I arrived at the estate long before the sun deigned to creep over the horizon. The headlights of the car had still required full beam right up to the point of turning the engine off. I made sure the interior lights didn't switch on as I opened the driver's door and prepared myself for the considerable physical task ahead of me. Deer stalking in the winter months often requires a determination that would keep most folks from ever trying it. Just getting out of bed at stupid o'clock, dashing silently around the house retrieving gear and unlocking the gun cabinet, before shivering your way to the iced-up car and chattering your way down the first few miles of bleary-eyed road are a string of hurdles that, let's face it, most of us could do without.
But like a moth to the proverbial flame, here I was again.
The physical task ahead of me, without the aid of a steaming brew of tea or a bite of breakfast, was the steep fell side that I had to climb before I started my approach to the woodland. It's not mountaineering by any stretch, but it is a long hike, with around 600ft of stiff ascent up grass, through bracken beds and often negotiating the odd tumbledown of boulders. Iced boulders that is, to go along with the slippery frosted tussocks of grass. All negotiated in the gloom of the pre-dawn, and most importantly, all surmounted silently! I was in pursuit of a red stag and those boys don't have great big ears for no reason. They can detect a human footfall at a truly stunning distance. The galling thing is that they can differentiate effortlessly between me crunching on the bracken stalks and a sheep doing the same. The woolly terrors (sentinels of the fells for all those who try to approach deer with them on patrol) bumble blindly on through the terrain without causing any distress to our cervine quarry, but one slight slip from me, one tiny error in foot placement, and all of my preparation, sleep deprivation and other sufferings will be in vain. The hills and woodlands will be bereft of deer. Guaranteed.
I ascended the hill in true ninja fashion; I swear I must have been floating. Upon arrival at the summit the grey of the dawn was allowing a view over the stunning heather moor and, looking back I could see the frosted Lakeland hills capping a vista that could only be England: patchwork fields, oak woodlands, a silver snake of the river Lune meandering past my village of birth and on to the sea. I was greeted by the "goback, goback, goback" cries of the grouse and a couple of cock pheasants rose out of the ground almost at my feet, giving my heart a lurch it really did not need after the recent exertion. But it was all wonderful. For me, this is fillet steak for my soul. It just cannot be beaten.
I knew where the reds had been lying up, and so I went to the edge of a plantation looking down the steep sides of the wood along a ride between the old forest and a newly planted fir tree section. I stood behind a wall and waited.
I heard him before I saw him. A methodical crunch of feet in the frosted fallen oak leaves. But as usual he didn't appear where he was supposed to. The wily brute was adjacent to me rather than below. More importantly he was due south of me, at no more than 50 yards. The wind had been very gentle but consistent, from the north. This was trouble. One whiff of the vile stench of human and he would be off and away at the gallop.
I opened my mouth wide and exhaled slowly. The vapourised air drifted so slowly, but unmistakably, away from the beast. A shift in the wind to just a point west of south! Outstanding. The game, as Sherlock Holmes would say, is afoot!
Then just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone. He was slap bang in my vision not five seconds previously, and then, nothing. I was filled with admiration, not dismay, as an animal weighing at least 250lbs and standing a good 4ft to his shoulder, could blend so marvellously with his surroundings. I strained my eyes for a few moments, then risked raising the binoculars to see through the undergrowth. Nothing.
A minute later he reappeared nearly 80 yards away. Unbelievable. I just made out a movement of those great antlers and there he was in full view, and more importantly, completely unaware of my presence. As he disappeared over the crest of the hillock, I risked it all and climbed over the wall, straining enormously to lower my body silently onto the leaf strewn grass beneath me. I crept along the top of the wood using trees to mask my movement and hoping my floating technique stayed with me.
Ten minutes later I peered through the trees out on to the bracken bed marking the start of the open fell side. I thought I had lost him. I looked around the next spruce tree and bobbed my head up and down to see between the branches.
At 70 yards distant a huge, antler-dominated head stared accusingly back at me. Rumbled! Frozen to the spot I knew the game was up. Any second now he would be off in that superlatively powerful prance of the red stag, away over the horizon and gone forever. Magnificent, majestic, and missed!
