I owe Alison Littlejohn a debt of real gratitude. If she had not ordered my book, Hunting the Spiral Horns – Bongo & Nyala – The Elite African Trophies, for her husband, Laurie’s 50th birthday, I would never have been invited to go stalking in the Scottish Borders, not far from the coastal town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and I would have missed an opportunity of a lifetime.
For some reason, the delivery of the book was delayed. An anxious Alison emailed me and I was able to ensure the book arrived in time. Learning how keen a hunter Laurie was – he sent me a photo of the gold medal roe deer he shot on his birthday – we started emailing one another and one thing led to another.
The beginning of August found my wife and I trundling up the M1 North to Chirnside Hall Hotel, some 430 miles away, where we were booked in for the next four nights. The first lesson I learned was that it takes much longer to drive anywhere on this small island off the west coast of France than you would imagine because it is like driving in permanent, South African, rush hour traffic. Take your eye off the car in front and the chances were good you would end up in his boot. The three and four lane traffic would go from 120kph to a dead stop in nano seconds and for no apparent reason.
Our small hotel was in reality a hunting lodge and shoots and hunts were conducted there by the head game keeper, Matt Beaumont. The inside of the lodge-come-hotel and the library in particular – were decorated with a variety of heads from the region and further afield – to hell with the animal extremists – and we were made to feel right at home from the very beginning.
The surrounding countryside was more a series of gentle undulations than hilly as it stretched away towards the North Sea over a patchwork of ripening wheat, barley and green feed fields. Little white spots marked sheep grazing in the distance and grey stone houses were dotted here and there, the countryside intersected by narrow country roads and neat, grey stone walls. All was well-ordered, peaceful and cared for.
The United Kingdom has destroyed almost all of its original game and the only indigenous deer species left are red and roe deer. The other major deer species which are found there – muntjac, Chinese water deer, sika and fallow deer – have all been imported at one time or another. I was there to stalk roe deer with Laurie who had organised a very kind invitation from Alistair Kinghorn who, for the last 20 years or so, has looked after the game on a number of farms in the region covering some 6 500 unfenced acres of sheep and crop farms, varying in size from roughly 1 000 to 2 000 acres, although there are, of course, exceptions.
Alistair takes off some 50 to 60 roe deer per annum to keep the numbers in the region of 300 deer. Given that, in South Africa, we expect game numbers to increase by roughly 25% to 35% per annum depending on local conditions, these numbers might seem quite aggressive until you bear in mind that most roe deer females give birth to twins and sometimes even triplets. In fact, Alistair had already seen four does with triplets so far this year.
Having stopped hunting some 2 ½ years previously, I was not sure whether I would shoot a roe deer if the situation presented itself, particularly as I had to use a borrowed firearm but I decided to let the situation dictate the end result.
Having said that, I was keen to secure some roe deer venison, which is the most sought after venison in Europe, commanding premium prices. I knew this from the years I was involved with Camdeboo Meat Processors (based in Graaff Reinet), which exported venison to Europe, that there was little or no difference in the look of a roe deer versus a springbok carcass and, just like springbok, there was little variation in the taste and tenderness of the venison regardless of whether it was old or young, male or female provided, however, that it was shot well and treated properly afterwards.
Back then, I remember three German meat traders being convicted of passing off springbok meat as roe deer given the massive price differentiation and going to goal for the offence but, as I had only eaten roe deer once and then at a German hotel covered in sauce, I wanted to see for myself.
Laurie and Alistair both confirmed the attributes of roe deer meat and said that, as the roe deer buck fed naturally during the rut, the meat did not deteriorate like, say, fallow or red deer, which did not do so and which ran themselves ragged to the point of near starvation during this time, leaving their meat dry, stringy, tough and unpalatably gamey.
A thick, pea soup of mist rolling over the rape seed fields below my bedroom window, the first of summer, greeted me when I woke at 03h45 on the first morning – roe deer stalking is a very early morning and late afternoon/early evening affair and the afternoon stalk starts at about 19h00 – always remembering that it is light enough to shoot until at least 21h30 at this time of the year.
We waited until about 07h00 when visibility had increased to almost 70 metres before leaving Laurie’s bakkie, a Volkswagen Amarok, and soon spied a young kid on her own. During the rut, which was the time in which we were hunting, the females often leave their kids to attend to the breeding process, which involves her running and running round and round the fields as she is chased by one or more of her ardent suitors until she chooses one. Then she continues this circular movement but in a far smaller circle, almost a fairy circle of some six paces in diameter, before allowing her suitor to cover her.
Unfortunately, that was the only roe deer we saw that morning and, not knowing that the evening hunt started only at 19h00, I had invited my Godson, Tyghe – who was studying for his masters in finance at Edinburgh University – and his beautiful wife, Angie, to dinner at the hotel, so I missed most of the evening stalk.
Stalking consisted of walking the borders of fields, thickets and forested valley bottoms, glassing for game and stopping every now and then to call the deer using homemade and store bought game callers, which emitted a variety of shrill calls not unlike the predator calls I have seen used in South Africa and North America.
The afternoon produced nothing and I was dropped off at the hotel just before 19h00, barely in time for a very quick shower and was walking down the stairs to the lobby buttoning my shirt cuffs as my guests arrived. I had a particular question for Tyghe. When my hosts heard he was a keen African hunter, they immediately asked whether he would like to join us and stalk the next day. My question of what about gear was met with – no problem, we have boots, pants and jackets to spare.
And so, at 04h30 the next morning, I stood by as a very keen Tyghe changed into his loaned gear in the parking lot, secure in the knowledge that none of the other guests would be about to see the strip tease.
