Wye Valley Fallow Deer - Deer Stalking in Herefordshire
- Wednesday, 08 January 2014
Deer Stalking in Herefordshires Wye Valley, Neil Allen trials some new winter clothing during his search for Fallow Deer, and get's more than he bargained for.
(Above: Stalking the stunning and picturesque Wye Valley in Herefordshire)
I’ve often heard it said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Our recent run of bad weather across much of the UK has surely put that adage to the test and so it was that I put my own clothing, including some recent additions through their paces.
Having married into a farming family I have had the good fortune of family friends with land which I can access. In fact my mother-in-law has gone out of her way to seek out her farming friends with any type of deer problem. Of course I do realise there is an ulterior motive in her actions, firstly she has ensured I am always happy to return to the farm (which was always the case anyway) and secondly, as we have a 9 month old daughter and her first Grandchild, she gets to see her on a regular basis. This is particular useful given my wife and I live in Hampshire whilst the farm is on the edge of Wye Valley in Herefordshire.
Over the Christmas period I spent 2 weeks back at the farm which I was quite excited about given it gave me the opportunity to regularly visit the woodlands I have available and seek out the numerous Fallow which reside there. What is equally exciting about this set up, aside from the occasional farm disturbance and odd walker, is the local deer population do not regularly see anyone walking let alone stalking up on them. So perfect conditions for success you must be thinking?
Well not quite. I have been visiting these grounds for over a year now and despite seeing lots of Fallow and Boar (thats another story) I have only ever managed to shoot one Doe. I can certainly attest of the flighty and secretive nature of these animals which in my experience are a far more difficult quarry than the usual Roe that I stalk in Hampshire.
(Left: Neil Allen with an Old Master)
On the four outings I made between Dec 23 and Dec 31st I must have seen 2 or 3 dozen Fallow, sometimes as individuals, in small groups or as was the case late on the 31st in one large mixed heard, including two large Bucks with impressive heads. On that occasion the local farm dog was a bit too excited rounding up sheep in the neighbouring field and the deer decided the barking was not for them. All I could do was watch this heard running at full speed through the woods and disappearing down a seemingly impossibly steep embankment. So it was that I returned home full of wonder at what I had seen but equally disappointed that 2013 was ending without any success on these recent outings. On the plus side I now knew these woods better than I ever had done before and I met a neighbouring landowner who has allowed me to stalk through her section of adjacent woodland on the basis I supply the occasional haunch.
Thanks to our baby daughter New Year’s Eve wasn’t a late affair and I woke on New Year’s Day without any hint of a hangover. Any parents reading this will surely know what a horrific combination it is to mix a hangover with a demanding baby, one which I’ve unwittingly tried a couple of times, which is enough to try and avoid it ever happening again. Anyway I digress..back to the stalk and gear testing…
New Year’s Day started off early with drizzle in the air and with a strong chance of extra windy and wet weather to follow, so I decided the only thing for it was full waterproofs. I have used a Barbour Sporting Gore-Tex Jacket for a couple of years now, which has always been excellent whether stalking or on shoot days, whether cold, wet or dry. The outer layer is soft and doesn’t make a sound unlike many other technical jackets on the market, beneath which I tend to wear various layers, including a base layer if the weather is particular cold. North Face, Ice Breaker and Helly Hansen all do fantastic base layers for any type of outdoor activity. On the bottom half I wear a pair of Barbour Sporting trousers, which are a tight tweed, light weight, warm and equally silent as the jacket. Over this I’m in a pair of Barbour waterproof over trousers (I got a good deal on all the Barbour kit at the CLA Game Fair a few years back), which are also very quiet especially at the speeds lowland stalking tends to enforce on the stalker. Suffice to say I’ve never had a problem with any of this kit and its always done the job. The new elements to this mix were from Harkila, a Swedish brand focused purely on hunting activities and I thought if its good enough for the Swedes in all weather then surely it should do the job in the UK. The additions, were a leather ‘Winter Cap’, with a very handy fold down warmer section at the back to cover the neck and ears; and secondly a new pair of boots, the Pro Hunter GTX 7.5”.
