Fallow in the frost

David Barrington Barnes on the challenges, opportunities and quirks that hunting in November presents

Credit: Getty Images

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, no comfortable feel in any member, no shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!”

This verse of William Hood was written nearly 200 years ago. It still applies accurately to the countryside in which the deer stalker pursues fallow deer. Indeed, every deer stalker would do well to carry a card with these lines inscribed on it as they serve as a reminder of the weather conditions likely to affect his quarry.

Starting with “no warmth”, fallow does herd close together to give and take warmth from each other. They feel the cold and choose both bedding and feeding areas for warmth as far as they possibly can.

Theirs is not a life of cheerfulness or healthful ease in November. The pattern of their existence involves finding a discreet bedding area, sheltered as far as possible from the wind and rain. If undisturbed, the fallow can lie up in these bedding places throughout the hours of daylight before stepping out a few paces into the adjacent field margin.

This lifestyle is calculated to frustrate the law-abiding stalker restricted to shooting in daylight hours, with the frustration nowadays increased by his ability to view the deer emerging from the very woodland he has been observing through a thermal imager. The field, deer-free even in last light, supplies the imager with multiple soft white targets just a few minutes after the onset of night.    

The poet’s observation that there is “no comfortable feel” in November sends shivers down the spine when the deer stalker recalls the bone-cold freezing mornings, probably further chilled by a north or north-east wind rattling the high seat occupant 12 feet above ground level. No matter what your expenditure on smocks, jackets, lined trousers and boots, the fallow deer stalker in November is at times likely to get cold.

If the stalker is a professional deer manager, he must make it into his high seat well before first light, and do so regularly if he is to achieve his cull target.

There may be mornings when the high seat is moving so much in the wind that he will have to find a ground hide – in a ditch and bank perhaps – and hope to have a shot at a doe in or just outside the woodland edge. This will have the added advantage of being degrees warmer than the untenable high seat being buffeted by the winter storm.

As to the absence of shade or sunshine, all experienced fallow deer stalkers know that on a dull, sunless morning, the deer may be anywhere in a wood, and may not emerge at all. A sunny woodland face will draw out deer wanting to warm up after a chill night.

If a sunny morning is forecast, the stalker does well to think where the first warm rays of the sun will shine on the woodland face. Long before this happens, he should have holed up with his back to the east and be ready for action. In agreeing a finish time to the early morning outing, it’s as well to make allowances for the sunshine being late, which may be the case if mist or low cloud has to clear.

As to Thomas Hood’s reference to lack of fruits and flowers, every regular fallow stalker will say aye to that. From August to October, fallow deer are able to enjoy ripe cereal crops, lush autumn grazing and all the fruits of the woods and hedgerows.

It’s feast time! If you add to this the influence of the forthcoming rut, conditions overall combine to make male fallow deer vulnerable. In complete contrast, the fly fallow does remain risk averse and, in the absence of feed outside, their woodland habitat, conserve their energy and feed in or just outside the woods. November! The poet summed it up perfectly.

Browsing my diaries, and checking up on my activities in the first two weeks of November 2018, I see several blank outings. In most of these, little deer activity was seen except for one big herd estimated 50 strong. That outing, like the others, ended with an empty carrier on the quad.

The exception to this dire, unrewarding record was the day on which I brought in a team. Eight fallow does and two prickets more than made up for the blank outings. This sort of outcome is not necessarily typical. In the same period of 2016, fallow does were taken during several solo outings, with the big day being less successful than usual. 

Another negative feature of November days is the late coming of daylight and its associated shooting hours. All too often, deer are moved by folk walking – at times where they are entitled to walk and on other occasions where they are not.

Searching for positives, the decreasing cover in November makes muntjac and roe deer more visible. On 15 November 2016 I stalked the old aerodrome with my friend John Hargreaves.

Leaving John to find his way into a high seat on the end of William’s Wood, I drove southwards along a feeder runway, eventually finding my way into a high seat overlooking a stubble field bordered by two plantations and an area of rough. This is a lovely place for roe deer and muntjac and one from which I had previously taken both these species.

As the light came, I was full of hope, and this was justified by the emergence from the right-hand plantation of three roe – two does and a buck – which started grazing across the field.

Still too far for a shot, I watched the lead doe look into the cover behind me and then turn and walk briskly towards me. All three came on quite quickly and, with a necessary adjustment to my position, I was only just in time to engage the young doe and squeeze off my shot.

A few minutes later I photographed John with the beast, and again while he was gralloching it. As to putting the guest to work, I have the perfect excuse. It was November and he needed warming up after a cold, blank spell in the high seat.

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