As the cull season approaches, Chris Dalton examines the best ways to keep your populations in check
November, when the bucks are done and the doe cull begins, is a time I particularly enjoy. The dreaded midge has gone, the cover is down and we get those lovely frosty mornings with clear blue skies. You can sit and relax over a meal and a dram or two in the evening and still have a decent night’s sleep and lie in to around 6am – bliss! That is not to say that I don’t enjoy the magic of 3am on a summer’s day trying to find that elusive roebuck, but the longer, darker nights have a charm of their own – and certainly far more civilised hours.
It’s those long summer days when you should start to formulate your doe cull. I am constantly watching where the does are and what they are doing. This monitoring is particular important during the rut, noting the locations of the young and the more mature does. We spend a lot of time on the ground and by the end of August I have a clear picture of my does and how good the retention rates are. I note the does with single kids and those with twins. We also have a smattering of triplets. If you are seeing a high number of twins or more then your current management plans, certainly in terms of deer welfare, are right. If you have too many deer on the ground you will start to note the key indicators, not least of which will be an angry landowner complaining about crop damage! A reduction in birth and retention rates and an increase in infant mortality will rapidly become evident. I also try to have an idea of which does have lost kids. Admittedly, this can be accidental. Modern farming with quick machines at the silage cut for example, or road deaths, which account for a lot of kids. A doe without kids moves up the cull list.
By the time November comes around, Tony and I will compare notes and have a good idea of where our doe cull needs to be. It is not an exact science, and a lot of factors can change things quite rapidly. You can be left with a sudden ingress of deer, or else the opposite. Some land can be vulnerable to poaching problems, particularly remote areas with quiet county roads passing through. Lamp shooting from vehicles at night can rapidly reduce your deer population, and make the culprit difficult to catch. You should be aware of these external factors, and time spent on the ground is never time wasted.
Now you have a good idea of where your deer are, the male to female ratio, and so on – so where do you start? Well, you have to start somewhere and you won’t go far wrong working on the ratio of 60 per cent young to 20 per cent old and 20 per cent mature. In subsequent years it becomes easier for two main reasons: firstly, that you know the ground and your deer’s behaviour patterns better, and secondly, you can monitor next year’s deer sightings and numbers against this year’s cull, allowing you to adjust up or down accordingly.
Perhaps one of the key bits of advice I would give is to get on with it straight away. You may think you have plenty of time but you don’t! It’s a short season and all manner of things can come along and get in the way: the weather can turn, game shooting interests may prevent access to woods, or crop/tree planting can disrupt your schedule to name but a few. The policy that has always stood me in good stead is to take the followers, concentrating where you can on the does with twins, and to take any does without kids. A high percentage of these will be old or yearling does. I often hear ‘shoot the doe and the kid will stay and you can then shoot that as well’. It may do, but it may also run off and then you have to spend a lot of time going back to find it as it probably won’t survive the winter without the guidance of the parent. Shooting the mother is a policy I don’t like and, to be honest, I don’t think it should form part of responsible deer management. We should be all about humane killing with the minimum chance of suffering to any animal. If you are under pressure to reduce deer numbers rapidly then it’s better to account for the kids first and take the doe immediately after if the opportunity allows – and if not, then take her at a later date.
You must accept that the key to controlling deer and deer populations rests with the females. A lot of does will not necessarily produce more deer or more bucks. In fact, the opposite is the case. The doe season is the most important time for the deer manager and it is crucial that the right amount of effort, time and importance is attached to the task.
Some years ago I looked after a large block of conifers in a felling rotation. It was very vulnerable in terms of deer control, with blocks of new conifers being planted along with hardwoods on a regular basis. I had done the groundwork and established where a lot of the does were, as well as retention rates – all in line with my advice above. This was great until the doe season opened and all of a sudden I just couldn’t find them. Apart from the odd sighting there was nothing there – rather like cocks in January, where every bird over the line is a hen.
After a few trips I left the ground pretty much alone and concentrated on other plots. That was until I got a call from the forest manager in early December who was, shall we say, less then pleased. During a routine inspection and he had driven past a newly planted block in the lovely winter sunshine to see nine does with attendant followers enjoying the tips of his expensive trees. I was over that afternoon and quite shocked at the extent of the damage caused. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time in that forest over the next month doing the job I should have done from day one! So, unless there is a specific and tangible reason to adjust your planned doe cull then stick to it or face an onslaught from an angry landowner or forest manager. Worse still, he might get someone else to do the job!