But instead he pawed the ground and took two then three paces toward me. Unsure, but half challenging he advanced. Suddenly he was no longer silhouetted on the horizon but was descending the slope back toward the "safety" of the woodland.
This meant I now had a safe backstop for the bullet. On he came purposefully, standing tall and staring. For a second, perhaps two but not more, his view of me was masked by a large tree trunk as he advanced down the slope. It was time enough for me to throw the .30-06 to my shoulder and rest my hand against the same trunk. He appeared again and stood glowering at the unknown interloper.
The sound-moderated rifle gave a muffled bark which surprised him and he trotted a few paces. He stood and looked around. I had already reloaded but the small crimson drip on his shoulder showed a perfect strike. He looked away from me then back towards the woodland that had been his home for the rutting season at least, as if to take in one last view. Then he swayed, the front legs buckled and down he went. Most poignant of all was the plume of exhaled air vapour that shot up into the sky from behind the heather where I knew he lay. His last breath dissipated into the morning blue and he was done.
He looked so much better when he was alive. As a deer manager I am very clinical about how the rest of the story goes, but every time I touch the eye with my sticks (to confirm the beast is dead. It's called the blink test) I always feel a sense of regret. That blued eye, now lifeless, listless and merely a carcass for the larder, had been so much more exciting as it had stared defiantly at me only moments earlier.
But I still love it. The whole adventure. Does that make me a hypocrite? Am I bloodthirsty? Am I immoral? Do I not care about the suffering of animals?
And what on earth has any of this to do with preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Merely this, for what it's worth. I am passionate about what I do. I go to extraordinary lengths to be good at whatever I do and I do not mind suffering in order to get there. That is how God made me. My passion for the countryside, and for deer stalking in particular, is no more than (indeed it is less than) my passion for the One who died to set me free. If you claim Christ as your Lord and Saviour, allow me to ask you this: are you passionate about Him? Can you not help yourself from talking about Him, no matter who you are with? I don't mean forcing the conversation round to evangelism in a cringing affected sort of way. I mean, does your life and example lend itself to people asking you questions that naturally lead into conversations about who Jesus is in your own life? Moreover, do you spend time in prayer asking God to open up conversations about your faith wherever you go, especially if you are going to encounter non-believers? Or do you pray that no one will notice and hope you can keep your mouth shut.
Sorry friend, that ain't passion! I am not asking everyone to have the same level of passion as me, or to be passionate about the outdoors as I am. What I am asking is that our passion for Jesus should be more than our passion for anything else. If you get excited about football and talk about the game for hours each week, but never mention your faith except for a couple of whispered sentences with friends on a Sunday, then let me tell you friend, you have a problem; and it's a serious one!
Do you find my hunting stories a bit much, rather nasty and having a smell of blood lust to them? I am becoming accustomed to being misunderstood, both in the outdoors, and more usually, from when I have been behind the pulpit. If you are in a similar predicament let me tell you where I am up to on that front.
Are you right before God? Do you sense His pleasure with you? Do you keep short accounts of your sins? If so, then sleep well, and get on with life! I no longer explain myself to folks who want to have a pop at me about hunting, Christianity, or my theological stance on whatever issue, and unless God prompts me to offer explanations I tend to listen to the rant and then move on. The hard bit is being content to live life being misunderstood. The way I do that is to seek only the audience of One. That is not arrogance. It is the opposite, because I no longer see the need to defend myself.
I defend the faith I have in Him, I do not defend me. I often engage in debate, but it is about Him, and it is for His glory and for their salvation or sanctification. It's not about me winning an argument or feeling justified so I feel better about myself; that would be selfish and fleshly. If I am offended by being misunderstood then part of my old self, my flesh as the apostle Paul says, is still alive. The fact is, you cannot offend a dead man! I am beginning to learn that lesson. It still hurts sometimes, but I am gradually starting to enjoy it.
A bit like pushing through the pain of a freezing dawn in order to pursue a worthy goal, for all the right motives. Even if nobody else understands.
The steaks are in the fridge!