The off-season with David Barrington Barnes

The off-season for fallow is short, but it provides plenty of opportunities for the stalker to get ahead of the game, says David Barrington Barnes.

It’s only in May, June and July – the close season for fallow deer – that I can consider this species with any objectivity. I use these three months to plan my campaigns and those who stalk with me know full well that my particular bête noire are the female fallow, the smart, wary, wood and field wise lead does.

In truth, the harvest moons and hot weather in August and September serve to attract the prickets out of the woods and into the standing crops, and the pursuit of them is hardly challenging, certainly not so when compared with the nightmare that is fallow doe stalking.

The off-season for fallow is short, but it provides plenty of opportunities for the stalker to get ahead of the game, says David Barrington Barnes If the stalker has been out on his ground in late July and early August – most likely in pursuit of a roebuck – he will have seen fallow sign in the form of beds rolled in the crops, particularly in wheat and linseed.

David with his lab Teal during a doe culling day

There will be disturbed vegetation on the ditch banks and ragged straw stalks in the edge of the crops. Droppings are a giveaway and of course the beasts themselves. They are sometimes to be found lying in the shade under spreading trees and at other times are to be seen emerging from the woodland edge in the cooler hours of the long summer and autumn evenings.

Prickets definitely fall into the ‘deer found’ category, and superb and admirable animals they are at this time of year, in their variously coloured summer coats and fat from gorging on the ripening crops. However the seasoned fallow stalker knows that every time he squeezes off a shot at a pricket in company, usually tagging along at the back of a parcel of does and calves; he re-educates those does and their progeny with a survival lesson they will rarely forget in the winter open season.

Some experts say the stalker should forebear from shooting male fallow before the does come into open season on 1 November. I’ve tried that and it’s a ploy that either didn’t work at all or only for a day or two at the start of the doe season. I concluded that trial by having reinforced my long held belief that fallow does are born sharp.

One happy memory of pricket hunting was the result of my observing, in late July, a group of fallow that had got into the habit of emerging from woodland in mid-afternoon to gorge on the adjacent game crop. There being no place for a high seat, I slipped into the wood and settled down on a fallen tree trunk with my rifle on an extended bipod.

The floor of the wood was quite bare, shaded by the canopy above, and I could see and shoot for quite some distance in front of me. After an hour or so the lead doe appeared and led the group directly towards me. She was obviously hungry and in a hurry to get into the game cover.

She was coming on fast with the followers all either does or fawns. At any moment she was not just going to see me, but trip over me. I kept as still as a statue and when at last the ‘tail-end Charlie’ appeared I was delighted to see it was a dilatory pricket. The rifle discharge rattled round the wood and the does were gone in a flash, leaving me with my first fallow on the first day of the fallow season.

Would that the rest of it were equally productive… Thanks to thermal, I now realise that in making my way to high seats in the dark pre-dawn, I bumped fallow does that I never saw. Those blank deerless mornings were self-inflicted. Deer – more often than not fallow does – made off unseen.

Sauer .202 l/h in .25-06 calibre: David’s chosen tool for the doe cull

These then were “deer lost”. The acquisition and use of a thermal imager rapidly caused me to change my approach. From the start of each early morning outing I started to scan all the land I could see through it and not infrequently would spot the telltale images of fallow out in the fields and along the hedge rows.

Quite often, their presence prevented me from progressing to my selected seat but sometimes it was or is possible to put in a stalk or find an alternative route. My maxim then is: “One on the ground, fallow doe found!” Useful, informative and interesting as thermal is, it is no silver bullet.

There is another category of fallow does that fall into the ‘deer lost’ category. In late February this year I suffered from two instances of this. First, from a well concealed low seat, I studied a parcel of does browsing from left to right just a few yards inside the woodland edge.

Every now and then they stopped and observed the rape field outside and paid particular attention to my position, notwithstanding I was well hidden and the wind was blowing from them to me. This went on for 20 minutes with the does wanting to come out to feed, but too apprehensive to do so.

Prickets from the 2017 cull – the result of effective planning

In a second example I ‘clocked’ a fallow doe carefully observing the stubble field over which I was sitting. Motionless, observant, fly, sharp – describe her how you like, but she was not coming out. Another ‘deer lost’ just as if I had fired at her and missed.

Fallow does; a species and a gender the hunting of which is the stuff of obsession. In the cold and wet of winter, this is as sharp and smart a quarry as any sporting rifle could want.

As he prowls round the woods and fields, there will be more deer lost than deer found, but when he shoots one he will enjoy great satisfaction at a job well done and another number on his lengthy cull plan. He will admire his accurate rifle as the tool for the job forgetting that in previous moments of failure he had been heard muttering about the need for cluster bombs

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