Walking back to the car after a successful stalk last week, I noticed a dark brown shape in the bracken ahead. The dog was at my heel, and I had her lie down as I searched for my binoculars. As it happened, it was a very good buck standing around seventy yards away, thoughtfully meandering through the asphodel stars. Caked in dry blood, the last thing I wanted to do was shoot a second buck that morning, but as I watched him, I resolved to get as close as I could, if only to see how well I would do.
Half an hour passed, and by softly taking my chances as he wandered in my direction, I finally found myself within eighteen feet of him. I could hear his goaty little molars grinding, and even smelt him in catches of warm, grassy scent. It was a tremendous thrill, and my heart roared in my ears as he finally looked up and saw the dog, still obediently sitting where I had left her. When he barked, I almost felt specks of his spit on my face. To her eternal credit, the dog stayed precisely where she was left, twenty yards behind me, even under this temptation. The final inch of her tail was wagging with delight, but she remained as still as a statue as the buck tossed his head and feinted several provocative retreats, always coming back to stamp his foot and lick his nose in confusion.
At last he was gone, shouting “brump, brump, brump” until the granite rang to the bark. I sat up and realised that stalking in to this buck had been far more exciting than the beast I had killed. It set me thinking about roe stalking, and about the nature of what I regard as one of the most exciting fieldsports in Britain. Why should killing a deer be part of the sport when so much fun and interest can be had simply from stalking or, potentially, photographing them? Within hours, a dead lion turned up in Zimbabwe and the world erupted in fury. Having worked in a South African hunting camp as a teenager, I can wholeheartedly endorse the process which sees hunting money invested into conservation, although it seems like the specifics of Cecil’s case are possibly somewhat shady. Nobody really knows what happened, but that has not stopped the online community from collapsing into a froth-pot of invective and fury.
One of the ideas to resurface after Cecil’s death is that photography serves as an excellent alternative to hunting, and that it is just as much of a challenge to photograph as it is to kill. This is obviously nothing new, but after my close encounter with the roe buck, I felt like it needed more exploration. After clearing my desk of work yesterday afternoon, I set off onto the hill armed only with my camera, purely as an experiment in sport.
Within an hour, I had found a buck in the low cloud. I crept in around the back of a tumbled bing of granite boulders, emerging when I was fifty yards away to take the first of my pictures. I could have shot him many times over with the rifle, but the photography was proving enough of a challenge. I thought about where I would place my bullet several times, then watched him thrash his antlers in the heather. After half an hour, a doe stood up beside him. She was shy and skittish, but after a short chase, he climbed awkwardly up on her back and covered her, around thirty five yards away. I had never seen the actual act before, and it was a compelling window into the world of wonderfully mysterious animals.
The minutes ticked by in the wind, and he was obsessed with her smell. He drew long breaths of it through his nose with an exaggerated arch of his neck (pictured above), licking his lips and drawing them back from his teeth. There was so much to see that when I typed up every detail for my notes, it amounted to three and half thousand words. The two deer browsed towards me, across the wind, until they passed my scent and soared away with a clatter through the heather stick and the cushions of blaeberry and black crowberry which winked in the moss like rat’s eyes.
It had been exhilarating, and the photographs themselves provided a great deal of pleasure when I got home and put them up on the computer. But would I rather have taken a rifle? Perhaps this is an unfair season to draw the comparison, because the mysteries of the roe rut always lean more towards observation than intervention. In my mind, bucks are to be shot as they take their territories in July, when they are thick-necked and arrogant and exude a kind of hormonal invulnerability. The gentle, expressive communion between the two deer I stalked was far better suited to photography than marksmanship, whereas the bellowing, heather-thrashing bravado of last month is in a different league of excitement and almost demands a challenge.
I am not about to hand in my firearms certificate, but photography really does have more of a place in my stalking armoury than it did. As I have found over the last few years, when you learn to love roe, you find that any excuse is enough to get you out and amongst them. I won’t fill the freezer with my camera, but roe are a natural resource and perhaps photography is just another way of using it. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose rifle or camera; I can enjoy the best of both.