Now you’re stalking

It will soon be possible to learn how to stalk deer within an hour of London’s West End. Simon de Burton determines to master the art of hunting these majestic beasts safely and humanely

A red deer stag on a mountainside at sunrise
A red deer stag on a mountainside at sunrise | Image: Getty Images

As the person charged with the not-too-onerous task of evaluating exotic cars and motorcycles on behalf of this magazine, I’m lucky to live in a part of the UK where there are still plenty of relatively traffic-free stretches of exciting and challenging roads. A fellow motoring writer, who lives in the heart of London, is not so fortunate, so he has developed a somewhat unusual road-test regime, which sees him leave home around midnight, jump into the car of the moment and thread his way south safely out of the capital for a few hours of fast nocturnal driving on his favoured routes through Surrey and Sussex.

Most of the time, this is a thoroughly exhilarating and rewarding experience – but not long ago he was returning home along a dual carriageway, at a speed well below the legal limit, when the beam of the car’s headlamps was intercepted by something large, brown and furry leaping across the road a few metres ahead, but closing fast. Swift and hard application of the brakes prevented a full-on collision, although evidence that the bumper had lightly clipped one of the creature’s hind legs was found the following morning.

The animal was, of course, a muntjac deer – and there were undoubtedly many others in the undergrowth. Statistics from a 2009 government report estimated that there were 1.5-2m deer in the UK, the highest number for a millennium. The report also documented more than 30,500 deer/vehicle collisions over a five-year period; of these, 1,150 resulted in human injury and 20 in human fatality. It is generally agreed that in some areas certain types of wild deer, including muntjac, have grown in number in recent years. Reasons include more woodland cover, milder cold seasons, greater production of winter wheat and that British deer have few natural predators.

On another level, wild deer can quickly wreak havoc in fields, parks, woodlands and gardens. They also carry ticks, which can attach themselves to humans and, in some instances, lead to debilitating Lyme disease.

But on the upside, deer represent a potentially superb and sustainable natural resource, thanks to the fact that venison is low in fat, carbohydrate and cholesterol, but high in protein and iron.

Now you can enjoy those benefits simply by calling in at your butcher, picking up some nicely prepackaged cuts and cooking up a dish that might well convert you from other red meats. Or you could do something that will help control the deer population and really make you appreciate where food comes from – by shooting your own, either in the traditional setting of the Scottish Highlands or by taking up accompanied woodland stalking in areas such as Suffolk, Exmoor and East Anglia (although bear in mind that most estates charge an extra fee for you to take home your bounty).

Instructor Chris Bird and Simon de Burton at Holland & Holland’s shooting grounds
Instructor Chris Bird and Simon de Burton at Holland & Holland’s shooting grounds

To anyone who has shed a tear at the sight of Disney’s Bambi, the idea of snuffing out a deer probably sounds totally abhorrent. But as the aforementioned statistics show, the population needs to be controlled for the benefit of the environment and humankind – which is why stalking and its related businesses have become a lucrative industry in Scotland.

“Killing your own” is not, however, simply a matter of making off into the woods with a rifle and letting rip. It requires a highly disciplined and specialised form of marksmanship that draws upon a completely different skill-set from, for example, the more widely practised sport of pheasant shooting.

As a result, it’s not only wise but downright essential to learn the basics from a master of the art – not least because anyone who heads up to a Highland estate for a spot of stalking has to pass a test before going out – and if it reveals any hint that he or she is unsafe, clueless or irresponsible, he or she will be swiftly heading home again.

Surprisingly, it is possible to obtain comprehensive schooling within an hour’s drive of London’s West End – at the historic shooting grounds of the legendary British gunmaker Holland & Holland, which were opened way back in 1932 at Northwood in Middlesex.

Extending to 100 acres, the site evolved from its original grounds, which were established in 1880 beside the firm’s factory in Kensal Rise, in order to provide testing, fitting and practice facilities.

With four permanent instructors on hand, the company provides tuition in simulated pheasant, partridge and wildfowl shooting, with traps that can fire off sequences of up to 100 “birds”. This year, however, saw the introduction of a pilot, three-hour deer-stalking course that was made available to all-comers, even those with no previous rifle experience.

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As someone who is keen on knowing where the food on my plate has come from – and equally keen on my children knowing the same and learning not to be traumatised by the gory details – the course holds considerable appeal. Furthermore, successful completion of it results in a recognised qualification that could help towards the granting of a firearms certificate, a legal requirement for ownership of a stalking rifle.

The day I arrived at Holland & Holland’s verdant shooting grounds could not have been more different from the rain-lashed, windswept conditions in which some Highland stalking takes place – the sun was beating down and the air was almost completely still.

“You’ll never get weather like this in Scotland during the main hunting season, and it’s obviously not quite the same shooting here as it is in the wilds of the moor,” observed my instructor Roland Wild. “But the course provides an excellent introduction to the sport and, above all, should ensure that you know how to shoot safely and humanely.”

And if I were to learn from anyone, there could scarcely be a better teacher than Wild – he has been stalking on a regular basis for more than 40 years, 28 of which he has spent as a Holland & Holland instructor.

The first half-hour of the course is concerned with the basics of the rifle and its safe handling, including such elementary but vital knowledge as which calibre of ammunition is appropriate for stalking, how to remove the bolt, how to check and clear barrel blockages, how to “zero” and adjust the weapon’s telescopic sight and, most importantly, how to assess whether or not it is actually safe to shoot at a specific target in terms of what is, or might be, behind it.

The importance of this last point comes from the fact that a full-bore rifle bullet, such as the .243-calibre type typically used for stalking, could potentially kill or maim at the somewhat terrifying distance of up to 4km if used incorrectly (normal shooting distances are 150-175m). So being absolutely certain that it will end up embedded in a secure backstop (such as a mound of earth), after passing through its target, is crucial.

Simon de Burton practises shooting at life-sized deer-shaped targets
Simon de Burton practises shooting at life-sized deer-shaped targets

Once you are deemed a safe pair of hands with a rifle, the next stage of the course concerns actually firing the thing – not at a real deer, but at a life-sized, deer-shaped target positioned 100m away at the end of the range.

“Apart from being sure not to endanger anyone’s life, the most important consideration is to achieve a quick, clean and humane kill,” explains Wild.

“The area in which you can be certain of doing this is actually relatively small [about 15cm diameter]. The recommended shot to an animal standing broadside to the rifle is to the chest, in the ‘vital zone’ enclosing the heart, the blood vessels above it and the lungs surrounding it. A direct hit in that area, halfway up the chest and just behind the vertical line of the forelegs, will cause rapid loss of consciousness and almost immediate death. The usual reaction to a well‑placed shot in that area is for the deer to run a short distance and then collapse.

“Get it wrong, however, and the animal can escape, badly maimed, meaning that it will have to then be hunted down and finished off humanely.”

Although the “deer” I was stalking was an artificial one, I still felt considerable pressure to get it right. Body position, breathing, timing and patience are everything, and after several dozen rounds and some confidence-boosting feedback, I began to feel a lot more assured that, if faced with a real deer, I would have the guts to pull the trigger and do the deed properly.

And when that does eventually happen, I have absolutely no doubt that the resulting freezer-full of venison will taste all the better for my facing up to the reality that, if you’re willing to eat an animal in the first place, you should really have the strength of character to be willing to go out there and kill it – and not simply rely on the ministrations of the abattoir.

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