What happens when a passionate hill stalker takes on the challenge of lowland stalking? James Somerville-Meikle finds out.
I feel rather overdressed for my first day of lowland stalking. It’s a glorious sunny day in Dorset, just after the warmest Easter weekend on record, and I am wearing tweed breeks, long socks and gaiters. It’s fair to say my wardrobe is better suited for my passion of hill stalking, where warm and waterproof clothing is required for a long day of walking and crawling. Lowland stalking is a very different game. My stalker for the day, Richard Hardy, jokes that some of his Scottish friends call this “stalking sitting down”. There is generally less walking and more waiting involved, but the sense of anticipation and delight at being outdoors, amongst nature, feels the same as a day on the hill. Dorset may not seem like the obvious destination for a stalking trip, but there is a growing population of roe and muntjac deer in this part of the world. On the ground that Richard manages, around 200 deer are shot every year from 5,000 acres of farm and woodland, with little impact on population numbers on his farm and neighbouring estate.
Richard is taking me out to look for a roe buck, which are in season from early April until the end of October. Which are in season for the rest of the year and there is no close season for muntjac, meaning there is always something to shoot. Many other lowland areas also have populations of sika and fallow.
The importance of managing the deer becomes clear as we start our day in a patch of woodland with new tree plantings and a carpet of bluebells. There is a chorus of skylarks above us, which have started to nest on nearby farmland. We would not be enjoying this idyllic scene if the deer had been left to their own devices. Roe spend up to 12 hours a day feeding and can cause serious damage to trees, undergrowth and crops, stripping whole areas of woodland bare. This has led them to being seen as pests in some parts of the country, but in this corner of Dorset their management means they remain an iconic part of the landscape, coexisting with conservation and farming interests.
We find a ride amongst the tree plantings for me to practise a few shots lying down with Richard’s Heanel Jaeger 10 rifle with .243 ammunition. It is a nice rifle to fire, with very little kick back compared to the slightly larger .270 and .308 rifles I am used to firing for hill stalking. We zero the rifle at 80 yards with a view to shooting nothing further away than 120 yards. With hill stalking it is not uncommon to shoot a red hind or stag at 200 yards or more but, as Richard points out, you are aiming at a much smaller target with lowland stalking. “If taking a head shot at a red hind is like aiming at something the size of a grapefruit, attempting a head shot on a roe deer would be like aiming at a tangerine,” he says. Chest shots are therefore the most practical option for recreational lowland stalking. After a couple of practice shots I start to feel confident, until Richard tells me it is unlikely that any shooting today will be from the ground. Only five per cent of the deer Richard shoots are from the prone position – lying down on your belly using a tripod – unlike hill stalking where almost every shot is taken this way. Most lowland stalking is either done from towers and high seats or standing up using shooting sticks as you wait for the deer to come to you or rely on the element of surprise. If the art of hill stalking is getting into the right place at the right time, the art of lowland stalking is being in the right place at the right time. Most of the hard work has been done before the day begins, with the positioning of towers and high seats and creating rides and tree cover.
Richard points out deer tracks and signs of damage caused to trees, which most people would pass without noticing. He is clearly passionate about stalking and the deer he manages, most of which end up in a chiller he has installed in a garden shed at his house or in the estate larder where they are destined for London restaurants.
As we wander through the woodland, a pair of walkers appear on an adjoining track. Richard hands me the rifle, has a chat to them and they walk of smiling, wishing us good luck for the day. “You can’t have a good conversation with a rifle on your back,” he says, “it’s an immediate block.” Explaining to people you meet that stalking is necessary for keeping the bluebells out and the skylarks singing is just as important for the smooth running of the day as anything else. The presence of walkers along with farming and forestry operations means that wind direction is less of a factor as the deer are far more used to human scent than those living out on the hills. If you wind the deer while hill stalking that is often your day finished, but in lowland stalking you are likely to get a second chance if you sit tight and have patience. Richard’s success rate is pretty impressive. He usually has a deer in the larder for every four hours out looking. These odds make it an attractive option for people looking to get into stalking, and with roe doe available for around £100 per day it is more affordable than a day spent looking for a red hind. As evening approaches we make our way to one of the towers, which Richard describes as a “shed on stilts.” Ten feet above the ground and situated between rows of willow coppice, it makes an ideal vantage point for spying incoming deer.
We settle in and watch as the daylight fades away. Pheasants head off to roost, ducks fly overhead, and in the distance, a belted Galloway cow makes a noise that sounds like the roar of a red stag, and for a moment I think I am back in the hills. Our spying is aided by Richard’s thermal scope and it is not long before we detect two deer-shaped heat sources in dense cover. We wait patiently and a roe doe slowly walks out about 60 yards in front of us. She stands broadside for a moment, almost knowing she is out of season, just to tempt me, then disappears as quickly as she emerged. Seeing deer in the countryside should continue to be a magical experience, despite the increase in numbers, and with good management there is no reason this should not be the case. Richard has proved that lowland stalking is not just a management activity; it’s also a lot of fun and a great way of providing food for the table. With deer numbers increasing across the country, this is surely a model for other farmers and landowners to follow. While we do not see a roe buck that evening, a day spent stalking is never a day wasted. As an old stalker once told me at the end of a blank day on the hill, “It’s called stalking not killing.” You are never guaranteed to get a shot, and luck is required whether you are on the hill or in the lowlands. I will be back to try again, next time with better clothing.