Fallow comes into open season on 1 November. If not a deep winter month, November has the main characteristics of winter such as long, dark nights and wet, windy weather. It’s also the month of the exodus, when the avid trophy-hunting fallow buck stalkers vacate the field and leave the culling to good, keen men.
Experienced fallow doe stalkers should have a good grasp of the difficult, frustrating and infuriating pursuit that is fallow doe stalking. Beginners should read John Thornley’s excellent book Stalking Fallow (Quiller 2016) and find themselves an experienced mentor. Apart from all the expert advice in Thornley’s book, he illustrates wonderfully well the nuances and the finer points of the business. And business is what it is. In parts of the UK there are a lot of fallow. These adversely affect agriculture by consuming the crops and by lying and rolling in them. They impact on woodland and woodland flora by grazing, browsing and fraying.
With many landowners now signed up to the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, their woodland will have been surveyed for deer damage and will be the subject of a Deer Management Plan. Cull returns have to be submitted and over the five-year duration of the Scheme it is expected that deer damage will be reduced, with possible sanctions if it is not.
Fallow deer and Natural England (the scheme’s administrator) both put a deal of pressure on deer managers. The range of a herd of fallow is such that it is rarely confined to one farm or estate. Typically, a landowner may not permit culling because “he does not agree with deer shooting” and the consequence will be that his land becomes a sanctuary and the local herd becomes hefted to it and increases inexorably. The sanctuary becomes incapable of feeding the deer it houses so the fallow herd hotels in it during the daylight hours and emerges on dark to restaurant on the farms of neighbours. If one wonders why any landowner fails to cull the deer on his holding the answer is that many woods and paddocks are acquired and owned by wealthy urban folk who, in many cases, know best.
Landowners and deer managers who want to protect their woodland and crops from the depredations of fallow deer really do have a stinging nettle to grasp. The first and perhaps most important requirement in winter fallow culling is a good batch of high seats, some of which should be lean-to and others free standing. It’s amazing how difficult it is to find the perfect tree for a lean-to seat. These seats need to be maintained regularly and checked for safety. Ropes and straps, exposed to the weather, get old and may fail. Folk who don’t like deer stalking may damage the seats and/or cut ropes and straps either completely or partially, presumably in the hope that the stalker and seat will come crashing down. Some years ago the ropes securing one of my lean-to seats were cut and one corner of the base of the ladder was cunningly balanced on a root. Climbing into the seat, the structure twisted and I fell off backwards. I was fortunate to suffer nothing more than a severe shaking up.
Regular trimming back of branches is also required to keep seats operational and nothing is more infuriating than a deer that presents for a shot, which is obstructed by an overhanging branch that should have been lopped pre-season. It’s worth remembering that some branches such as those of beech and oak will drop in the autumn with the weight of their respective crops.
The rifles who are invited to occupy these seats need to have infinite patience. They need the patience to get into their seat well before the coming of the light and to stay there as long as possible. It’s easy to set out such requirements but more difficult to implement them regularly on wild, wet, cold mornings. Clothing layers and good, waterproof and windproof outer clothing are essential and sometimes even a rug or poncho may keep the rifle in the seat. Like most stalkers I prefer to walk and stalk, but this is rarely an option in the bare winter woods occupied by the ever vigilant fallow does. My rifles need to stay where they are put and to wait and to watch until an opportunity arises for a shot.
I would like to say that we are selective in our doe cull but this is not the case. Typically, a parcel of fallow will emerge from woodland cover in the very last minute of shooting light and the urgent requirement will be to identify a doe clearly enough to shoot her. Thermal imagers are really useful as the rifle can continuously check a wood face for advance warning of an emergent beast. One evening, when I first had an imager, I was doing just this when I spotted five or six white spots which at first I thought were small birds in the bushes. When they all moved I was able to identify a fallow doe and watched her walking just inside the wood corner as she checked not only the face I was watching but also the wood’s front face. Only when she had made these precautionary spies did she come out of the wood. I needed my illuminated reticle to shoot her and regard scopes with these as essential items of winter doe stalking equipment.
This brings me to the place of collaborative culls in fallow deer stalking. These can be very effective but must not be overdone. One or at most two such culls a year is enough. More may result in the deer becoming terrified and lairy, which is both distressing to see from the point of view of deer welfare and counterproductive in culling. Some members of the public may accept the need to cull fallow deer but nothing will alienate them quicker than them seeing herds of scared witless fallow galloping hither and thither and then milling in the middle of large fields. Better, fellow fallow stalker, to go softly about your business softly in both the thinning darkness of dawn and the thickening light of onsetting night.