Back in Black

A dark roebuck may not always be what it seems

A succession of strange sightings send Mark Brackstone off in pursuit of a mysterious black roebuck, but all is not as it seems

When you play custodian to a roe population for many years you should, if you are spending enough time on the ground, know most of your resident bucks. Yet however diligent you are, you do sometimes get real whoppers – often transient younger bucks that have been displaced from another area – who just turn up.

Every reader who has a fair amount of experience will also know that certain patches of ground, or a particular copse, will almost always hold a good roebuck. If you remove the resident buck in the spring, by mid-summer his replacement has arrived. My guess is that these prime spots hold food, cover, shelter, and are usually quiet.

On a small farm near my home – which is mainly meadows and so devoid of copses and woodland – the roe are all hedge dwellers. Surrounding us are beef farms, so the roe frequently have to move to cattle-free areas.

Hair raising: A lack of hair caused the confusion

Early one rut I took out an old medal head buck that I had seen many times over the last year – it had just appeared as a five-year-old. Although reluctant to do so, I also took a late hunt to help out a colleague. Three Danish guests arrived around 10 August, at which point the rut in our area is pretty much over, but I was willing to try calling and see if we got lucky.

A couple of days before the clients arrived I bumped into the farmer on whose land I’d taken the medal head buck. I told him about the buck, and that he could expect some remuneration in the next few weeks, although there were no other mature bucks on his land old enough to take out just now. He replied that a black one he’d seen looked pretty big. “A black one?” I was intrigued, and asked him to describe it to me. My initial thoughts were that he had probably seen a stray black fallow. Our nearest fallow are about eight miles away, and it would be a first for me to pick one up in this area.

I quizzed him further and asked him to describe it as accurately as he could, bearing in mind that to him a deer is a deer regardless of species – it sounded like a roe, but a black one?

His final sentence convinced me though: “Well, the last time I saw it was last Monday, and it was chasing another deer without horns round and round a clump of thistles for over an hour!” A roebuck rutting, I thought to myself, and thanked him for the info. I needed to get a look at this buck and quick: I had never seen a black one. About 12 years ago we took one with a white head and neck that now has pride of place over a Belgian Count’s mantle, and I was curious by the thought of a melanistic roebuck.

The following morning my stalking partner Robert and I met at 5am and, armed with our binos and telescopes, we went in search of this alleged black roebuck. We agreed to stalk half the ground each and keep in radio contact with one another. As we parted I muttered something about eating my hat if we had a black roebuck on our patch, as I hadn’t seen it before.

Robert pointed out that on a neighbouring farm two years ago there had been a pure white albino buzzard born – so these things do happen. But after about an hour I must have worked my way around 100 acres of ground, and had seen only one lone middle aged buck, a yearling chasing a young doe, and a doe with a pair of fawns skipping along behind her – no black buck.

Then my radio crackled and Robert’s voice whispered: “Mark, are you there?”

Crucial moment: Robert takes the shot

“Yes, what have you seen?”

“I got him,” he replied, and proceeded to explain that he was a good, mature buck, lying tight by a hedge in the early morning sun.

From what Rob could see his head was not black although his body looked to be grey. When it stood up and walked into the shade, its body then looked black. As we manage the deer on most of the farms in this area, how on earth could a nearly black buck have escaped my notice for so long?

Two days later I was guiding my Danish client. We were looking for this old black buck that had appeared from nowhere. On our very first outing we got a fleeting glimpse of it chasing a doe: there was some rutting still going on, despite the fact that we were now well into August.

As I watched the buck through my binos I thought it strange that although his body was indeed black, his head was still a normal red colour. Robert had been correct, and he was sporting a fair set of antlers.

We continued to stalk the area but to no avail. Over the next two days we paid regular visits to that spot, but the black buck had vanished. On the last morning of the hunt Robert took the guy for one final look for it. I had finished stalking with the other client and was on my way to the game larder with a nice buck when I got a call from Robert: “We got it, but you should see it.”

Before he could say anything else I blurted out: “Whatever you do, don’t cut its head off. My client might want a cape mount, as it’s black.”

But Robert simply replied: “You need to see this. It’s not what you think it is.”

It took me 15 minutes to reach Robert, and when I got there I was astonished. The whole of the buck’s body was almost devoid of hair, and his skin was a charcoal grey colour, giving it the appearance of being black.

It’s not every day you get to grass a buck like this one

I examined the buck for lice, but could find none. He was in good condition: the humps and all organs seemed completely normal, although it did have a few scrapes down its body. The surface of the skin was powdery in some areas, similar to that found on humans suffering from eczema or dermatitis, and I wondered if this buck had some sort of dermatological problem or was infected by a microscopic louse.

The photos were taken and the hunter had a lovely head to take away. I intended to take the carcase for testing, but unfortunately my freezer broke down. By the time we realised, the contents were destroyed, and we have never found out the reason for the buck being bald. I am still pondering that one today.

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