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Deer stalking: collecting the set

In this article from My Countryside magazine, Jake Swindells, the Countryside Alliance’s Director for Scotland, describes an epic adventure to shoot all six UK species of deer within a year.


Having been involved in deer stalking in one way or another for more than 30 years, I have been lucky enough to shoot Croatian roe bucks, French wild boar and Swedish moose. Most of my UK stalking has been in Scotland where I have access to some of the most picturesque stalking in the world. Four of the six species of deer in the UK are present in Scotland, with red, sika, fallow and roe on the menu throughout the year. The two species which had eluded me – Chinese water deer and muntjac – are much smaller in size and are common in central and southern England. For a few years I had thought about setting myself the challenge of shooting the six native UK species within a calendar year, so in 2022, I set out to do just that. 

The first trip away of the year was at the start of February. A group of us headed to a friend’s estate in Sutherland to assist with the annual cull of red and sika and, at this point, they were a good few behind in their cull. The trouble was that it was very open hill ground, with few places to use as cover to get in for a closer shot. Red and sika tend to herd and so you have many pairs of eyes looking out for danger at any one time. This can really test your fieldcraft ability to the maximum as a belly crawl through snow or wet moorland for a few hundred metres is commonplace. I crawled with my black Cocker Spaniel, Myrtle, into a shooting position behind a heather knoll. A red hind dropped to a shot at around 180 metres. 

The next day we had an early start so that we were in position next to a forestry block as it began to get light. Sika are very secretive deer and don’t react well to hunting pressures. They seem to have a heightened ability to sense something isn’t quite right and they are very tricky to get close to for a shot. I settled into position in the snow on a large knoll overlooking some forestry and waited; it wasn’t long before a couple of young sika came into view on the fringe of the thick wood. I waited as more appeared before selecting a suitable hind and dropping her too at a distance of around 200 metres. We had a successful trip and the cull target was reached. 

April began and I finally managed to get back to my local ground for a tidy up on the fallow bucks. I have mostly fallow on this farm and it’s very rare that I come away empty-handed as fallow deer are so prolific throughout Perthshire. I parked at the farm and stalked up through the wood to an open bit of scrubland at the top end. It was a cool day with just a slight breeze, perfect for carrying the sound of my carefully placed boots away from alert fallow ears. Stood in a dip just 100 metres away were two young bucks, unaware of my presence. I placed the rifle onto my shooting sticks and carefully squeezed the trigger. He ran less than 30 metres before falling. Another good cull buck to add to the list. 

I’ve shot a fair few roe over the years but there are surprisingly few close to home. Because of this I don’t tend to take many in a year but I do love to eat them so they end up in my own freezer. In July I got an invite to a friend’s ground not too far from Glasgow. He had a roe buck cull to complete and offered a stalk or two to me. I arrived late-afternoon and we loaded up the truck to start the search. Within around 20 minutes we stopped to see a pair of ears and small antlers just above the tall grass. Leaving the truck behind I stalked around the side of a wood and stood quietly, rifle on sticks, waiting for a clear shot. After a further 10 minutes, and with light fading, he stepped into a clearing and dropped to the shot. Four of the six now achieved. 

Ten days later I boarded a flight to Gatwick. A stalking friend who was also on course for the six in a year had organised a muntjac attempt with a gamekeeper in the Southeast. We both settled in for a long wait one warm afternoon. Hours went by with only one half chance but, on last light, a small female stood broadside looking right at us at around 70 metres. It had seen us before we had seen it. My buddy was unable to move into a shooting position, so I raised the gun and took the shot. She fell instantly. Five down. 

Months then passed and December clearly meant that I had only one opportunity to complete the set, so I again boarded a flight to Gatwick. An early start the next day saw me and my guide wandering quietly into the middle of a field beside a working quarry and about 100 metres from the truck. A very different environment to the stalking I am accustomed to. My guide likened the hunting of Chinese water deer to shooting hares and I soon understood what he meant. As the sun rose, the field came alive with previously unseen deer. It was a case of picking one and pulling the trigger. The set was complete and ended with one of the most straight-forward stalks I’ve ever been on. Ironically, it is also the only stalk I have ever paid for as I generally trade stalking trips with friends. 

With exactly two weeks spare, I had shot all six UK deer species. It sounds easy but it’s pretty tricky to do logistically. It was lovely to see and experience the smaller species, but I’m happy to be back working for my dinner, instead of almost having it on a plate.


At all points

Alan Marshall, Chair of the British Deer Society, South-West Scotland, provides an overview of deer management in the UK.

Our wild deer species are iconic within the British Isles. Our native red and roe deer have been supplemented by fallow deer, first introduced by the Romans, and Japanese sika deer, introduced in the late 1800s. The two small species, muntjac and Chinese water deer, escaped from deer parks and have found suitable areas to their liking. Muntjac thrive well over much of southern and western England, and populations are appearing in parts of Ireland. And while they have been seen in Scotland, it remains unlikely the species would do well in the colder and we er climate of the north. The water deer have made the Fenlands of East Anglia their home and may only have limited expansion from this habitat. 

In Scotland, our native red deer on mountains and hills are at the northern extent of their range, with greatly reduced body weights compared to low ground, forest, or continental red deer. Out on the open hill, they remain a great challenge to get close to, and stalking a red deer stag has become a pinnacle of achievement for many British or visiting sportsmen. 

Roe deer are present throughout the mainland and some of our islands but not Ireland. It is a deer more of low ground, forestry and farmland and also encroaches into urban areas. Unfortunately, damage in these habitats has brought this pretty little deer into conflict with man, and it is now actively managed throughout most of its range. 

Fallow deer remain more localised, but can cause damage particularly to arable crops. Being a herding species, any disturbance can cause them to move over boundaries, and many eyes can make the stalking of this alert species problematic. 

Sika deer have spread from where they were first introduced, and when in dense forestry, they may not emerge until dark. Hybridisation with our native red deer has occurred, and they can damage mature trees. So management of this species is paramount. 

Let us all enjoy watching our iconic deer species, and also to manage, harvest, and enjoy the addition of venison to our diet.

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