Creeping and crawling

Whether you’re decoying pigeons, stalking deer or creeping up on a butterfly with a camera, movement will give you away quicker than anything else. Keep still and your quarry stays there, even if it’s on high alert; move and it’s off in a flash.

The obvious answer is don’t move. That’s fine if all you want to do is observe, although even then it’s surprisingly difficult to stay motionless for hours at a time. Of course most of the time we’re out to do something, not just watch – we want to shoot that pigeon, grass the deer or capture a stunning photo. And guess what, that means we have to move.

There’s moving and moving, of course. Move carefully and you may get away with it and achieve the result you want; get it wrong and you’ll go home empty-handed. Getting it right requires patience and practice, but it also helps to have an understanding of how your quarry’s vision works and what its brain does with the information collected by its eyes.

Each animal and bird has evolved eyes suited to its needs, so a deer’s or rabbit’s eyes are quite different to ours. We evolved to hunt in daylight. As a result, we have a pair of forward-facing eyes that work together to give us a good sense of depth – what we call binocular vision.

Deer and rabbits, on the other hand, evolved as prey species, constantly on the lookout for a predator wanting to make a meal out of them. Their eyes see less detail than ours and can’t distinguish colours like ours do, but they are very good at keeping watch all around and picking up movement, even in very low light.

Animals need to conserve energy, so they can’t jump up and run a mile every time they see something move. There is movement in the countryside all the time. Leaves and branches sway in the breeze, non-threatening creatures walk or fly around, and nowadays cars and aeroplanes pass across their field of view. Animals soon learn what they can safely ignore and scarcely bother to look up.

If a threat suddenly appears, though, they will react instantly. I remember watching a dinosaur movie where the hero is tiptoeing through the forest and spots a tiny movement in a bush close-by. He freezes and stares – and the movement happens again. That’s when you realise the movement is an eye blinking, and behind the bush is a dinosaur as big as a house. The entire audience nearly jumped out of their skins. It’s the surprise factor of suddenly realising a threat is upon you. If you’d seen the same dinosaur coming from a long way off, the effect would have been nowhere near as strong.

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In the same way, if a rabbit is grazing and a fox comes at it full-tilt out of the hedge, the rabbit bolts. But if that same fox trots across the far side of the field, the rabbit’s reaction is very different. It will register the movement, watch it and track it, but it can tell the fox is no threat. It may even carry on feeding, at a heightened state of alert. It nibbles the grass less frequently and for shorter periods, spending more time with its head up, watching. If the fox goes out of view, the rabbit will gradually relax. But if it changes direction and goes into hunting mode, the rabbit will soon lose its nerve and run for cover.

This tells us a lot about how prey animals react to what they see. They don’t just identify a predator and flee; they assess the threat and react in quite a sophisticated way, conserving energy but keeping themselves safe from harm. People talk of animals having a ‘circle of fear’, meaning that there’s an imaginary space around them and alarm bells ring if it’s invaded. That’s true to a point, but it’s too simplistic. Their threat perception is based on many different factors and distance is just one of those. The prey animal will also calculate the capabilities of the predator – how fast it can fly, run or jump – whether it’s focused on them or just moving across the landscape, and how exposed they are to the danger. A rabbit in the middle of a bare field knows it has a long way to run before it’s safe, so it will move sooner than one that’s sitting at the entrance to its burrow.

That sounds like a complicated mathematical problem based on probabilities and the laws of physics, and so it is, but it’s the sort of calculation that animal brains are very good at. We do something similar every time we cross the road – how fast is that car coming, how quickly can I get across, is my need to be on the other side great enough to make the risk worthwhile? It would take a massively powerful computer and complicated software to do a job that our brain accomplishes in an instant with no noticeable effort.

All very interesting, but how does that help us put our rabbit in the bag? Well, we know that it’s not so much being spotted that matters, more being recognised as a threat. That is often more to do with how you move than what you look like.

Movement is more likely to be spotted if you are in plain view and your silhouette is obvious. So use the basic rules of fieldcraft – keep off the horizon, wear camouflaged clothing that breaks up your outline and try to keep some cover between you and your quarry. Move slowly around the countryside, spying out the ground ahead so that you see the quarry first, otherwise you won’t stand a chance of creeping up on it.

When you spot something, stop, look and plan. Consider the direction of the wind – you need to approach so that your scent won’t blow towards your quarry (see last month’s article in this series on p66, Scents and sense abilities).

