The Chinese water deer season is here. Here’s how Bedfordshire keeper Paul Childerley controls this diminutive deer…
I’ve been managing Chinese water deer for nearly 20 years, and have seen increases and decreases in the populations across the different estates and grounds I manage. This can be down to any number of reasons, whether they are related to the weather, poaching, farming practices or culling plans.
Following last year’s mild winter and perfect spring/summer conditions, the young animals are maturing and able to breed earlier, with a higher percentage of the multiple births surviving. This has resulted in 2016 being a bumper year.
Poaching was always an ongoing problem in my area owing to a lack of support from the police who don’t regard it as a priority crime compared to more urban problems. Since the law changes regarding coursing, however, police involvement has improved, and we have built a good relationship to solve some of the ongoing issues.
Chinese water deer are renowned for living in open arable fields and making themselves very visible to farmers. This gives the impression of there being a higher number of animals on the ground than there actually are, compared to other species of deer that prefer woodland or appear under cover of darkness.
The culling plan is, I believe, the most important aspect of deer management, and I have demonstrated that with this species. With proper planning, you can accordingly increase and decrease stocks on estates within a short period of time.
Animal selection involves not simply a culling of the poor-conditioned and older deer. As part of our seasonal culling packages with Childerley Sporting clients, my guides have all been trained to look out for those animals that require culling in a prescribed area.
For example, I received several reports of one deer appearing unwell in one of my main areas and that was described as having a ‘mysterious head’. I found a gap in my diary on a beautiful frosty morning, which was perfect for watching and inspecting the stock.
Driving out to the area at daybreak, I noticed several animals already moving in the field where the mystery animal had been spotted. As the weather turned colder, the deer headed to the oilseed rape fields for night-time grazing before returning to their daytime area. I used my Zeiss 15x56s to watch the Chinese water deer from distance rather than mess around with a spotting scope.
Knowing their pattern of movements, I stalked along the dividing hedge that the animals would cross, and set up with my rifle on sticks in front of an old oak tree, which hid my silhouette. Several minutes passed before two bucks began chasing and stirring up the other animals in the field, making them get restless and move back to their daytime areas.
The sonic clicking sound from the animal doing the chasing had alerted a rogue buck, which I had on my list. This buck, with its ripped ears and broken tusks, was an old warrior that had been causing me problems due to his aggressive and territorial nature. Animals such as this can cause injuries, some fatal, and tusk damage to other males.
The duel between the aforementioned pair, which took place just metres away, gave me a great opportunity to check out the dominant bucks that resided in my area and assess trophy quality.
The old warrior had entered from an adjacent field, his stumpy tail cocked and ragged ears pointing forward as he tried to locate the clicking of the two bucks. As soon as he spotted the movement, he adopted full battle mode and charged 200 yards across the field. To press home his dominance, he struck one of the bucks across the haunches with his broken tusks, removing great lumps of hair.
These fisticuffs afforded me the chance to take up a closer shooting position alongside the field hedgerow from where the rogue buck had appeared. Believing he would head back to his territory, I set up about 150 yards from the hedgerow gap, and waited.
Most of the other deer had fled the scene, leaving the scrapping trio to their own devices. The youngest of the threesome was first to quit the mayhem and galloped away at full speed; the remaining two remained in full swing, chasing, facing off and then chasing again.
Despite this being one of the longest battles I’d seen, the ragged buck eventually attained the upper hand and chased his rival across to the other side of the field, in the direction of where the other deer had headed. With both disappearing, my heart sank – I’d had a few opportunities to take the old buck while the fight raged but had been distracted by the scrap and missed my chance.
Refusing to give up, I waited as I believed the old buck was a creature of habit and would head back to his daytime abode. Sure enough, I didn’t have long to wait: a quick look through the binoculars highlighted those now-familiar ragged ears. As soon as he re-entered the field, he made a beeline towards me at a slow trotting pace. For someone who has shot many Chinese water deer, this was still incredibly exciting, as this was a high-priority cull animal ready to be taken out.
Poised on my shooting sticks, I waited until the old buck was about 100 yards away before giving a quick bark to make him stop in his tracks. I took him down with a clean heart shot. A perfect result on a very exciting morning – but I still hadn’t seen the one with the mysterious face.
Walking over to collect the buck, I noted the two broken tusks as well as the battle-scarred damage to his ears and his flanks. Placing him in my rucksack, I chanced my luck to see if I could find another cull animal – if I was to clean up the larder for one, I reasoned, I may as well make it two.
I backtracked as most of the animals had by now returned to the stubble field to rest up. Taking one last glass over the oilseed rape field, I noticed the rear of one animal laid in a small undulation in the field.
On approaching the animal, I realised immediately that something was wrong – there was no head movement and it was facing away, so I could not tell whether it was a buck or a doe, or even its age. Standing less than 50 yards away, I was reasonably confident it was the ‘mysterious one’.
I positioned myself quietly on the sticks, and gave a sharp whistle to goad it into life. However, the animal failed to react like as I expected: it didn’t stand or look back towards me but rather launched itself forward and ran with its head down. I noticed hair missing from around its eyes – it did not appear healthy, and after slowing its pace stopped after 100 yards. I didn’t give the animal a chance to move again – a shot was taken at the first opportunity and it was successfully on the deck.
I was keen to see what had been wrong with the deer and upon inspection noted that it had been hit by a car as one of its back legs was also broken.
So ended a great morning flushed with the success of taking out two animals that would ensure the population remained healthy and the stock numbers in line with my plan.