Simon Barr heads to the woods with roe calling expert Glen Boxall who passed on some of his roe calling skills that he learned from an old master
To get to Hampshire for 5am meant a rude awakening at an ungodly half past two. In all honesty, I had hardly slept – my mind had been racing. I had been waiting for that alarm to go off since January when I booked my roe rut outings. My marker for the rut is the CLA Game Fair. In my experience, it is usually the week after this event when things start to happen.
I had four outings booked, peppered around the last week of July and first week of August to hedge my bets on the weather. Even during the CLA, I had been receiving reports from fellow ‘roebuckists’ claiming the rut was on with a vengeance in their regions. This added to my anticipation, and hit me with an industrial-strength bout of insomnia the night before my first outing.
Of all my hunting, UK and abroad, roebuck are by far my favourite quarry. The rut is an extraordinary period, when by means of calling and mimicking deer you can interact with a truly wild animal. I have spent several ruts playing with a selection of man-made calls, to varying degrees of success. I had heard about a Forestry Commission (FC) wildlife ranger in the south-east, Glen Boxall, who could apparently call roe with a beech leaf. Having found my previous attempts at calling so rewarding, however poorly I fared, I yearned to spend some time with someone who really knew what they were doing.
Glen and I met just before 5am at the entrance to the FC South East District headquarters at Alice Holt on the Surrey-Hampshire border. He was out of his truck browsing down a beech hedge, his forefinger and thumb rubbing each leaf inquisitively. As I was to find out, it is essential that the waxiness, moisture content and thickness of the leaves are perfect to get an exact tone. He spent a good 10 minutes stuffing his jacket with the finest leaves the hedge had to offer. I cynically wondered if this was all for show, but I went along with it all the same.
I had been on an outing with Glen in the spring under the permit stalking scheme available through the FC. The scheme was created to generate extra income for the FC through private stalkers paying to assist wildlife rangers with their annual deer culls. There are no trophy fees, and Glen’s management policy is: “If it’s got antlers, shoot it.” His principle aim is to protect the forestry crop, so cultivating good trophies is not on the agenda. Even so, Glen’s beat covers one of the most productive regions for roe heads in the country and is internationally renowned for trophy quality. I hoped I would get lucky.
We started our morning in a tower overlooking a clear fell area. The area had been replanted with oaks that were starting to pop out of the grow tubes. Glen explained as we got into the tower that he does not usually call before it starts warming up around 7am. Before that, the deer are likely to be couched up and impervious to calls. We would be sitting for an hour or so to wait for the warmth of the sun to get the woods moving. This gave me a perfect chance to talk to Glen about deer, calling and beech leaves.
I knew a little bit about Glen from our previous outing, but I was fascinated to find out how he discovered his talent with a beech leaf. Glen explained that when he started with the FC 18 years ago, the chief ranger in post was Roger North. Roger, a well known and respected figure in the deer world, took Glen under his wing and mentored him – but not straight away.
“I had always known about calling but had no real idea what I was doing,” said Glenn. “I spent more and more time in the woods listening to roe to understand what I was trying to replicate with my artificial calls. Every year, I asked Roger to come out with me during the rut. He had a reputation as an excellent caller, so it was my ambition to call him a buck.
“It took four years of persuasion before Roger finally accepted my invitation, by which stage I felt I had mastered the use of the artificial calls and had started to achieve reasonable results. The first time Roger came out with me, he got straight out of the truck as I fumbled around getting my selection of calls ready. He walked over to a beech tree and picked a few leaves. I had no idea what he was doing. We reached a suitable calling location and Roger drew a leaf from his pocket, put it to his lips and gave the most realistic-sounding roe call I had ever heard.
“I was enthralled. From that moment I knew I had to learn how to call using a beech leaf. It took me three or four years to work out how to manipulate a beech leaf to mimic the full tonal range of a roe deer, and since then I have never had a bad rut.”
