Respected stalker Mark Brackstone shares his methods of cull evaluation and his unique system of data recording when managing the roe in his area of Wiltshire
Over the years my views on which bucks to cull have changed dramatically. Initially, like most young and inexperienced stalkers, I read numerous books and took the advice and principles portrayed by many respected and experienced stalkers. On the whole, the methods and advice given in the books worked well. I was mentored by a lovely old boy called Clive Wordley, who also set great store by what the experts had laid down.
About 25 years ago, Clive headed north to Scotland to retire, and I took over most of his ground, adding it to areas of my own. This gave me two estates and half a dozen farms, totalling around 6,000 acres – certainly enough ground to manage the deer effectively and see the results of my management plan.
Our doe cull largely comprised a count with the aim of culling a third of the population. We have many twins and some triplets in our area, so we try to cull does with a single youngster, taking the pair out if possible. If we were short on our doe cull, we would then target the poorer youngsters from the does with twins or triplets, the only problem being that at this stage – usually February – time was running short.
With regard to our bucks, up until about 15 years ago, our management cull comprised of any yearling buck with antlers shorter than his ears. Occasionally, we also culled two-year-olds with short, spindly antlers, but this was quite unusual. It took me a few years (not being the sharpest knife in the drawer) to realise that almost without exception our two-year-olds were taller than their ears. In hindsight, despite our best efforts on the yearling cull, quite a few that were shorter than the ear slipped through the net and became two-year-olds.
The rest of the cull was middle-aged bucks that had poorer antlers or were lacking in the body department. We then took out a few trophy bucks ourselves, which we considered past their best – we would often invite a friend to shoot these. My own roebuck collection comprises of bucks taken before I started taking paying guests, or swapping them with a stalker or hunter who had access to another species that I wanted to hunt. This has worked well and enabled me to experience different hunts.
To date our doe management has remained unaltered, and we aim to be pretty much done by the end of February despite the season change a few years ago. I have strong feelings on that front, but we won’t go into that in this article. The big change for us in management practice is where our bucks are concerned.
This was as a result of two extraordinary coincidences. We had a yearling buck with a sort of inverted left ear. I first saw him as a kid, and for many months thought that he had a white ear. I got to know this buck as he was so recognisable and lived close to my house. As a yearling he was a very poor-looking four-pointer, but as he was so distinctive I left him despite the fact that his antlers fell well below the level of our cull principle. The following season we had a kid with a white head and neck in a completely different area. This unusual buck was off our boundary most of the time and I agreed with a neighbouring keeper that we would leave him to get old as we could both recognise him.
The yearling with the inverted ear, nicknamed Whitie, produced an impressive second head despite the poor yearling antlers. His third head must have been just short of a bronze quality head; his fourth was probably silver quality. Then he mysteriously vanished. We had tyre marks over the wheat fields in his area and we surmised that he had been poached.
The buck with the white head likewise produced three heads, each exceeding normal expectations. He died as a result of an RTA (road traffic accident), and a nearby landowner delivered me his partly decomposed head. I cleaned the head and got it measured; it achieved a high silver at 124 CIC points at four years of age. It is the only buck on my wall that I didn’t shoot.
Our stalking is in the heart of Wiltshire, which is known for consistently producing high-quality trophy bucks. In my mind I had proven beyond doubt that a large portion of our bucks, if allowed to get old, could produce high-quality trophies despite many of them having an inferior first head.
By the time we changed our culling policy, we had increased our management area to some 30,000 acres of mixed stalking. This holding has remained pretty much unaltered, although we have gained and lost odd bits of ground on occasion.
What has changed considerably is our buck cull percentage. It is now made of 80 per cent old trophy bucks, with the remaining 20 per cent being animals that are just poor regardless of antler quality. Over the same acreage we have consistently taken three times the number of trophy bucks that we did previously. That said, roe numbers right across our area have fallen over the last few years, but that is the subject of discussion for another day.
Possibly because of the trace elements, minerals and no doubt the gene pool, our area is unique with regards to consistently producing quality heads. That said, we have certainly turned the long-accepted principles of roe buck management on their head (excuse the pun).
Most of our spotting for shootable bucks is carried out during January and February. My colleague Robert and I carry a notepad. Whenever we see what we consider to be an old and/or shootable buck, we make a note of its location, the date and as accurate a description as possible. When we reach March or early April, we compile a shortlist – usually 10 to 15 of the big bucks we know of and think we may cull with our spring clients. We try to get a better look at each buck and note if and when it is clean of velvet, and make our final assessments. They always look massive in velvet, making you think you’re going to have a number of golds, but when they become clean they always seem to shrink.
By the time the spring clients arrive in mid-April, we have a list of bucks with a description and location. For our own interest and for fun, Rob and I put a percentage chance against each buck. This relates to the chance we think the client has of culling that particular beast – not based on marksmanship but on location, behaviour and other variables.
We do the same for the summer hunt, recceing from June until mid-July to produce another list of new bucks found or moved in. Any bucks not culled on the spring list are automatically added to the summer sheet if still present. I’ll take some examples from the 2007 list to show how we do things:
Spring buck No. 1 – client missed. We recorded it as a miss because no reaction was noted, and no blood or pins were found. However, I later wondered if it was in fact hit or got a big fright, as this buck was never seen again.
Spring No. 2 – a new buck appeared after the spring buck cull – see summer buck number two.
Spring buck 6 did not get culled at that time and was re-entered on the summer sheet as buck 3; he was successfully culled in the rut.
Spring No. 8 – this buck was not taken in the spring but went onto the summer cull sheet as buck No.6 and was culled in the rut.
These are just a few examples and they do make interesting reading. We reckon that over the last 10 years, 65 per cent of the spring bucks we take are on our list, the other 35 per cent made of suitable bucks we just happen upon. In the rut we sometimes wonder why we bother to recce as only 40 per cent of the bucks we take are on our sheet – 60 per cent are strange bucks to us that just turn up.
Whether our cull information is of interest to others in similar areas I can’t comment, but what I can say is that we have devised a method that works very well for us, and on the rare occasions we can’t find a buck, at least the client has something to read and still strive for.
Producing a list of available bucks to the client looks professional and instantly puts them at ease. It is proof that the homework has been done. Recceing and assessment is the real hard work – if this has been done diligently, you have gone as far as possible to create your own good luck.