Al Gabriel argues that in all aspects of stalking, from bullet selection to tracking a wounded animal, the highest standards are required to win round the general public
There is always a chance that the best-executed shot will end up needing a follow-up. The reason for this can be attributed to bullet construction, human error or just pure bad luck. So how does one attempt to minimise the need for a follow-up and be proficient at tracking wounded deer should the need to do so occur?
Before a bullet/rifle combination is considered for stalking, it should be tested not just on paper but also for performance on deer. The first five cull animals should provide sufficient information as to how well the bullet is performing. I am always surprised when I see people zeroing cloverleaf groups and conclude that it is the best bullet for stalking. The best bullet for deer stalking is one that puts down deer with minimal damage to the carcass. I have always been a fan of slow bullets when it comes to stalking, while the trend has always been towards ever faster bullets.
Badly constructed bullets have two main weaknesses when it comes to terminal ballistics. Either they shatter with minimal penetration or penetrate with minimal expansion. The outcome of such events depends on where the bullets lands, either in bone or tissue. Needless to say, both outcomes are less than ideal.
Bullet placement is one of the key aspects in reducing sub-optimal shots. While all deer have similar kill zones, minor adjustments need to be made to maximise success, particularly for muntjac, given the size of the target area. When pulling the trigger, broadside shots are king while quartering shots pose the greatest danger and must be taken carefully.
Another factor that determines how deer behave following a shot is the state it was in prior to the shot. For example, a spooked animal will be coursing with fight-or-flight hormones; a sub-optimal shot in such an animal carries higher risk that it will run longer than an animal that was grazing peacefully.
After pulling the trigger, the most critical step is to ensure that the animal is dead. If death can’t be confirmed and a second shot is not available, one must memorise and identify the shot site on the ground before the tracking and recovery phase begins. A stalker must take a few moments to mark the spot the rifle was aimed at before moving off. It is always a good idea to leave a visible item, for instance a shooting stick or orange clothing, so that one can always reference back to the primary site. The human brain is terrible at memorising details during a high adrenaline event, such as pulling a trigger.
The easiest way to track and recover a carcass is with a well-trained dog. We must accept that our canine friends are much better at it than we are. That said, not many people have a tracking dog. But what does one do in a situation where a deer-tracking dog is not available? The best approach is to allow the shot animal to come to its natural conclusion. That means waiting for an hour or more—there is nothing worse than chasing a wounded animal running on adrenaline. After an hour or so, it is sensible to move towards the shot site and identify evidence of blood, bone and hair. In most cases a blood trail should lead to the carcass within 150 yards. If that is not the case, then one faces a long day or night. Such an outcome requires a professional tracker. Simply ignoring the shot and going home is unethical and unacceptable. Each shot must be followed up properly.
Here in the UK, unless you have a friend with a tracking dog, you have just one option: UK Deer Track & Recovery (UKDTR). This is a nationally run service that anybody can request, free of charge. I spoke to Tony Lowry recently, who is the chairman of UKDTR. Tony informed me that the service now has 25 volunteers across the country, who respond to about 350 calls a year nationally.
UKDTR is always looking to expand the number of volunteers on its books, and we as stalkers must do our best to support the service. It also offers deer tracking and recovery courses, which I highly recommend stalkers attend. I was lucky enough to attend one a couple of years ago; it was a valuable experience that I found extremely useful.
Most people are surprised to learn that bone, blood and hair from a shot deer can often disperse up to 20 metres from the exit wound. Drops of blood and hair can be tracked for a long distance with the right level of training.
The use of optics—particularly thermal-imaging equipment—can also supplement other lines of inquiry when locating wounded deer and lost carcasses. It is important to note that in some European countries, having access to a tracking dog is a prerequisite of having a hunting licence. I was lucky enough to join one of the leading trackers in Belgium a few years ago; watching a Hanoverian hound track wild boar over 3km was an amazing experience.
When it comes to tracking, we must also distinguish between hot and cold scent. Deer tracking and recovery is focused on cold scent from the day before and could take place over kilometres. Most UK deer dogs are hunting dogs and operate immediately following a shot. These specialised tracking dogs, such as the Bavarian mountain hounds, are specialist breeds with a superior nose.
Deer lost during an evening stalk presents the greatest challenge. Once darkness sets in it makes the job difficult and dangerous. The search must continue the next morning, and it is critical that scent is not disturbed. Tracking dogs will be of no use if the trail has been trampled in many directions. It is not advisable to stalk close to dense forestry in the evening unless you’re prepared to go in. Stalking too close to the edge of permitted land also poses additional risk should the deer cross over.
If a second shot becomes necessary but the wounded deer is standing outside of the boundary, what then? In the UK, land ownership makes it difficult to track deer across adjacent boundaries, while on the continent local hunting associations have agreements in place to address such issues. It is therefore critical to communicate with landowners and deer management groups to have similar agreement in place. Armed trespass is a serious matter.
Given the public perceptions of hunting, it is more important than ever that we are seen to be responsible wildlife managers operating at the highest standard. We owe it to the community and the next generation that deer are culled humanely. Compared to the rest of Europe, more work is needed in the UK to develop courses and recognised qualifications to advance deer tracking and recovery. Deer stalking is no different to other professions; we must aspire to improve our continued professional development. We should also be available to help one another and recognise that we have communal responsibility when it comes deer. It is up to us to ensure that we have the appropriate training and mindset to do right by our deer.