A week of Sussex summer solitude and a gold medal buck for Simon K. Barr

The first deer that I ever shot was a roe buck. From that very first guided outing, I was utterly hooked on hunting, a thoroughly different ball game to shooting birds. The challenge of stalking an animal whose senses are so much more heightened than yours. The skill to get within close range undetected, the discipline of that single shot – your single chance to succeed. It’s also essential population management and a largely solitary sport, so it’s clear why I have such an enduring passion for. And the compact roe will always be my first choice of deer to hunt.

Perhaps the biggest draw is that I can hunt roe whenever I want, on my own. They are small enough to deal with easily on your own – no complicated rig is required to move them to your vehicle, and they are easy carcasses to butcher. Just a regular household fridge and freezer will be big enough to cool and store meat ready for cooking. They are similarly obliging when it comes to the all-important eating. The meat is the same all year round – gamey, yes, but you don’t get that strong taint that a stag’s meat can have during the rut.

I’d say my favourite place to hunt roe deer is a large estate in Sussex. It’s not that I don’t love other areas, but for the quality of the bucks, this slice of prime English countryside is unbeatable. I always aim to carve out annual leave which coincides with a week of roe hunting there during the rut. And in 2020, with no Game Fair or foreign trips, and the stress of managing a business during a pandemic and lockdown, it was the perfect escape.

In 2020 I spent this precious week with my clock turned upside down. Out at four am, sleeping in the middle of the day then heading back out until the light faded. Then, a couple of hours’ sleep before starting over. In previous years, I would seek out a trophy buck in its prime, but my shooting tastes have evolved. Now, my aim is to shoot only the very old bucks. Of course, for population management we also take does and poor bucks, but it is the old bucks I’ll go for. With a full week on the clock, I can afford to be selective.

I had a few special experiences that year, but one sticks in my mind The weather was perfect – warm, a little bit humid and not a breath of wind. Being early in the moon cycle, the bucks were even more active, and it was just after 5.30 in the morning. At that time of the year, the countryside takes on a softness, with mellowing greens, high grasses and, in heat like we had that summer, barely a whisper of morning dew. I’d been moving quietly through an ancient forest of beech and oak, stopping, looking, moving again.

Ahead of me, I could see a buck moving about but I couldn’t make out what sort of buck it was. I stopped, got my rifle on sticks, and called. One became five but couldn’t make out if they were bucks or does. However, after a squeak or two more, things started to take shape. The original deer I had spotted was indeed a buck, and as I watched it started really pushing off a few young bucks. I could see this buck was aggressive and we started a tense game of grandmother’s footsteps – him coming closer and closer, and me trying to move into a better position when he wasn’t staring towards me.

Then, just as suddenly, he was gone. For a split second I thought he’d winded me, but he was circling around. Almost before I knew it, he was just 20 meters away, giving me my first good look at him. Instantly, I could see he’d lost his tips and his coronets were sloping and heavy on his head. I didn’t hesitate – I took the shot.

When I’m doing this week, I like to take time after every buck. I sit with it, drink a dram, celebrate its life. It is rare for me to have that time, so it is almost a sacred moment. And this buck deserved it – he was big. Gold-medal big, it turned out, my first gold medal buck. And I could see he was old, his tips certainly were worn and chipped, but his antlers still had a big mass at the base.

So, unguided, on my own and where my lifetime of hunting began, I shot a gold-medal buck. It was a special moment, and one I’ll remember forever. There was a bittersweet ending – with all the restaurants shuttered due to the pandemic, game dealers were paying a measly £5 per roe carcass. Rather than hand them the precious, hard-won deer, I butchered every single one and distributed the meat to friends, sharing the spoils of a memorable week.

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