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Shooting Times(13/07/06)

With Muntjac numbers on the rise Graham Downing pays a visit to a stalking syndicate dedicated to the little deer.

Thirty years ago, the idea of running a muntjac stalking syndicate in the rolling arable countryside of south Norfolk would have met with incredulity among the local gamekeeping fraternity. The largest wild mammal you might have expected to encounter in the course of an everyday ramble was a hare. Foxes even poked their noses into this corner of East Anglia at their peril, for this has never been fox hunting country, band as for deer, Norfolk boys such as I did not expect to see wild deer outside Thetford Forest.

These days it is quite a different story. Deer, especially Muntjac, are steadily increasing both in range and population, and its a regular occurrence for a muntjac creeping out of a roadside wood to be caught in the headlights, or to be seen lying dead on the verge the following morning. Naturally landowners with woodlands to protect are turning t o local deer managers for help, and it was one of these, Mark Burrage, who invited me to join a local muntjac syndicate for a midsummer evening’s stalk.

Arriving in the the little village of Woodton, near Bungay, I quickly spotted Mark, plus local syndicate members Jerry and Jack, poring over a map spread across the bonnet of a 4×4 outside Mark’s cottage. The estate we were to visit is one of four for which Mark organises the management of deer and where he has hit upon the idea of setting up syndicate shoots that enable stalkers to enjoy a guaranteed number of outings per year over the same piece of ground.

“The cull target here is 100 muntjac,” Mark told me as we bumped down the estate track in his pickup, “so we run two teams of four stalkers, with each team having 10 to 12 outings. Hopefully, this means everyone should end up with eight to 10 deer over the course of a year, though of course the final total is down to luck and good judgement.”

As it was the middle of June, only muntjac were on the menu; though there are both red and fallow in the locality, those species are definitely off-limits for syndicate members. “The landowner doesn’t want them shot for the time being and there’s a hefty penalty for knocking over a red or fallow”, explained Mark. Even so there’s plenty of stalking opportunity here and the cull was easily achieved last year. Though muntjac are notoriously hard to count, Mark estimates there are 400 or so animals currently on the estate.

Arriving at the rendezvous in the woods, we met Chris, the final member of the party. He had a big smile on his face. “I’ve just seen one at Broom Hill,” he grinned. It was easy to guess which beat Chris was going to opt for and we wished him good luck as he loaded a high seat on to his vehicle and set off.

Jerry and Jack were sharing another beat. Our first job was to set up a high seat overlooking a broad ride through a fine block of mature woodland. The seat was of a folding pattern designed by Mark. Four metres high when fully extended, it is made of box-section aluminium and has three articulated joints, which means it can be transported easily in a car. Having selected a big oak tree to lean it against, Mark worked for a few minutes with a spanner and soon the high seat was ready for Jerry to climb aboard with his .243.

Though much of the shooting is carried out from high seats, syndicate members may stalk on foot if they wish. “At any time during the evening they can contact me by phone and say they’re going for a walk,” said Mark. “They know the beats, they’ve each got a map and there are pre-defined routes where they can and cannot go.”

He requires all syndicate members to have at least DSC Level 1 and either to be qualified at Level 2 or actively to be seeking the higher certificate. “As I am an accredited witness, they can be pursuing Level 2 with their portfolio open. One of the guys tonight has passed and the others have very nearly completed.”

With the other three stalkers safely installed on their beats and the midsummer shadows starting to lengthen, I transferred my stalking gear out of my Landrover and into Mark’s pickup for the short drive through the woods to another part of the estate. It seemed far too warm to be zipping up my stalking jacket, but the plan was that we would start off on foot before spending the hour or so around sunset in a high seat. Even in midsummer, the temperature at dusk can drop very quickly.

We started off by walking slowly together along a woodland track, the two of us stopping every few yards to scan the deep shade of the wood with our binoculars. Muntjac can be fiendishly hard to spot at this time of year as the cover is so high, and the summer stalking on foot is a real challenge. You really have to slow right down and use your eyes and ears, and when Mark dropped me off beside an overgrown ride and whispered to walk on, this is exactly what I did.

To my right, a leaf-strewn bank sloped down towards a lake, its sparkling surface just visible through the trees. To my left, dense strands of nettles clothed the ground beneath the trees, obscuring virtually everything. I had gone no more than 50 yards down the ride when, to my left, I caught from the corner of my eye the fleeting scut of a muntjac doe. She had spotted me coming and was not going to wait around, but though obviously alarmed, she was certainly not panicked. I reached into my pocket for my Buttolo call and gave a squeak.

The doe had stopped 90 yards back from the ride and, at the sound, barked at me. I squealed again and the doe barked repeatedly. Could i possibly call her back towards me and, if so, would I be able to spot her and establish whether or not she was a suitable target? It was worth a try. With my rifle set up on my stalking sticks, I worked gently with the call.

Suddenly there was another sound. From my right came the sharp bark of a second muntjac, the buck, which had been studying the goings-on from 50 yards back in the dappled shade. With great care I raised my binoculars and could just make out the tips of its ears moving about in the nettles. Here was a much better opportunity.

I slowly moved the stick through 90 degrees so that I could pick the buck up in the my scope. There it was, peering at me, its head moving from side to side in curiosity, but though I could see bits of ear, eye and antler there was no clear target at which to aim. With my left hand steadying the rifle and my eye to the scope, I worked the Buttolo with my right hand and watched as the little buck barked back at me. The stand-off continued for maybe three minutes and I was relieved that I had put on my head net and gloves - obviously the muntjac could see me, but it seemed it did not know what I was.

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Now moving slowly through the undergrowth and, as he reappeared from behind the smooth, grey bole of a sycamore, I got a clear view of his shoulder. It was the work of a fleeting moment top squeeze the trigger and the buck collapsed.

Mark had heard the shot and I heard his vehicle draw up as I completed the gralloch. It was nearing sunset now and, judging by the shot coming from the direction of Broom Hill, Chris had seen a muntjac, too.

With dusk settling over the Norfolk countryside, Mark pointed out a convenient high seat overlooking a large patch of set-aside on the woodland edge and I spent the next hour eyeballing rabbits, hares, pheasants and a wood pigeon that pitched in to a branch next to me, reflecting upon my good sense in wearing that stalking jacket. Perhaps the muntjac had got the message that this was a bad evening to be on the prowl, but nothing else showed itself.

At 10pm, I spied the lights of Chris’s 4×4 approaching and descended from the high seat to join him. Sure enough, he had shot a muntjac, an old buck still in velvet, and shortly afterwards we learned Jack had also scored, making three animals for the evening. Even at 10.30pm there was light in the western sky as I bade farewell to Mark and thanked him and the other syndicate members for the stalk. It had been a typical outing at muntjac – challenging, but hugely rewarding.