Ravens cawed loudly following the shot, which echoed around the small shave like rolling waves on the sea. Clapping of dark wings, downdrafts sending scattering feathers airborn to aimlessly drift away.
Sliding back through the years I think my adoration for deer species was sparked primarily from my uncle. When I was young he was a game keeper in Hampshire, north of Andover on ground that fair heaved with Roe, Fallow and most interesting to me, Muntjac. I grew up in deepest darkest East Kent which was very much devoid of deer so going up to work with Steve in the summer or go beating in the winter when I could was a revelation. It took weeks before my eyes became sharp enough to pick up the flag like tail of a Muntjac hammering across a ride, or barking from a rhododendron thicket. Soon though they all became very apparent and it was quite shocking how many there were in each small piece of wood, Shaw, hedge and cover strip.
My love affair with the species was sealed when we came back from dogging in and feeding, my aunt Fiona had roasted a haunch of this wee and fantastic tasting deer and I was struck. I wanted to learn all I could. During my time studying at Sparsholt I took away a great deal from our then lecturer Jamie Cordery, he also helped greatly to inspire a love of deer and also rifle shooting in me. Before college I had done virtually no shooting with any type of rifle, strictly twelve bore all the way for me.
Eventually I got round to applying for a rifle, passing my DSC 1 and started Roe stalking primarily on the bit of ground I shoot, I also had a few opportunities at Fallow on a friends ground which was fantastic. I have been lucky to shoot some good Roe over the years; selectively managing the deer on my bit of ground has eventually, after 8 long years, yielded some good quality animals. And yet despite the opportunities afforded to me what I really wanted was a Muntjac. We have few in my area of Sussex, although this is slowly changing.
The first opportunity I had, after many years of waiting, was checking catchers one day, I always take my Remington 700 in .243 with me as you never know when Charlie will show up, and as a keeper it looks bad when he beats you to the catchers and slays your laying stock. Walking along a hedge, beside a long strip of cover crop and hawthorn hedge I spotted a white tail post dive through the cover. I slowly got onto my sticks and prepared myself for a chance, finally at a munty. I slowed my breathing, let out a breath and prepared for a chance, which never came, the small buck in question took a 90 degree turn and shot off though some thick chicory never to be seen again.
The Remington 700 .243 rifle, sound moderator and 3-12 x 50 Schmidt and Bender scope
Fast forward another year and I was given an invite up country for a chance to get my elusive first. All seemed perfect; I was in a high seat in a block of mixed wood with a small plantation to my front. Early in the afternoon a young and obviously milky doe shot across to feed its youngster, which I felt privileged to have observed, she stood for some time between a patch of briars and bracken with the youngster. As the light began to fade and the shadows stretched in the woodland I thought to be glad of my Schmidt and Bender 3-12 x 50 scope, giving fantastic light transmission, in what was getting towards being dark inside the wood, although not out. Finally a figure stepped onto the ride to my right, I slipped across the seat, popped the safety forward and as I leant forward and started to take up the trigger the seat, which seemed so stable, moved and I snatched the shot sticking it 2 feet in front of the animal and into a wheel rut.
A second trip a few weeks later proved somewhat more fruitful set up in a different piece of wood and a much more solid platform I waited. Surrounded by pheasants eagerly clearing what was left in the catchers and making some racket I waited. Squirrels bombing around the undergrowth sounding like elephants walking on crisps had me on edge. A Muntjac, in my peripheral vision, slowly mooched along the outer edge of the wood, framed in laurel and rhododendron, but unluckily right in front of a large house which didn’t seem like a suitable backdrop, it was a fair way off but better to be safe than sorry. Feeling dejected I noticed a fleeting glimpse of russet, a small buck moving along the bottom of my seat, I managed to lean out and put a 90gn Nosler right where it needed to be. He was small but I’d got him never the less. There are vast numbers on this particular estate and there is little room for sentiment when reducing numbers. I was happy. It was a good shot, clean and humane but felt like cheating, it wasn’t quite the animal I was looking for, it wasn’t quite the “real” Muntjac I had set out for. I am not talking about trophies or anything, just a proper representative, mature Muntjac buck, one that looked a little less foetal and more like the wee invasive menace I had grown to love.
March 2016, same seat, same woodland. Ravens had moved into the treetops around me, the squirrels were still in residence and there was some wheat left on the ground where the keeper had fed his birds that morning. After what seemed like forever, but in reality was around two hours I noticed through a small window in the expansive yew tree to my front, around 60 yards, a pair of feet, followed by a second, slender, brown pair. It was a Muntjac, what sex I could not determine at the time; however it slowly ambled forward, disappearing from view. I shouldered the rifle and made ready, watching the edge of the tree where I felt it would appear. A head ghosted out of the cover, then a neck, eventually a shoulder too. The dark v on his head gave his sex away as did the small antlers atop his head. I watched for what could have been hours as he ate the wheat, ears constantly turning, like radio dishes, listening for threat and preparing evasive action. I slowly let out a breath, lined up on his wide neck and let fly. As you already know, the ravens kicked up a god awful racket and made skyward.
There he lay, on brown laurel leaves, which seemed fitting, dead as undergrowth surrounding and entwining him, there for all to see, a truly beautiful animal, colours unnoticed until that close up, a cut in his ear from disputes with a neighbour, two ivory white canines protruding from his lip giving him an angry look, the black v also helping to add to this. I was ecstatic and at the same time humbled by this wonderful little deer. And now as I enjoy slowly roasted loin, in red wine jus, I feel satisfied for a job well done and an animal that didn’t die in vain.
I salute you tasty beast!
By Gamekeeper and Prominent U.K. Agricultural College lecturer
Muntjac Buck - Image from The British Deer Society