Shooting deer as darkness falls – can it be licensed, and is it ethically acceptable? David Barrington Barnes looks into this practice and anticipates the start of the roebuck season
Shooting roe as darkness falls – can it ever be acceptable, or licensed? There is no doubt that the crepuscular tendencies of these beasts now come second to their nocturnal proclivities. No doubt that the harder pressed deer are by stalkers, the more nocturnal and cautious they become – so much so that an old lead doe may rarely expose herself and her followers to risk during the hours of daylight.
In the doe cull, the one hour before sunrise and the one hour after sunset shooting time that the law allows seem the times most likely to provide the key opportunities for a shot. The situation requires keen eyesight and the aid of a high-quality illuminated reticle scope. This is not to enable the stalker to shoot after ‘lights out’, but to perform effectively and shoot accurately, often on the edge of cover as the last light slips away and is replaced by darkness.
The circumstances are invariably worrying for the responsible deer stalker as the stricken beast, having just emerged from woodland cover, will most likely try to return to it in its death flight. By the time the stalker has got down from a high seat and followed up, what little light there was outside the wood will be even less under the canopy. A good torch and a dog can save the situation and it’s remarkable how a blood trail can be followed in near darkness. While some stalkers duck evening outings because the light is running against them, those with a serious fallow cull have to get out, and can console themselves that at least they are not being required to shoot at night.
Should you think that in England just ‘bad boy gamekeepers’ and poachers shoot deer at night, you should think again. In late 2012, I enquired of Natural England as to the number of night licences it had issued. I was informed that for the year beginning 1 January 2012 eight licences had been issued, three for the purpose of air safety with a combined total of 15 animals, four for the purpose of preserving public health and safety with a combined licensed total of 260 animals, and one for preventing serious damage with a licensed total of 20 animals.
In response to this, I requested information as to the land parcels or estates involved in night shooting, but Natural England declined this request owing to the constraints of the Data Protection Act. However, they told me the air safety-related cull licences were in Gloucestershire, the health and safety related licences in Greater London, and that the serious damage-related licence was in Hertfordshire. By email dated 9 January 2013, Natural England also informed me that currently 18 applications are under consideration. Six relate to night shooting, and 12 to night shooting during the close season. I wondered if any of these were being made by traditional estates.
I recall raising the question of night shooting several years ago and being given the impression that although night shooting licences could technically be granted, in practice they would not be. But clearly, they are.
I have three problems with night shooting deer. The first is concern for the welfare of the deer. Some years ago, a farm I stalked was lamped for foxes by a rogue who shot the deer. I found two deer carcases that can only have been ‘lost’, and observed that the deer that survived on the land – which were very few – were absolutely terrified.
Secondly, deer (particularly fallow, sika and red, but also roe) stand much taller than a fox, and there is a distinct public safety issue if deer are being shot at night from, for example, a quad bike or four-wheel-drive vehicle. The bullet will be travelling at a much flatter trajectory than if fired at a fox. If you countered this concern by saying that the public will not be about at night, I would say that the public may now be found anywhere at any time, and that one or two unfortunate accidents already confirm this.
I am concerned by the apparent proliferation of licences and applications. I would like to know what the Deer Initiative and Forestry Commission have to say on the subject. Both these organisations have yet to convince me that they mean what they say when talking about balanced populations of deer.
As I have said before, our deer are a national treasure that must not be destroyed. Other ‘partners’ of the Deer Initiative such as BASC and the BDS may perhaps care to consider the consistency of their objectives with these ‘partnerships’. Just now there seems to be a great deal of deer-phobia around and, ironically, it’s for the sporting rifle shooters and those who provide such sport to protect our deer and ensure they do not once again become the persecuted animals they were before the passing of the 1963 Deer Act. There is no inconsistency in this – as Oscar Wilde wrote, “All men kill the thing they love”.
Enough said. When April arrives, a deer stalker’s thoughts turn to roebuck. It’s time to be setting the alarm clock early and heading out in the first grey light of the spring morning. It’s a month for prowling the woodland edge and the hedgerows, for spotting deer fray signs on the young whips and their slots in the soft earth of banks and burns. It’s a month whose mornings give the stalker the chance to observe the bucks nibbling the tender hawthorn shoots, as they have done since their time began. A master buck cleaning up the perimeters of his kingdom, a battered, bruised, just expelled yearling, a doe getting heavy with young – these are the fine rewards for walking and stalking in the spring of the year, when all the birds sing on the April bough.
And if a buck is grassed, how much more satisfactory to take it like this than in darkness, at a time and in a way that has something of the night about it.