Beware of the Turncoats

There are more indicators of age in the early season. Photo: Andy Lovel

Trophy measurer Dominic Griffith discusses the best ways to identify suitable cull bucks, but there’s always a few exceptions to the rules

Sitting down to write on one of the coldest and wettest May days I can remember, I have to wonder just how many roe kids we lose if the spring is poor. The adults are not in good condition following the endless, sunless, waterlogged winter and their fat deposits have been used up. If the flush of spring growth does not come until late, how is the doe going to make enough milk and provide sufficient nurture for twins?

Meanwhile, the buck cull has started and the question of early season selection arises. Many stalkers reported late fraying of velvet, although on my own patch I can’t say that I noticed anything unusual. The old ones were clean by early April and only the young middle-aged retained velvet into early May as expected.

However, what is happening in the absence of warmth and the spring flush is that territorial activity is much suppressed. Older or heavily pearled bucks have not bothered to do a proper job of cleaning, and much dry velvet remains stuck around the coronets and backs of antlers. Furthermore, lack of territorial activity means lack of movement – the older bucks are just sitting and waiting for the weather to improve.

It can be really soul destroying to stalk in these circumstances – you see the does because they have to feed, you see the young bucks because they have an opportunity to feed without harassment by the older bucks, and you can begin to think that all the old bucks have simply deserted you!

This is bad enough when stalking for yourself on your own patch, but if you have clients out it can be devastating. This is not just because of the simple lack of success but also because of the creeping breakdown of trust that inevitably follows. I have written about this time and time again, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

When the temperature rises and the wind eases, things change, and you can begin to pick away at the cull. It is nevertheless my view that in general territorial activity increases exponentially as May progresses, often meaning that the most success can be enjoyed at the end of the month despite the flush of cover. But what to cull in April and early May? I’m a bit old-fashioned and prefer, when possible, not to cull an adult buck before he is in summer red coat with full colour and burnish in his antlers. But this is a personal whim, and few deer managers will have the time for such niceties.

The fact remains that, weather permitting, you will often find your oldest bucks feeding furiously and almost continuously in this early season. If you see a buck at a strange time of day, probably with very small antlers, but clean of velvet and still in full winter coat, with his face in the grass and rarely looking up – his neck indistinct from his body and his belly hanging fat and low – then this is almost certainly the oldest buck on the place. Once red in May, you might just mistake him at a glance for a young buck and walk straight past him. Right now the indicators of age are on your side and it is best to make use of them. There will also be territories that become un-stalkable once the cover is up, and these are bucks that are worth putting some time into now. Likewise with the poor yearlings, which I select primarily by poor body condition (taking weak antler development only slightly into account). It is extraordinary just how often the yearlings with the heaviest bodies show the weakest first-year antler growth and how pathetic little yearlings in body weight show a full six-point head. It is as well to consider carefully before lifting the rifle.

Photo: Brian Phipps

As always with roe, beware the exception to the rule. While you can be pretty sure that a buck in full winter coat in late May is older, it might only be middle aged and it might even just be sick. Similarly, although a skinny red buck in early May is almost certainly a yearling, just occasionally it might be ancient and weakening. The rule remains true that, in general, young bucks change coat first, but there are always exceptions. Similarly it is generally true that old bucks clean first, but it is also the case that a very old, non-territorial buck will frequently start to clean his antlers and then, with a lack of territorial activity, the cleaning process will stop and his antlers will become inundated with dry velvet. This might take until the end of June to clean, or even never completely clean. The better you know your patch and the better you know your bucks, the fewer mistakes you will make.

If you have the privilege of being able to wait for the rut to take the best ones among the adult buck cull, they will certainly be better trophies for it. They will look better and score better, owing to the natural oils working into the freshly cleaned and relatively porous antlers and making them darker and denser. Some deer managers believe it is right to allow those bucks the chance to pass on their genes through breeding before culling, although research done on roe suggests that the gene pool is much smaller than we thought and all of the bucks probably share the same genes anyway. Furthermore, he will already have passed on those genes during each of the previous years that he bred, and we also know that does take multiple partners during the rut. So it’s an understandable sentiment, but not really supported by science.

The key, as ever, is to set yourself a limit and stick to it. Long gone are the days when stalkers used to say that you could shoot a buck and it would be replaced within days. That might have been true in the 1980s when there were huge reservoirs of unstalked ground between the relatively few intensively managed areas. Today there is scarcely a farm or field without an accredited stalker and the pressure on the native roe is intense.

The impact of the additional month of March to cull does only makes things worse. We now have to completely rethink our attitude to roe management and proceed with much greater restraint than was previously necessary.

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