Every estate has, or should have, a cull plan for its deer herd. Normally it is imperative to shoot more females than males within that plan to keep the health and growth of the herd in check. However it is usually easier to take out the males for a variety of reasons. The days are longer during the buck season, the conditions more clement, there is a more willing supply of guest stalkers ready to do the job for you, and you don’t have to contend with the game season when it comes to gaining access to stalking grounds at the right times.
Regardless, shooting females is the only effective way to restrict a free-living deer population. Shoot all the bucks out and natural immigration of displaced bucks will fill the vacuum. With it will come excessive damage to young trees through frantic fraying marking new territories. Does are the key to keeping the balance. Many a deer manager will have realised this the hard way, and just as many again will have felt the pressure of having to attain the required cull figure to maintain that balance with the season’s end fast approaching. But, oddly, while there is a lot of guidance in stalking literature about selecting bucks, little attention is given to selecting does.
From the outset I want to speak out in defence of roe doe stalking, unglamorous though it may be. Typically, trophy hunters will only really be forthcoming during the buck season, for obvious reasons. Unless they are particularly partial to venison, they may be unwilling to spend as much time on the does. In the course of my work I have met many stalkers who profess that they are not trophy hunters, but very few who were unwilling to take a trophy animal if a shot was offered and none who did not want to keep the antlers afterwards.
Personally, I like both trophies and venison but I prefer stalking in the winter months as this is the time of year when I am unhindered by clients and the associated pressures of finding them a suitable buck. Roe doe stalking is terrific value for money, and letting out a few days is a useful way of attaining your cull in a short space of time while adding a few coins to the kitty.
So how do you do it? Firstly, start early. There is no point heading out on 1 November with a rifle and without a clue. You need to have a cull plan – this is a scientific process based on the number of deer you have observed. Time in the field is never wasted, and a recce during the buck season will quickly reveal if there are too many deer on the ground – their body weights will be extremely light compared to the deer that reside on neighbouring estates. Be especially on the lookout for barren does, which are best identified in spring – an obvious lack of pregnancy is better noted then, and the doe can be watched with an eye to cull as soon as the season opens. You shouldn’t just have a look in the autumn and assume any doe without followers is barren – the attentive stalker will notice the does that lost their kids.
So let’s go through basic numbers. As a rule of thumb, the stalker should cull around 30 per cent of bucks and 30 per cent of does on their ground each year. (There will be more does than bucks.) Counting deer in spring has become easier since NV and thermal imaging equipment became available to the stalker for observation purposes. That said, these are not the sole solution – you need to get out in the field to get a good idea not only of numbers but also of habits, and assess individual deer with a view to cull or not.
What about age? Again, sticking to general terms, one should attempt to cull 60 per cent young and 40 per cent old. The selection of young during the doe season is simple, as the kids will be following their mother and easily identifiable by deference and size alone. It is still essential to accurately sex the followers, and that will take more effort.
The season now runs for five months, through to the end of March. It is tempting to plan the bulk of your doe control for the last two months, when the game season is over. But leaving it late is risky, and if you find yourself with too many does to take in too little time, you only have yourself to blame.
I tend to harvest as many earmarked does and followers in the first half of November, before game shooting really gets going, and then pick my times through the shooting season until February. Once game shooting is over, I move up a gear and try to get my cull done by the end of the month. Ideally, I will leave March quiet, let the deer settle down and assess what I have buck-wise for the season to come.
Of course, you may have more than one species to contend with. There is a two- or three-week window in early November before all goes quiet until the new year. This creates a unique opportunity to make a solid start with your fallow doe cull. It’s also a great time to observe and remove the very oldest roe does; I don’t know why they are so recognisable at this time of the year – perhaps because the light is slightly better or it may be associated with coat change.
Early season roe culling creates other problems of identification as the anal tush of the doe is relatively small and still developing, while adult bucks can cast at any time from as early as mid October. Yearling bucks generally keep their antlers until well into December but the older ones will usually cast theirs in mid-November. If possible, therefore, observe both ends before making a decision about whether or not to shoot.
There’s a huge number of variables involved in managing any deer species, all relative to the area of ground. Small stalking permissions can only be effectively managed if you have co-operation with neighbours and an agreed management plan. This is where a collaborative cull, where the does are moved to rifles, can be hugely effective – but don’t do it too often as the does soon wise up.
Larger areas can be better managed as one has complete control over what to shoot, or more importantly, not to shoot. When the stalker starts passing up beasts because they are in their prime, and turns their attention to finding the correct animal to cull, they have become a true deer manager.