Off we went. Me with a borrowed Sako .270 kindly lent to me by Alistair who, being some 6 foot 4 inches, fitted me better than the stockier Laurie’s 22-250. All the rifles carried suppressors – something I have only ever used on my old Brno .22 for teaching novices to shoot – and I found the extra weight and the way it affected the balance of the rifle unusual.
Laurie carried shooting sticks which opened to allow rests for both the front and rear of the rifle. The only problem was that the rest did not allow for any lateral movement and, once set up on the sticks, the entire rest had to be picked up out of the usual, thick, entangling grass under foot, with the rifle in place, and reset in direct line with the target.
The traditional African tripod rest with its rubber lined crow’s nest at the top was, in my humble opinion, a much better bet as it was much easier to move the rifle from side to side and, as game hardly ever seems to do what you expect, this movement is more often than not required. The only way to achieve this flexibility with the current sticks was to push the shooting sticks together and use them as a bipod but then, of course, they were nowhere near as steady.
It felt odd to be hunting so close to roads, vehicles, farm houses and tracks where people could and did walk their dogs but the stalking was as fair chase as could be. The animals were not restricted by anything other than low fences and stone boundary walls, which presented no hindrance to their movement nor prevented them from feeding themselves, procreating and/or escaping their predators, which were also culled by Alistair and his guests.
Moving quietly along the edge of a tree line, which fell away into a low-lying thicket of green on green shrubbery and trees, we stopped at an inlet into the greenery and Laurie began to call for the umpteenth time. This time was different and, within seconds, a young, two pronged buck appeared at the edge of the wood a mere 70 paces away. He seemed unconcerned and I had time to lift the shooting sticks, reposition them and have an almost dead rest. Through the fixed 8 power Swarovski scope I could see the buck clearly and decided he was far too young.
Eventually, he had enough of examining us and wandered off only to re-appear closer this time. I declined Laurie’s polite invitation to shoot it a second time and only later learnt I probably should have shot him as his antlers, which they shed every year in or about November, were mismatched and poor. He was what was called a management or cull buck.
What I also learned that morning was that the government paid the farmers not to plough too close to the hedgerows bordering the various fields to leave more cover and food for birds, game and other wild creatures. In addition, to plant crops for them as well and not harvest them. What a brilliant idea I thought!
Still later that morning, perched out in the open on the side of a newly ploughed, hilly embankment, loud, deep, hoarse, repeated barks answered Laurie’s first call. It was incredibly exciting to hear his various calls – some tentative peeps others more confident, drawn out and strident – answered again and again as the buck moved ever closer. It was too late to move back into cover as the barks showed the dominant breeding buck was not dilly dallying. He wanted to see who or what was challenging his position. Now.
Then silence. Had he realised the calls were fake? The silence stretched. I was on the sticks using both rests, which meant I was focussed in a very shallow arc to my front pointing towards a “V” shaped wedge of newly planted saplings bordering the natural forest. Both Laurie and I were intent on trying to strip the leaves and shrubbery to our front to see the buck before he saw us. Another few soft, tentative peeps from Laurie’s caller. Still nothing. As the tension stretched, we eventually made out a vague, brown shape flitting between the small acreage of planted trees to our front.
But the buck had not grown this big by accident. He was experienced and always kept moving and greenery between him and us. Eventually, the tips of his thick, dark brown antlers appeared over the grass to my front about 120 paces away for about two to three seconds as he looked straight at us before he drifted away satisfied we were not a rival he needed to be concerned about. Laurie was very taken with the buck as, being a little to my right, had seen the whole head and, as a very experienced hunter and official CIC measurer – the system used in Scotland – felt it was a possible gold medal buck.
Two weeks later, Alistair sent me this note:
“Stalked along the edge of a young plantation in a valley and got to the spot where you and Laurie had seen him before. I called a bit but nothing, so moved another 100m where there was a clearing in the trees and there he was, sky-lined on the neighbour’s ground! So, a peep or two with the Nordic and he starts moving back and forth with menace, almost taunting me that there was no shot. He moves right behind a big beech tree.
Thinking that’s him off, I upped the calling. Watching me from behind the tree, he makes a charge towards me then takes cover half way in some bushes! Feeling he’s watching me although I can’t see him, I call again. He breaks cover now at 50m but only his head is visible offering only a high neck shot.
His teeth were very worn. His gene’s have been passed on. I’m happy to have taken him. My guess is he is a high silver to gold medal buck.”
Walking steadily to our rendezvous point with Alistair towards the end of the morning stalk, Laurie called again and, within seconds, a second mature buck, although not as grand as the earlier one, entered the gap between two trees about 150 paces away. I had collapsed the shooting sticks to a bipod to improve my manoeuvrability but, at that distance, my crosshairs wobbled off and on the vital triangle. I was taking too much time. A quiet, “Shoot him” from behind me by Laurie was a timely reminder. A shot blattered forth. There was a distant do-doef but, try as we might, we could find no blood. A clean miss.
Back at Alistair’s bakkie, a venerable Mitsubishi, there was better news as Tyghe had shot a mature, medal class roe deer buck just as they too came to the end of their stalk, so all was not lost and I took the long road down south with two roe deer legs and sirloins for company.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my time with Alistair and Laurie. What two really nice, knowledgeable, generous and hospitable men they were, committed to the conservation of their two remaining indigenous deer species, and I was chuffed to be invited back and also to Laurie’s red deer shooting grounds in the Scottish Highlands.
While at 71 I do not think I will start hunting actively again, once a hunter, always a hunter and I love learning about different types of hunting and conservation in the company of people committed to fair chase and conservation. Laurie and Alistair are two such men and I look forward to learning more from both of them.