The boots are the first pair of what I call 'proper boots' that I have bought for quite some time. Previous to this I had used a pair of Wellingtons, which often are fine for a driven pheasant shoot or sitting around in a high seat but when a longer walk over difficult terrain is needed, a pair of boots are far better for the job. What has become apparent after using these particular boots is that they are incredibly comfortable, offer great support thanks to covering above the ankle and are completely waterproof. I even tested this out by standing in a small stream on a sunny day a couple of weeks earlier. Completing the kit list is a pair of gloves from Seal Skinz, which are totally waterproof and have a gel like material on the palms which helps with grip when wet.
So I’m all geared up and dawn is approaching as I stop the car on the edge of my stalking ground. The ground runs along the Wye Valley gorge just down from Symonds Yat and along the Wye river, which was beginning to burst its banks. At its height the top section of woodland is possibly 100m (300 ft) above the river and the woodland is split by grazing pasture land where the Fallow tend to venture out onto at dawn. As I left the car, rifle and sticks in hand I kept close to the lower woodland edge and followed the path which crosses the open ground between the woods. By now the wind, rain and light were all increasing. As I stopped at the edge of woodland I peered through my binoculars and into the gloom, sure enough the Fallow were out feeding on the grassland.
Before I could think about an approach I noticed this heard of 8/10 Does, moving lower across the field and more into the open, had the wind given me away? At about 300m away I was sure they hadn’t seen me as the light still wasn’t very good, but something clearly had them spooked. I decided that I had no chance of crossing this open section without alarming them, so I back tracked slightly and moved higher up the hill side to conceal myself against the lower edge of the upland wood. So far so good and I made about 50 meters on them, before I again saw them head further away and disappear over a small fence into the woodland at the far end of the ground. A quick check with some wind checker powder and it was clear that the increasing wind was swirling around and must have given me away.
(Above: Neil grasses a superb Fallow Buck with his 6.5x55 calibre Sako 85)
Light was still on my side, so concealed by a corner of woodland I moved quickly towards where they had returned to the woods and spent a long while looking into the dark woodland waiting for light to improve hoping I would see the group, hopefully now relaxed. Alas after half an hour of searching I decided I must have missed them, but with the wind now firmly coming at me I started walking back up the track and towards higher ground, hoping I knew where they were aiming for. Sure enough as I got higher and had a different view point I could see the Fallow moving straight up the steep slopes and onto the top section of woodland from where I had seen the mixed heard flee from the day before. What this meant was a steep walk up a farm track and onto the top section, by now the rain was very much apparent and thankfully I was tucked up warm and dry.
As I neared the top of the farm track I noticed a Doe crossing the track back into the woods and into a section I couldn’t stalk as I hadn’t sought earlier permission from the farmer’s neighbour. Given it was only the day earlier I was given permission on this new section I didn’t think it was worth pushing my luck, when a simple notice beforehand would give me access in the future. The top section of wood not only gave a great view of the Wye beneath but it also opened me up to the full strength of the wind and rain that was now giving everything it had. As I stood there in the rain I lamented the missed opportunity form earlier in the morning and the fact that 2014 might just start off the way 2013 had ended. At that point I decided to give my top ground one last walk through. The path runs along the cliff edge and out into an open section of woodland before going into a series of kinks and folds as the landscape follows the bend in the river as it heads towards Yat Rock.
Starting along the path it wasn’t long before I noticed a couple of large fresh tracks in the mud and it started to cross my mind that perhaps the heard had split up as it reached the top. Did the Does head towards the neighbouring ground, could the large Bucks I saw the day before have turned onto my ground? Despite the fact I hadn’t seen the Bucks earlier in the morning all I could hope for was that there were further ahead waiting for me. Upon reaching the open section I took my time to look through the heavy rain and try to spot any movement. Now, its also dawned on me before that this type of poor weather which really isn’t nice to be out in, also has an advantage. If the wind is favourable I think the rain can actually provide a helping hand, not only by muffling any sounds made but also damping the affect of any scent giving away the position of the approaching stalker.
