The rut is the most anticipated time of the year for roe deer stalkers – but Dominic Griffith urges self-discipline at all times despite the excitement
When spring rolls around, as a professional stalker all you ever wish for is ‘ordinary’ weather for the time of year. Too wet, too windy, too cold, too hot, or even weather ‘on the change’ – anything diverging from the norm spells bad news. And it is always the territorial males that are most reactive. Females are either about to fawn or feeding young, so they have to move. Younger bucks, in the absence of pressure from older bucks, take the opportunity to move. Only the canny territorial bucks choose sensibly to sit it out.
Day after day can pass and you begin to believe you’ve lost your bucks altogether. In 2012, a particularly bad year, I must have received dozens of calls from frustrated guides seeking confirmation that it wasn’t just them. Well it wasn’t – as far as I can see it was everyone. It was certainly the case for me.
The result of this was that we fell way behind with our cull expectations, and everything rested on the rut. This is fine in theory – I love stalking in the rut and it can sometimes be almost too easy, but it can also be very challenging if cold, wet and windy weather returns. The trouble is that this is effectively our last chance to catch up to where we should be. A bad rut and we might as well write off the entire year.
The rut can be both the most exciting and the most frustrating time to stalk. From about 20 July, intense activity starts, but just when things seem unstoppable the weather can get cooler, and activity ceases just as suddenly. Your opportunities divide into two. Firstly you can simply exploit the increased activity and stalk the deer as they ‘chase’ around the fields, often in the open on stubble or grass fields and just as likely at 10am as at 5am. Alternatively you can wait until August and start calling in earnest.
Calling can never be considered to be unfair, as in reality its success is no more guaranteed than any other form of approach. For years I struggled, calling the occasional buck and frightening many, never feeling confident with either the noises or the technique I was using. But I was then lucky enough to meet two important influences in teaching this fascinating art. The late Prinz Heinrich Reuss taught me the technique, and Bertram Quadt (grandson of the famous author the Duke Albrecht of Bavaria), using his grandfather’s original calls, taught me about the actual tone of calling. I am no expert today but I enjoy some success, with the self-confidence that at least I am doing more or less the right thing.
Of the two criteria technique and tone, technique is probably the most critical. It is no good just going into the woods and blowing – you must plan carefully for wind and select a spot where the deer can be seen approaching, but with sufficient cover to ensure the buck will be confident to make that approach in reaction to your call. Stalk into your chosen location and settle down, making sure you have a clear view behind you as well as in the direction from which you expect him to come. Then allow yourself several minutes to get accustomed to the environment.
Whichever call you use, start with a quiet and plaintive series of ‘pheeps’, then wait several minutes to assess any reaction. I use the Buttolo call – it is operated by hand, and as such less liable to operator error. Indeed, of all the calls this must be considered the most reliable, though not necessarily the most enjoyable to use. The noise it produces is meant to represent the squeak of a fawn or the plaintive bleat of an in-season doe.
Repeat with a louder and perhaps deeper series of calls, and again wait. At this stage I tend to use a custom-built call designed from a roe antler. This needs to be blown, or played, like any wind instrument, and it is therefore worth practising before going into the woods.
The great excitement from calling is in ‘springing’ a buck, when he charges in almost immediately in response to the call. I am aware that most literature suggests waiting at least an hour before moving to the next calling site, but my own preference is to try to ‘spring’ him and if unsuccessful move on within 15 minutes or so. No doubt I am missing many opportunities, but my feeling is that if you really wait long enough, a buck is bound to come anyway, and this does not constitute the excitement of the rut.
Success is by no means guaranteed. The weather conditions are critical – wind, cold or low pressure can significantly reduce your chances. There is also a ‘critical’ period, which will vary from day to day – it might be first thing in the morning on one day, but 4pm on another, and is almost certain to coincide with your chosen break for breakfast or lunch. More often than not, a doe will come first, maybe followed by a buck but maybe not. The excitement is intense, and even if the buck does come, the chance of a shot may not present itself – inevitably the buck suddenly appears behind you, or runs straight up to five metres from you, senses danger and is gone. But the experience of proximity with your quarry is exhilarating and personal.
Even if a good opportunity presents itself, you have to make a quick and accurate decision on age and suitability for culling in a way that is rare during spring stalking. And don’t forget that the rut is also a great time to photograph deer, not least because increased daytime activity among the deer means the camera is not always crying out for more light.
At the peak of the rut, it really does not matter what noise you make. I remember once climbing over a stile with a client who was on the heavy side. The stile broke with a dreadful clattering and splintering noise, and as I dusted him down wondering whether there was any point in continuing, in charged the buck, coming to see who was challenging his territorial rights.
In fact, I often wonder whether bucks are coming to the call as much because they have sensed ingress to their territories as in reaction to the calls themselves. It is certainly the case that if you walk into a calling stand and simply wait, a buck may well come after half an hour despite the absence of calling. I suspect that in many instances the buck is lying nearby, hears something and simply remains sitting, but after half an hour his curiosity gets the better of him and he just has to come and look.
By 20 August the rut should be run and things definitely go quiet for a few weeks, although the yearlings will take the opportunity to range free from the territorial aggression of the now exhausted mature bucks. If the cull is still not complete then there should be opportunities on the stubble fields from late August through September to select the final few.
There are also nearly always a few injured mature bucks that you will find dead or dying. The most common source of injury is through bucks sparring head to head, which may result in small abrasions to the frontal bone just beneath the coronets.
The injured area will often become infected, and because the deer cannot lick the wound, it will attract fly strike. Eggs will be laid, and once the maggot has hatched, the deer will suffer a slow and obviously distressing death as the maggots eventually eat right through the flesh and skull and into the brain. Any buck in late summer that is shaking its head and appearing unwary may well have such an injury – if you see a suspected injured buck, you should put it out of its misery immediately.
I love being out in the forest in August. I love the excitement and proximity with deer. It can often provide the most important opportunity to observe, identify and cull the very oldest bucks, which have shown little of themselves all spring. But self-discipline must be shown at this time of year, and we should not exploit what can sometimes seem too easy.