Don’t just head out on 1 April and shoot the best buck you have – put in a proper roebuck management plan as you do with the does, says Chris Dalton
So after months of waiting, April rolls around. It’s a time of year eagerly anticipated by all roe stalkers during the long and cold nights of winter. You’ve been thinking about these first forays in the early morning, with the spring flush and some warmth in the sun. And there is the anticipation of meeting that cracking buck you’ve been keeping tabs on – he must be a medal head this year. The more you think about it, the heavier the head gets – we have all done it.
Well, just hold fire. What should you be thinking about as that first outing approaches? When people talk about a ‘roe management plan’ it is usual to assume they are talking about the does, but there’s no reason not to treat the bucks the same way. That said, the does do form the basis of our management at Garryloop – we want to maintain a healthy number, in balance with the type of ground they are on and at a density that does not bring them into conflict with the commercial aspect of the ground, be that timber or agricultural crops.
You don’t need to worry too much about the numbers of bucks are far as females go. If your does don’t come across a suitable buck on your ground, rest assured they will find one. They will even fetch him if they can’t entice him to their boudoir – you can be sure of that.
But that’s not to say we don’t include bucks in our cull plans. We most certainly do – having taken the time and trouble to get our female population right on our areas, we do the same for the males. Ideally, we want a reasonable number of mature and dominant bucks holding territories on our ground, and to maintain that, a number of potential replacements coming through.
You have to allow these boys room, though. They will co-habit given sufficient room to keep out of each other’s way. But how often do I hear that if we leave the does alone then we will have lots of bucks next year, and if we shoot them lightly we have loads of really nice six-point bucks at the two- and three-year point? Well, you won’t – you will just create a problem. The way to produce a good head is to have a balanced population of both sexes – this in turn will reduce competition for food and conflict between the deer.
The situation we face across our areas in the south-west of Scotland is that our ground is mainly commercial forestry, both broadleaf and conifer. Therefore our primary responsibility to the owners and the forestry companies who own or manage the ground we stalk is to ensure that deer damage to these trees is maintained at an acceptable level and, in particular, to protect the young and newly planted trees, which are at their most vulnerable, until they can get going. Time of year is also relevant to deer damaging trees – in winter, for example, when food can be hard to find, all deer will love a crop of tasty young shoots that a kindly forester has spent days planting for them in a lovely clear area, and they can browse away quite happily under cover of darkness.
But another key time for damage is now. The culprit is, of course, the roebuck. Firstly, we have them cleaning the velvet off their antlers, fraying and rubbing on tree branches and stems at a convenient height for the buck. At Garryloop, Anne and I like to see deer about the house, and we have landscaped the grounds. I have some seven-year-old fruit trees planted at the top of my field; half of them are now dead, their bark rubbed off, and the survivors have no lateral branches below a height of around four feet, above which they bush out like lollipops.
All this is because of buck activity, mainly in the early spring. When the antlers are clean, they begin to get really territorial and start thrashing around the same trees like a gladiator preparing for battle, marking and practising their moves ready for sorting out that young rival buck round the corner. None of this is going to make you popular with your landlord, trust me.
Action has to be taken, but your work in this department should have begun months ago. The best time for this is late winter and into early spring. Cover is down, it’s cold, they need to feed and start to regain condition. Some nutrient is coming through in the form of shoots and buds, so you can find out who is about and where. You can build a picture of your dominant bucks and where the youngsters are, and get a good idea of numbers, allowing you to formulate your cull plan.
March is a great month for this. We shoot very little at that time – perhaps the odd follower – so while we are out maintaining seats, building towers and the like, we really get to spend time on the ground and assess the deer. So by now you know what you want to achieve in relation to the individual requirements of your own blocks and ground. You won’t go far wrong following a similar cull ratio to the does: around 60 per cent young (kids born last year) to 20 per cent each old and mature.
This is very much what we do, but we do hit the youngsters hard first. That’s vital, but if we see a buck of poor quality or with a poor or misshapen head, he will go too. The season will quickly move on, and these deer will learn rapidly. They are a quarry species and will become harder to find. This is compounded by the inevitable explosion of cover and bracken, and before you know it you are behind.
Later on, after they are clean, we can decide which of the better bucks to leave and which to shoot. If the numbers required for your cull remain high and your time is limited, you may not be allowed this luxury and you’ll just have to take your chance as it comes. Also, other land factors may come into play – game rearing interests might require you to get the bucks sorted before July and pens are occupied, so you have to work within your own constraints.
But the key factor is to leave your dominant buck alone. He will go a long way to keeping your other bucks in order. He won’t stand any nonsense from the troublemakers and will see off young bucks, and you will find your fraying damage is much reduced. If you don’t think so, shoot one of your dominant bucks in early April and see the increase in fraying and territorial marking that rapidly appears on the old boy’s patch as the contenders for the throne start to vie for power.
This policy works for us. A gold medal roe I shot in Ayrshire one August demonstrates this, and as explained, we are primarily involved in protecting the crop from deer.
However, the methods we use to achieve this come from sound deer management principles, and while we do not have the luxury of selecting and nurturing bucks to produce the maximum number of trophy animals at premium rates for a purely sporting estate, we are producing trophy animals and have a healthy herd.
Most of you will, I am sure, be in a similar position to us, with responsibility to a landowner for deer damage. So rather than just going out in April and shooting a buck or two, why not start to manage your deer and formulate a plan to this effect? It really is not rocket science – look at your situation, the layout of the land and factors affecting your stalking, time constraints and so on, and give it a go.
Long-term, this will improve the quality of the deer while reducing damage – and who knows, you might end up with a trophy buck on your wall. But you will certainly be countering the common argument that deer management involves seeing a deer and shooting it. So if you see that mature buck you saw by the pond last year and he is as good as you think, leave him alone and shoot the button buck round the next corner.