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Deer Hunter - Hot Topic

Deer Hunter - Hot Topic

I was speaking with a professional stalker who, in casual conversation, said he has had clients who would arrive for a day stalking with just a rifle and a thermal imager. This got me thinking about the direction of deer stalking in this country and, after canvassing over a dozen professionals, many whom also had clients arriving without binoculars, I now see the imager to be a double-edged sword.


We all know how thermals have changed the way we hunt. This is fine if the stalker is charged with protecting a young tree plantation or vulnerable crops; the imager will pinpoint any deer within a kilometer or more, if in plain sight. A valuable aid, as many man hours can be saved. However, it can alter the recreational shooter’s approach, and the professional with paying clients is in a bit of a quandary.

The guide, in knowing their land and the wind direction, can often predict where their deer may be. If they are present, will assess from afar and discuss or point out to the client which, if any, they will try to take. The herd or single animal will be glassed, and a route chosen which will take them to a spot from where a shot may be taken. However, other deer may appear, which will then mean a change of plan. This is the format out on the hill and makes for an absorbing and often hard day. In a woodland environment, the process will be more about getting a clear shot through the trees and undergrowth at the right animal. Given it may be partially hidden from view.

No guarantees

Bushcraft is a large part of this, for without it the chances of approaching deer unobserved would be diminished. It was always an accepted part of the deal that the stalk may not produce the chance of a shot. Along the way, other wildlife not on the quarry list, may be seen and observed - perhaps a pair of Muntjac chasing each other around or hares boxing in spring. Buzzards may be overhead, or barn owls can be seen swooping around at dusk or dawn. There has always been more to a day’s stalking than pulling the trigger.

Many a new hunter has learned a lot when they have spent a couple of days with a good guide, which will set them up for a lifetime’s independent deer stalking. This is the route I took around 30 years ago and, in retrospect, the money I spent in Dorset for those accompanied stalks was worth every penny. However, more hunters today are short circuiting the process, and instead of having the countryside experience, the emphasis seems to be on the kill alone, to then post on Instagram.

Why else would you just bring along a rifle and a thermal spotter?

Available technology

story continues below...

Those professionals I mentioned use thermal in a limited way, as they are useful for assessing numbers out of stalking hours, but not used during the actual hunt. I think this situation could receive some pressure from paying clients in the future, as the hand-held device quickly becomes part of the standard ‘kit’ for the average stalker. The question being, would the client want to reduce their chances of a successful stalk by not using the available technology?

In my own case, the permissions I have are all cull-based contracts; to keep the numbers down to acceptable levels, which means does are 75% of the job. However, I find that trudging through the woodland and across fields to look at coppices has become a chore. It’s here the thermal is a real boon; I walk a few yards, imager up, no deer, walk and repeat. I look across fields to that coppice through the imager, no heat shows, but I reluctantly walk to it, in case a deer was behind a tree or hidden by undergrowth. I know the chances are slim, but I feel I ought to do so.


In all honesty, my focus is solely on what the imager shows me. I’ve lost the enjoyment of the stalk! In years gone by, I would stop and sit on a ledge or on a rise in the ground, relax, enjoy the scene and wait a while for deer to show. Not now! I have started to leave it in my truck for some areas, I know it will take me longer to cover the ground, but I have some excellent binoculars and have started to enjoy the search again. There is one wide ravine where I stop and comb through the trees and bushes, it takes a good 15 minutes but during that time the wood comes alive again, birds and squirrels start to make noise and reappear. Deer may well walk over the hill and down towards the stream below me.

It took some time to realise this, but now I take pleasure from the process of stalking, which was what captivated me in the first place, being introduced to this quiet and at times slow paced occupation. It was a foil to city living. If I had started stalking with a thermal spotter, I firmly believe I would not have grown to love being out in the woodlands and fields of Wiltshire as I do. I would have quickly shot several deer and drifted away from hunting, as it wouldn’t have been a challenge.

Downwards spiral

In other countries, recent laws to prevent the use of new technology to hunt with have been introduced. Aside from Scotland, it is quite legal to buy and use digital and thermal devices and scopes for deer stalking during the day in the rest of the UK. Although targeted at the vermin shooter operating at night, now the hunting community has had this technology, it would be near impossible to take it away.

It makes me a little concerned for the future. Will the younger generation develop a lifelong enjoyment of the countryside, or just take superficial excursions, quickly culling a few deer via heat signatures and go back home? If my experience is anything to go by, stalking with thermal will not capture the hearts of new hunters and that is not a good recipe for the long-term prospects of stalking!


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