Next, locate the firing point that you’d like to reach to take the shot. Make sure it offers the support you’ll need to take an accurate shot at that range. It’s no good stalking into a position that forces you to take a standing shot from a range where a standing shot won’t be accurate enough.

Now, how are you going to reach that firing point without being spotted? Best of all is when you can go behind some solid ground such as a hill or rock. There’s no chance of being spotted there. Next best is thick cover, although that often comes with a noisy surface of leaves and twigs to make things harder for you. Sometimes there will simply be no suitable cover, and you’re left with doing the best you can and hoping you’ll get away with it.

At a distance, you may be able to walk nonchalantly across a gap in full view of the quarry. This can sometimes allow you to reach cover that makes it possible to stalk close enough for a shot. It helps if you amble along at a walking pace, not looking towards the quarry and definitely not stopping to look, even if it shows signs of alarm.

It might feel foolish, but try bending right forward and dangling your arms in front of you. Even though you’re not using your arms to walk, it gives you the profile of a grazing animal rather than a human.

All this relies on the quarry noticing you but deciding that you’re not a threat. It’s a risky strategy but sometimes it will work – and when there’s no alternative you might as well give it a go. I remember being horrified when a Scottish hill stalker first suggested it to me, but we crossed bare ground a mile or so away from a group of stags, going at 90 degrees to them - there was no other way of getting to the point where we could begin our approach. The stags knew we were there, but didn’t feel threatened and decided not to bother moving from their comfortable position. An hour later we slid into position 150 yards away, undetected, and I shot a nice cull beast.

Your skill at stealthy movement is tested to the extreme when you approach your quarry and have to get into position for a shot. Take a tip from some of the world’s best predators, the big cats. Watch how a cat stalks its prey. It crouches low, facing its prey, with its eyes fixed on the animal. The cat’s whole body is under tight control; its muscles are taut and it is perfectly balanced at all times. It will move just one leg at a time, in a movement that is purposeful and fluid, watching all the time for any sign of alarm in its prey.

By aligning your body directly at the quarry you fill less of its field of view, appearing further away and less threatening. Any movement you make is less obvious. It’s like one of those arty cinema shots of a car coming towards you from a long way off. The car may be travelling at 70mph but you see almost no movement; it just gradually becomes larger on the screen. In the same way, if you move your arm towards the quarry, it sees virtually no movement; move it sideways, though, and the movement is obvious because your profile changes. You can use this principle to creep surprisingly close to a feeding rabbit.

Unfortunately we aren’t built like a cat, so that graceful, fluid movement is impossible to achieve, especially when you’re lugging a gun with you. We just have to do our best. Try lying prone, facing your quarry, and creep forward on your elbows and toes. Watch the rabbit carefully and move only when it has its head down nibbling. Try to keep your head and body at the same height, rather than bobbing up and down. Like the cat, your profile to the quarry should remain unchanged at all times.

Safe gun handling is really difficult when you’re crawling, so take extra care to keep the muzzle away from any part of your body. Make use of safety features such as the safety catch and protect the trigger from catching in undergrowth. If possible, don’t close the bolt on a live round until you are in position. When you do get in range, don’t rush the job of bringing the gun to bear – again, use small movements that are in line with the quarry so they’re less visible, and avoid moving in a jerky way.

The same techniques will stand you in good stead when you’re stalking deer in woodland. Here you’ll most likely be walking upright, or at a crouch, but use the same principle of small, fluid movements directly in line with the quarry, one limb at a time.

Take care not to be caught off-balance in a position that you can’t hold – take your weight on one foot, leaning on a tree for balance if you can, before lifting the other foot and moving it forward. Watch out for the deer’s trick of pretending to look away, then snapping back to stare at you. And whatever you do, don’t duck your head when a deer looks your way. If it hasn’t spotted you already, it will then. The only sensible action is to freeze, no matter how visible you feel.

When you’re ready to take the shot, deploy your sticks and rifle with the minimum of fuss – no windmilling your arms around or waving the rifle in the air. That’s something you need to practise beforehand. Like most of the techniques I’ve described, your first few attempts will be a disaster, so it’s best to do them in front of a mirror at home, rather than when it really matters.

Just warn others in the household what you’re up to first – they may be slightly alarmed to find you crawling across the living room carpet cradling your rifle! n