Head Start

Photo: Andy Lee

Respected trophy measurer Dominic Griffiths looks forward to a new buck season, and defines the difference between typical and non-typical heads

At the start of the buck season, many roe stalkers will be eagerly anticipating another spring and summer in search of their bucks. Will the weather be conducive to magnificent dawns and balmy evenings, or will we be cursing the cold, withering in the wind and ruing the endless rain?

Others’ thoughts turn to trophies. Whether you are looking for the weakest to cull, a bizarre curiosity or that wonderful old medal buck, the one matter that cannot fail to stimulate the imagination is: What will be the relative size of their antlers this year? Will it be a great year or an indifferent one? We always used to say you needed winter snow to grow big bucks, but I know that other stalkers are worried that the cold winter will have depressed antler growth. We all watch our bucks in velvet when they begin to show their potential from mid-January, and come late February we might begin to get excited about some of the better ones, but until the velvet is off you simply cannot tell just how thick and dense the remaining antler will be.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the classification of trophies. This has led some stalkers’ trophies to be classified ‘un-measurable’ – which I take to mean ‘unclassified’, as despite this description the trophy has actually been attributed a measurement. So let us be clear. All hard antlers can be measured, although some throw up greater or lesser challenges. Trophies taken in velvet clearly cannot be measured as the rules apply to the measurement of the bone itself.

Christopher Usher’s Baillie-esque Yorkshire record?

Otherwise, roe trophies are divided into ‘typical’ and ‘non-typical’, but even that leaves some room for argument. The rule we used to stick to was that if the trophy could be dipped to achieve a volume measurement, then multi-point heads would be classified as ‘typical’. If the antler protruded in such a way that it could not be completely immersed in water, then what could be measured would be measured but the trophy would have to be classified as non-typical. In either case, the appropriate medal could be issued, although official medals were not normally issued to non-typical trophies.

Then there were ‘Baillie’ heads, a description that has stuck since Major the Hon. Peter Baillie’s trophy of 1974. This must be in many respects the most important head in the history of trophy assessment, as it is a benchmark in what became accepted or rejected for official measurement. Measured in the UK as a world record but subsequently disqualified by international judges, it took the epithet of a ‘Baillie Monster’. Although huge, it exhibited unusual and excessive bone growth with ‘the appearance of poured and hardened cement’ around the coronet and extending to the underside of the eye socket. International judges decided that this made it non-typical and unfair to judge against ‘normal’ trophies.

At the time it was unique, but over the years more have been presented and there are now at least 20 of its type known to exist among collections. Why they develop remains a mystery, but they are associated with areas where very high-protein food is in abundance (typically low-ground pheasant shoots). More than half a dozen have passed through my hands over the years, and my only comment is that if a ‘Baillie Monster’ were to be judged a world record it is certain that no ‘normal’ trophy could ever retake that title. Today the classification appears to have been blurred, with many clearly Baillie-type trophies apparently being recognised for official measurement. I believe that it is important to recognise any excessive bone growth on the skull and eye sockets ‘with the appearance of poured hardened cement’, and to classify them correctly.

Then there are the so-called ‘mossed heads’, of which several have been recorded over the years. Perfectly measurable but non-typical, there appears to be massive confusion as to their provenance and status. None have ever been shot in that form, and nearly all have been found dead. Surely this in itself must speak volumes. I had always suspected that they were no more than the remnants of ‘perruques’ after the buck had died and the organic matter rotted from their antlers, and this was proved to be the case when Marco Pierre White shot his enormous perruque in 2010.

A perruque head describes antler growth that has been starved of testosterone. The antler continues to grow under its protective velvet covering until the buck is blinded or the skull splits. Those surviving into late summer inevitably succumb to fly-strike and die. However, the taxidermist Colin Dunton has developed a unique method of setting up a perruque that leaves the original perruque intact and removes the remaining antler as a boiled trophy. These remains – the so-called ‘mossed heads’ – are completely measurable, but must remain classified as ‘non-typical’.

A top trophy shot by a client of David Virtue

Freshly boiled, or very dry, they remain more porous than normal antlers and will therefore absorb water quicker. Indeed, the absorption rate of normal antler is extremely slow – so slow that it is not recognisable during the usual process of measurement. Thus the volume measurement of a mossed head must be taken smartly in one short dip. It is nevertheless incorrect to describe them as heavily ‘pearled’, as this shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the ‘perruque’.

But are some of the really great trophies ‘normal’? Consider the existing Swedish record, or indeed Michael Langmead’s 1971 buck, which held the record as the biggest UK roe buck for 35 years. Giant? Yes. Multi-point? Yes. Normal in skull development? Yes. But typical of the species? Well, they are not average six-pointers, certainly, but they differ only in the way that a great athlete may not quite have the same physique as the rest of us. Let’s not allow the boundaries to be crossed, because that will make nonsense of 50 years of record-keeping in the UK, and let’s make sure that those making the judgements really have sufficient understanding of the species to make those judgements.

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