With forty eight hours of much anticipated high pressure and a bone-crushingly cold North wind, foxes suddenly came out of the woodwork at the weekend. I saw two lying up in the long, rustling grass as I headed up the hill for a stalk yesterday afternoon, and one was almost within range as he ambled through the bracken. The bright sun picked up notes of glossy purple in his mane, and if he had paused for a second to look back, he would have been flat on his side. As it was, he casually melted into the whins on the white grass margins and I never saw him again, despite every effort.
In fact, the wind was so caustic and vile that I could hardly face more than a few minutes at a time. I moved slowly between the shelter of the stones and spied uphill with my fingers as white and crooked as dead hens’ feet around the binoculars. Deer were moving way up on the bracken face as the sun started to sink, and I fixed on them as they meandered into a bank of blaeberry and tufts of white grass.
It wasn’t a difficult stalk, and the only hardship was waiting for them to present a reasonable shot. I had seen the mature doe from half a mile away, and the whole evening depended on the gamble that her follower was a young doe. By the time I was in range, it was too late to head off and try for other deer if it turned out to be a buck, and I was content to let the situation reveal itself as an icy pink haze rose up over the North Pennines.
As much as the old doe showed herself easily at forty yards, her youngster was shy and hid its head in the bracken. A shred of tension developed as the sun sank and the stars came prickling out of the blue. My view was fading, and time was against me. I drummed my stiff fingers on the granite and watched a fat two-thirds moon oozing silver across the Solway. A lighthouse on the Isle of Man winked and span as snipe started to move overhead. I had a matter of minutes before the stalk would have to be abandoned when the follower emerged over a black stump of heather and offered a perfect shot, showing not only the white tush of her sex but also the muscular contours of her shoulder and upper leg.
I learned my lesson last year about shooting old does too early in the season while they still have young in tow, and this six month old beast was perfect to replenish my empty feezer. The dog wagged its tail in the grass as I moved to take the shot, which crashed all around the scree and out into the Solway. The youngster ran thirty yards before stopping, turning with her ears back and swooning to a faint. The dog coursed up to her and began to woof as I packed up my things and moved up to the carcass.
I haven’t trained her to woof, but it’s a happy coincidence of a game we sometimes play with things that slightly overwhelm her. She’ll woof at the hoover or my wife’s hairdryer, and she has taken to woofing at deer with the same uncertain enthusiasm. She wagged her tail and was pleased to be relieved of her duties as I reached the doe and found it shot quite nicely through the chest. The bullet had pulled out the bottom of the heart and the exit wound had smashed the upper leg into crackling carnage. I cut this off and stashed it separately for the ferrets, then worked to drain the chest, relishing the scorching warmth of the offal on my white hands. The thick winter coat shed long tufts of crimped grey hair throughout the bracken, and a pool of blood formed in the moss.
A raven clocked in the distance as I dropped the deer into my roe bag, then I walked downhill during the fast and furious rush of the woodcock flight. A few golden plover had gathered in the field where the car was parked, and they rose up against the moon and the hard, crystalline sparkle of the frost.