So proved to be the case as making my way slowly along a lower section of the path and being concealed by the ground ahead of me, I suddenly noticed something out of place underneath a large Yew tree with a large under storey. A sudden rush of excitement and adrenalin went through me as I noticed I was looking at a top section of palmated antler! Moving ever so slowly forward the antler gave way to the head of a very impressive Fallow Buck, which was lying down and seeking shelter under the tree.
I immediately went to ground and slowly crawled towards the rise in ground in front of me which offered me cover. My telescopic sticks wouldn’t go short enough without giving away my position, so I decided a shot from the bipod was the best option. Lying on my front and slowly crawling into position was quite an exhilarating experience, especially given I was setting up on a Master Fallow Buck, approximately 50 metres/yards away. Up until now I had only shot one Fallow Doe on this ground and only two in total, the other coming with Peter in Oxford back in October whilst starting my DSC2. So this was an extra special moment and one to savour.
Looking through my scope I could get a fantastic close up and I have to say that a mature Fallow Buck really does look quite superb. I’ve not yet stalked Red or Sika (though they are on my list) and I’m sure those familiar with those Stags would say something similar, but this for me was the best beast I had got close too. Without wanting to tempt fate and wait too long for the wind to change, I focused on a high neck shot and with a solid backstop in place I squeezed the trigger.
The crack of my Sako 85, 6.5 x 55 (156 grain) was immediately followed by the Buck dropping instantly dead. What then surprised me was seeing a second large Buck stand up and look towards where it’s companion had fallen a few feet away, before deciding something was a miss and it was better off seeking shelter elsewhere. What a sight to see both Bucks close up, one taken and on the ground, the other moving off deeper into the woods without too much care in the world.
My heart was certainly beating fast now, looking back at the Buck and waiting a good 10 minutes before moving closer to perform the blink test, time seemed to take forever. I had almost forgotten how hard the rain was falling. On close inspection of the animal it was an impressive sight and the shot placement was exactly where I had intended. That’s the beauty of my 6.5 x 55, its a very stable and accurate bullet with hardly any noticeable recoil, shoots flat and covers every UK deer species with ease.
At the time I didn’t think I had my phone with me and with the rain pouring down I didn’t search too hard to snap a photo. After all I still had to gralloch the beast and extract from the wood, up a slope, over a barbed wire fence and then further up a grassy bank to where I could get the Land Rover to. The car itself was of course where I had left it, nearly a mile away back down the track and across the open ground, so there was still much to do. The gralloch was helped by a pulley system I have with matching gambrel, which is the only thing which could have possible lifted the beast which was far too heavy for me to move. Once gralloched I then used another Christmas gift, a deer drag to extract the beast to the where the car could get to. This in itself was no easy task, I could barely drag the animal, especially given the ground was so sodden that slipping was inevitable and surface water was pouring over the ground everywhere. Ultimately the extra water helped moved the deer along but after retrieving the car and the getting the deer in the back of the Freelander I was exhausted, thrilled, but exhausted! I have estimated that the Buck must have weighed the best part of 100kgs and standing nearly a metre at the shoulder, this must be as big as Fallow get.
Before heading off home I found myself looking back at the view and realising how lucky I am to be able to enjoy this sport, to get close to these animals and to enjoy it all in appalling weather. With water pouring off me I realised that my gear couldn’t have gone through much more. My jacket felt like a chammy leather mid car wash, but I was dry and warm. Even the steep walk back down the farm track to retrieve the car was completed with ease despite the amount of water flowing over the rough ground, it felt like walking down a rocky stream, but the boots hardly noticed.
With 2014 starting better than I could have ever hoped for, I drove home thinking that I should perhaps make the most of the bad weather. After all if you and your gear can handle it you might just have the edge on your chosen quarry and get the shot you’ve always wanted.
Best of luck to you all for 2014!
For more information about Neils chossen calibre the 6.5x55 Swedish click on the following link: 6-5x55mm-swedish
For more information about Fallow Deer Stalking click here: fallow-deer-stalking