Alpha male

Yep, I know, every stag is entitled to rub a few trees up the wrong way. How else is he going to scratch off the annoying strips of velvet that cling to his flashy new antlers? How else is he going to impress the ladies during the rut and don’t those same broken trees advertise to all comers he lives here and he’s the best and strongest stag in the vicinity?

There is one stag though, who damages too many trees, plantation trees and in places that are highly visible, drawing attention to himself and the forest he lives in. Unwelcome attention from uninvited hunters.

I stalk him but he is elusive. Time to play his game then. He hides amidst the trees; I seek him there.

I sneak-seek down a prominent ridge in wintertime, in the middle of a sunny day. The light filtering through the fragrant pines creates a dappling effect. The warmth makes him sleepy, body flat, head lolled back. I don’t see him until I almost stand on him. He doesn’t see, smell or hear me either.

We’re separated by a gorse bush and just five metres, when we register, “Hello stranger.”

We both inhale so sharply we create a vacuum where our auras had been. Both our heart rates go from regular to critical. He leaps away in huge stiff-legged bounds and I cuss the prickly bush that fills the view through my rifle scope. Bugger.

For the next nine months I do drive-byes, walk-byes and stalk-byes. Daytime, nighttime, any time. I never, not once, caught a glimpse of him.

He is there though and he has an attitude. While there was hardware atop his head, he’s been using it to great effect. He is a raging vandal. Summer, autumn, winter – he thrashes trees every day— he only stops when that hardware falls off in spring.

In consequence there are many young trees damaged or dying. Trunks are snapped or gouged, branches are bashed and broken, bark is ripped and stripped.

Mid spring and I’m on the vandal’s case once again. If he’s like so many of his counterparts, he’ll be refuelling on sugar-rich vegetation, the soft young grasses sprouting where the grader cleared the roads in winter or the tender tips of blackberry vines or maybe even the bright yellow gorse flowers that waft enticingly just a stride or two over the mineral-rich road spill.

I’ve got my sneaky boots on, pliable rubber silent on a road surface carpeted in grass and I’ve got the .223 clutched in a vice-like grasp, the sling-swivels fore and aft in-hand to prevent any tell-tale squeak. Despite the steep uphill gradient, my breathing is silent and rhythmic. I ease around the inside of every corner with eyes fixed on the route ahead; I’m in the zone.

One kilometre. Two. The sun’s rays become brighter and warmer. The gradient and the breathing do not alter but beads of sweat now slide down the contour lines of my face. Pins and needles numb my fingers, the vice-like grasp weakens and my concentration span is stretched to its outer limit.

Aha! There’s the stag— above the road, balanced on a steep cutting. He has seen me and now he’s hiding in plain sight. His head is low and he looks down his nose at me, absolutely motionless. He’s standing askew, no heart shot available.

I dropped onto my bum, elbows to knees, rifle sling twisted around my forehand and safety off. The stag remains motionless, he thinks he’s invisible.

The only viable shot available to me is at the base of his thick neck—midway between top and bottom, hoping the tiny weeny projectile will strike exactly the right place to break bone and sever spinal cord. Get it wrong and he’ll be gone just like last time, his emergency evacuation process already formulated as I sit here before him.

The Tikka speaks and the stag rears over backwards, sliding into the flood-scoured water-table below. Upsidedown, legs pedalling, he thrashes his head back and forward, smashing his velvet antlers. The tiny weeny projectile has damaged the spinal cord, not broken it. The stag is very much alive but he’s stuck fast.

As I hurry towards him, the big fellow barks an alarm call. Then he begins to roar. He roars not in pain, nor in fear—he roars in anger.

Wow, I’ve never had this happen before. The basin all about echoes with furious roars. It sounds like the rut but it’s not, it’s November.

When the stag is subdued, I am struck by his appearance. While other stags are currently summer-coated, sociable and fat, this guy is the opposite in every respect. His coat is drab grey-brown and matted with wallow mud. His neck is thick and shaggy with a full mane. His belly is urine stained over a large area and he reeks. Coarse black hair covers his lower neck, brisket and forelegs. He is lean and fit and fully charged with testosterone—an alpha male all year round, only his craving for soft sweet grass has let him down.

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