Are deer management targets realistic without thermals?

Keen deer stalker, Dr Al Gabriel, wonders whether thermals are really a good thing, and whether he could hit his deer management targets without them.

The first time I realised how dependent I had become on thermal scanners was over a year ago when I accidentally left mine at home on a cold December evening. The first week I got my scanner I had started taking it with me when I walked my dogs at night, where it was deployed as an expensive poop detection device.

So I had left it on the side with their leads and not taken it stalking. The minute I realised I didn’t have it on my neck, a sudden feeling of emptiness set in, as if I had lost my car key or my mobile phone. I had a capable pair of 10×50 binoculars on me but why did I feel so unprepared for my stalking session?

The reason was simple. The fact that I felt so lost without it that evening was because it made me a more efficient stalker. Once you venture into deer management with responsibilities for a large deer population it becomes all about the annual cull plan and its progress. I am not ashamed to admit that my cull figures have significantly improved since a thermal scanner became part of my regular kit. 

But it is much more than that. It is an absolute game changer; it has completely changed deer stalking and how aware we are about the numbers and activities of deer as we have never seen them before. Thermal imaging has become essential in establishing deer population counts, particularly in woodland and lowland habitat where the summer season brings the most challenge. 

Old as the hills

Thermal scanners are unique in that they’re designed to detect the infrared signatures rather than light. You would be forgiven for thinking thermographic cameras (as they are technically known) are a new invention, but they have been in existence since 1929 – nearly a century ago.

My quick Wikipedia gander into the historical archives credits the Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi as the inventor of an infrared sensitive camera for the anti-aircraft defence of Britain. 

These days they come in different sizes and shapes including handheld, rifle mounted, binocular-shaped, and even as attachments for mobile phones (you would lose ‘man points’ for bringing these to the field of course). 

Despite varying price points, a thermal imager cannot always replace quality glass optics (Credit: proxyminder / Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the use of thermal scanners still has a sense of taboo in some corners. I used to find myself in that group for a long time. I distinctly remember banning guests on my ground from using them.

It is for the best, I think, that I have come full circle on the idea. The change in mindset came for me when I started seeing myself more as a deer manager than a recreational stalker – although I will always remain a recreational stalker.

The ultimate advantage of thermal scanners in shooting is that they can spot the faintest heat source as far as a mile away, if not more. While the primary application remains to scan for deer and vermin, they are an invaluable tool in locating shot animals. Even a 25 yard dash before collapse following a shot can make it impossible to locate a carcass in deep woodland or shrubs. 

Those who stalk the smaller deer species are particularly aware of this issue. While a deer dog will make the job easier, in the absence of one a thermal scanner could be invaluable. 

Of course, thermals are not x-rays: they can’t see through dense woods or rocks. One must always be cautious not to suffer from a condition a good friend of mine calls “thermalitis.”

I am not sure whether he coined the term or not but it has stuck with me ever since. The point he was trying to get across is that in close woodland often you’re best off looking with your eyes, as an opportunity may only present itself for a second.

Primary school

There is a growing trend for thermal scanners to become the primary optics during stalking. One reason for this could be that top end or professional grade binoculars cost thousands of pounds, while thermal scanners seem to be getting cheaper.

There are cheaper binoculars as well, but the difference in quality is much more pronounced than between thermal scanners – some entry level thermal units are selling for under £500. The added benefit of connectivity to mobile phones and other devices is that it helps to document field observations and one can share these with other people.

I often get asked by novice stalkers if it’s a good idea to own a thermal scanner. There is no right or wrong answer: it all depends on what type of stalking; terrain, species and the responsibilities you have as a stalker.

If you’re a recreational stalker who goes out a dozen times a year, it might be more enjoyable to use binoculars and learn the fieldcraft and the tradition that goes with it. If you are an experienced stalker and mostly focused on population control – with that annual cull figure gnawing at you – then it is an absolute must. 

Thermal imagers also have an additional benefit in that they can be used as safety devices in spotting walkers and livestock from a distance. As it turns out, they are also an invaluable tool for spotting poachers at night, not to mention being able to avoid embarrassing encounters with over-amorous couples in woods, even in idyllically quaint villages in Northumberland. 

Thermal oversight

Looking forward, drones that are equipped with thermal scanners already exist in the armed forces and rescue teams. In some parts of Europe, drones with thermal capabilities are being used to spot kids or fawns prior to harvest, which has saved countless deer.

Beware of ‘thermalitis’ when spotting for quarry

It won’t be too long before such technologies are deployed in population management exercises.

In extreme cases, when urgent culling programs need to be implemented under the appropriate legal framework, one can see the benefit of such devices, particularly in dealing with herding deer species. It may sound futuristic, but that future is already here. 

A negative view? 

I have been told stories of how the feeling was similar to when the first scopes, then variable scopes, were first introduced. It was met with the same feeling of giving too much advantage to the shooter and the idea of fair game being diminished. I expect the acceptance of thermals will follow a similar curve – it won’t be too long before thermals become the norm. 

As much as I love my thermal scanner and appreciate the edge it gives me out in the field, as far as recreational stalking is concerned, we must not forget that there is magic in stalking. It should be enjoyed like one appreciates a glass of wine; it is much more than just pulling a trigger. 

I don’t think I look forward to a future where drones and technology has diminished the soul of recreational stalking, but I am confident that we will strike a balance between tradition and technology in this age-old game of predator and prey.

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