed population. The environment is protected by preventing excessive damage and destruction of woodland, crops, vegetation and other animal species. Negative Human/Animal interactions, generally manifested as either irritated (or worse) famers or sadly road traffic accidents which can be greater than 30,000 per year, are also managed to a degree. There is a more personal benefit to deer stalking however. The act itself requires a degree of fitness leading to better health and wellbeing.
Once you have secured a permission, there are unfortunately several more hurdles to jump over. Don’t get despondent. You will be well rewarded for your efforts which will culminate in your first successful stalk both from a self-achievement perspective as well as a larder full of the most exquisite meat.
To shoot a deer you need a rifle. To get a rifle you will need to not only apply for a firearms certificate but its almost a pre-requisite today to have a Deer Stalking Certificate Level 1 when you do. Without it most police forces will be very reticent in granting a license. The DSC 1 course is however thoroughly enjoyable and informative. It's also a great opportunity to network and start to find out how and where to get permissions. Learning about your quarry before the course is equally enjoyable and its one of those times in life where you will be able to say you have learnt something new today…everyday!
With your new qualifications and rifle you are likely to be on a spending spree for what you determine are the ‘must haves’ to enable you to be successful in your newfound vocation. Whilst its true, technology has increased exponentially over the past few decades and the number of devices available to try and equal the playing field when it comes to the sensor competition continuously running between you and the deer, you don’t need all of it. Your forefathers certainly didn’t have access to any of these new modern contraptions. So, whilst high powered optics, thermal imaging, laser range finders, shooting sticks, performance clothing, and an array of other ancillary devices are helpful they aren’t all essential! What is essential however are some basic skills such as fieldcraft and accurate shooting.
Once you have shot your first deer the real hard work starts. You may have mistakenly thought that the effort to get to this stage was the hard part, but you would unfortunately be wrong. Recovering the deer is without doubt the most challenging stage of deer stalking. The first task at this stage of course is finding your deer. When you pulled the trigger, the rifle would have recoiled back and up. Your view of the deer would have been lost. If it dropped on the spot you may not have remembered to orientate yourself to where it was standing before you shot it. The land to your front may now all look the same. By the time you get out to the location where you thought it was it will all look very different. Alternatively, your deer may have been a dead deer running. This means that whilst the shot placement was perfect the adrenaline is supporting a short dash away from the shoot site. This could be into a woodland or other difficult to navigate area. Trying to find your deer may prove a challenging task. A good dog here is hard to beat but it is also a big investment and undertaking to invest in so not all deer stalkers have dogs to accompany them on their excursions. Once found however you need to extract the deer back to a vehicle. With dead weights of up to 200kg, recovery locations resembling the most challenging ground anywhere in the world (you try traversing across a recently felled forestry block), and often with the light fading fast, the extraction of a deer carcass is physically and mentally demanding. To aid you in this task you will need to know how to gralloch (gut) your deer.
Back at home, or at a chiller, you will need to butcher your animal. YouTube has more instructional videos on how to do this than you can ask for. Some are excellent but others less so. You will be able to determine which is which soon enough. The more butchery you do, the better you will become. Don’t underestimate how long it will take you to butcher the carcass however. I’m distinctly average and would allocate about 6 hours for a 100kg deer. Some may think I’m slow, others may think I’m fast but hopefully this gives you an idea of the sort of timescale you will be looking at.
So, the stalk has been a success. The deer has been butchered. Your freezer is full of high protein, low fat, totally organic, ethically sourced and sustainable meat. You have helped protect the environment and the health of the wider deer populations. You have possibly prevented a road traffic accident with the deer you shot! Now the time has come to reap the benefits of your efforts. Over time you can learn how to make sausages, burgers, and jerky. But the opportunity to share your spoils over a fine wine or full-bodied beer with good friends and family is what life is all about. This is where you really get rewarded for your efforts and eat the finest tasting venison chateaubriand whilst enthralling your guests with the provenance of the meat and the efforts that went into getting it… OK you might be boring them now!