Calling and culling

Credit: David Babos / 500px / Getty Images

The rut can be a time to grass bucks that have eluded you all year, says David Barrington Barnes, but this makes good sense and restraint all the more important.

I remember the first roebuck I ever took as a solo stalker. An oppressively hot morning at the beginning of August saw me slip into the bottom of Range Hill, an L-shaped wood which had in it clumps of box, privet and bramble.

Walking uphill, heel first to prevent cracking twigs, I made slow progress towards a box clump that gave me visibility for a few yards. As I have often felt since then, my position was a poor one, mainly hemmed in by understorey that prevented me seeing let alone shooting anywhere further than immediately in front of me for a short distance, perhaps 25 yards.

The disadvantage of moving was that I would likely disturb any deer that were couched in front of me, so in fear of doing this, I decided to stay where I was and call from this position where I was at least well concealed by the box bush.

Following the instructions in Richard Prior’s book on roe deer stalking, I waited quietly for some 10 minutes, which passed much more slowly than that.

I have to admit that, having no previous experience of calling, I had little confidence in a successful outcome. When I started calling – using a cherrywood roe call of course – I was in for a surprise. Within a few squeaks, a roebuck appeared in front of me.

Moving about behind the screen in front of me, he was interested, but so close as to inevitably be suspicious. His body was masked by the undergrowth. At last, he stopped in the clear. I took the shot and dropped him on the spot.

I was using an unmoderated .243, and the report fairly echoed round the wood. I remember standing there trembling from the tension of the previous few minutes. When I went forward, I found that the buck was a yearling, and on that warm morning the flies were already circling.

With hindsight, I could be self-critical about my behaviour – not least because of my shooting an unselected buck without fully assessing his age and condition before doing so. However, I was making my way in woodland stalking, and have long since learnt the lessons of those and similar experiences.

By way of example, I can look back with affection and amusement on my relationship with the Bull Wood buck. In Suffolk – where, to put it kindly, the quality of roebuck heads is indifferent – I was surprised one spring morning to encounter a cracking roebuck on the edge of Bull Wood.

Even in his scruffy winter coat and wearing velvet on his racks, he was an exceptional buck for the locality. Come the rut, I visited Bull Wood one morning and called him up.

He came through the wood at a gallop and obligingly gave me a really good look at him. There was not doubting his general quality: he was a ‘wow’ buck as I describe such animals. 

I called up the Bull Wood buck in the next two ruts and became fond of him. His fine head, his big body and his unflagging response to the roe call were all admirable.

Then, in the fourth spring of our acquaintance, he left Bull Wood and it took me a few weeks to find that he had moved his home across a road into a small plantation hemmed in by more roads.

He had gone back and been supplanted by a younger buck in Bull’s Wood. It was then that I thought it time to do my deer manager’s job and cull this buck before he became involved in an accident. I didn’t want to do this myself and called in another stalker to deal with the old fellow.

Only last summer, I had an interesting experience in a field next to the one in which the Bull Wood buck was shot. This was a long, triangular field with a good set-aside crop at the point end of the triangle.

I had a German friend with me when I spotted a doe and buck feeding in this. It being the last week of July, the doe was feeding more than the buck, whose demeanour confirmed he had other activities on his mind.

We stalked in using the cover on the field margin. In doing so, we spooked the doe, who ran away. A binocular search did not reveal the buck, and I came to the conclusion he too had scarpered when he realised that we were close. Annoyed with myself, I turned on my heel and began to walk back the way we had come. 

Some instinct made me turn round and look into the cover, in which to my surprise I observed the buck we had been stalking. He was lying down and facing us at just over 125 yards’ distance. His head was up, no doubt because he had become aware of our presence.

Turning the German round – as yet he was unaware of the proximity of the buck – I got him on the sticks. Though I expected the buck to stand up and bolt in one movement, he stood and stretched after some minutes, in the course of which he presented himself nicely for a well taken shot.

I have recounted three very different rut stories, but all of them show that during the rut, roebucks often suspend their usual wariness. Stalking during the rut is very enjoyable for this reason, but it is incumbent on us as stalkers to exploit this with restraint.

Sometimes it’s more satisfying to spare a roebuck than to shoot him. We should remember Richard Prior’s expert advice not to shoot every buck that comes to the call. 

Also, in calling we should be aware of the stress put on roe does that are fearful for their fawns. Incessant calling can make them frantic. 

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