Glen spoke respectfully and fondly of Roger. “He has forgotten more than I will ever know,” he explained. He told me that during his tutelage under Roger, they would walk the woodland and Roger would know absolutely everything about anything they saw. I thought how privileged Glen had been to have learned from someone of Roger’s standing. This kind of in-depth knowledge is hard to come by today, and it is pleasing to know that the wisdom had been passed to Glen for safekeeping.
As we sat chatting, a young, nervous-looking buck with just one spike walked out onto the edge of the clear fell, not 50 yards from the tower. Glen told me that its nervous disposition was because of two large bucks whose territories covered the clear fell. He would have been kicked from pillar to post as he was not strong enough to hold his own territory. We grassed our first management animal of the day, and without the need for calls.
We let the clear fell settle down after the shot for a few minutes. Glen decided we should relocate to an area deep in the woods to start calling. We dealt with the gralloch and headed off the pathway, deep into an oak plantation that was punctuated with natural regeneration. Glen sat at the base of an oak tree with Sika, his Bavarian Mountain Hound, huddled next to him. He directed me to stand on sticks about 50 yards away from him. This way, if a deer came running to the call looking for Glen, it would present a better broadside shot for me.
Glen took a leaf from his pocket and started rubbing it in his palm to supple it up. He put his hands together and drew them to his pursed lips. A short shrill, like no call I had heard before, echoed around the woodland. I was amazed to hear the rich, wholesome sound, and I could not believe he had made it with a simple leaf. Its organic tone resonated like the reed of a woodwind instrument.
He called again, this time with four ‘feeps’. Perhaps 10 minutes later, a doe appeared only 40 yards from where I was standing. My heart rate quickened. Was there a buck following her? Through the foliage I could see her beautiful chestnut summer pelage. Behind her, mostly obscured by trees, was another deer.
I watched and waited as Glen called again, and the pair moved into a small clearing. Following the doe’s scent with its nose down was a stunning six-pointer. After a couple of deep breaths, I lined up on the neck of the deer, which was the least obstructed shot on offer. I squeezed the shot off and the buck sunk on its feet and keeled over, instantly dispatched. The unalarmed doe tottered off into the thicker part of the plantation to find herself another buck.
The experience left me speechless. After a couple more deep breaths, we went over to inspect the carcase. He was a fine representative specimen in magnificent condition. Glen talked me through what had happened and what sort of call he was using. He was imitating a mature doe, and the doe that came was coming to see her out of her territory. Glen told me that he never uses the fawn distress call as it stresses the doe and he thinks this is unfair. I am inclined to agree.
There were many more areas Glen was keen to call at. His knowledge of which animals are on his beat is invaluable during the rut. Getting back to the vehicles, Glen showed me his collection of roe calls from all over Europe. He explained that when he buys a call, even a Buttolo, he takes it apart and tweaks it so the pitch is more natural. “The problem with the beech leaf is that it uses both hands, which can make shooting impossible if a buck comes running,” said Glen. “This is why I still use other calls, so I can operate them in my mouth, leaving my hands free to shoot. Given the choice, I would only use a beech leaf.”
Each location we visited delivered some sort of deer response, whether does, bucks and even muntjac. Glen seemed to be able to speak in a language that, for the two or so weeks of the rut, the deer fully understood. Without overstating it, the outing was one of the most memorable stalking experiences I have ever had. Glen called more than 10 deer for me that morning and I ended up shooting four fine bucks.
I would like to hope that Roger North would be proud of his student, who has certainly come of age. Glen is not sure how many people can call with a beech leaf, but my guess is not many. If you want to learn to call, buy some calls and practise. If you want to learn to call with a beech leaf, you might need to set aside a few years.
A single stalk is £175; a series of four stalks costs £600. To book stalking for roe, fallow or muntjac with the Forestry Commission South East District, contact wildlife ranger Steve Carter on 07771 833330.