Tied up with work and replying to emails at first light, it was getting on for nine o’clock by the time I dropped the car and began the long zig-zag climb up the steep face and into the heather. Hoping for a final buck from the season, I carried the .308 on my shoulder and stopped every now and then to spy ahead. Skeins of geese were coming trickling off the Solway at extreme height, and a pair of teal sprang from the ditch at my feet. The wind buffeted the thistle heads and made the last few blobs of yarrow nod in the long grass. Many of the yarrow heads are now pink-tinted and old, and even the late scabious globes are now hard and dry.
I saw the deer from a long way away – perhaps six hundred yards – just a head at first, but it could have been nothing else, the black shadow as much of a giveaway as the silver face in a swirling sea of fallen yellow grass. Without any other options, I decided to get closer to try and determine the sex, so dropped down into a shaded gully of myrtle and bedstraw. The zig-zag path brought me to within eighty yards, and a final crawl through pads of soaking moss gave me a superb vantage point on a block of granite.
It was certainly a buck, and at a first glance it seemed that he had recently dropped both of his antlers for the year. I would have preferred a youngster, but closer examination over the next ten minutes confirmed that his pedicles were topped with creamy little thorns – “buttons” – the kind of scrappy nub grown by young bucks in their first year. He would be perfect, but I would have to wait another hour for the shot as he rose behind a deep bank of rushes and then began to browse idly through a streak of bog myrtle. Jays squalled in the woods and crows rose up to circle and clamour at extreme height – in my experience this usually implies that goshawk is in the area, working unseen between the birches. On a smaller scale and closer to hand, a wren roared in fury like a two-inch tiger.
It was interesting to watch the buck feeding on myrtle. It’s a prolific plant (the roots have Nitrogen fixing nodules) and prospers across much of the wet ground where I work and stalk, but the leaves are so strongly pungent that it’s hard to imagine anything enjoying them in raw “salad” form. He gathered the leaves with snappy, abrupt little mouthfuls. He was very thorough, and only moved a pace or two every five minutes, always hidden up to his neck. When he finally did get some height for me to see his body, he was facing precisely away from me, and I had excellent views of his tush and the back of his head.
Finally he offered me a shot, curled round on himself but almost broadside. One of the reasons why I upsized to a .308 after years with a .222 was the all-too-frequent discovery that my little bullet tips were not punchy enough to achieve an exit wound. I never lost a roe with the .222, but there were a few nervy moments when a blood trail from an exit wound would have been extremely helpful, and the .308 provided this clue in a trail that even I could follow at a walking pace. He had not gone far – perhaps twenty five yards through old burnt heather stick and into a deep hole, but without the blood trail I might have had to return home for the dog.
As I stowed the buck in my bag, I looked up to see a mature male peregrine loop around the glen below me at eye level, catching the wind and catapulting himself through a series of gullies and haggs at knee-height. I assumed that this was an ambush strategy, and pitied the grouse as they crouched for cover in the garish, unforgiving sunlight.