Winter can throw up a particular set of challenges when stalking roe deer for the cull. Follow Dominic Griffith’s advice and make all your outings a success
There is something uniquely satisfying about completing a cull in the depths of winter. Roe stalkers often yearn for the physical challenges associated with, say, hind stalking in the highlands.
It’s not that there are no physical challenges in our day job. But, generally speaking, we enjoy decent weather conditions, our approach is generally upright, usually leisurely, and our resultant quarry light to handle and carry.
However, there is one period of the year when stalking roe can change dramatically from a ‘walk in the park’ to something more akin to the highland experience. As autumn turns to winter, the cover dies right back, activity becomes restricted, and careful spying in December will frequently find the deer tucked up with little more than a fence line as cover. As winter progresses and the average temperature drops further, the animals group themselves into loose herds of up to 20, exploiting and sharing the few remaining stubbles or favoured habitats. But you are just as likely to find them sitting strung out across the middle of a large field chewing the cud. With little protection from driving sleet or snow it seems unlikely behaviour but, with a cull to complete, it presents a challenge peculiar to both this environment and the species.
When to go?
Roe are normally extremely sensitive to changes in the weather: pressure up, deer up; pressure down, deer down; temperature up, deer up; temperature down, deer down. An east wind tends to reduce roe activity by more than 50 per cent. In summer you will sometimes venture out in the knowledge that the chances of success are minuscule, and you frequently wish stalking guests understood that, too.
But this is one occasion when, in the worst of conditions, the deer can be seen and stalked with success. Indeed, it’s almost better to choose an awful day than a pleasant one because unless you can ensure a low sun is situated directly behind you, the brightness of the day will generally accentuate movement, and create reflections and shadows which will grab the deer’s attention.
For the roe stalker, therefore, the deep midwinter presents very different challenges, but ones that many of us embrace for the variety this time of year offers – despite the mild physical hardship.
Where to go?
The roe is a remarkably adaptable species and will normally hide in woodland during winter. Downland roe do not enjoy that access and somehow brave it out in the windswept fields. Despite that they find cover of a sort and eke out a living during the worst of winter.
A beetle bank might be enough to provide shelter and a vast expanse of winter rape will provide the necessary nourishment. They have to be strong to survive and, in my experience, the body weights of downland roe are 5-10 per cent greater than their woodland cousins. A poor doe may be easier to spot, but the challenge of bringing it home is quite a different matter.
Having spied from afar and identified a beast, or a series of beasts, suitable for culling, the long and arduous approach begins. Wind is of paramount importance as is restricting – as far as is possible – any potential for silhouetting. An approach from above is more likely to result in a breach of the horizon while an approach from below, although tortuous on the back, affords a greater ability to melt into the background.
Moving directly towards the group, rather than across them, will limit their ability to recognise you; indeed, it’s better if you can position perhaps a fence post in the line of advance between you and the deer and a tree behind you. Anything to help break up form, shape and colour. If the start of the approach is walking or stooping then you are lucky because, inevitably, it will end in a long and flat-bellied crawl.
On a cold morning, in a stiff wind with sleet turning to snow, a successful stalk is strangely more likely than if it was clear and sunny. Having spied your quarry from around 600 metres, it’s worth remembering that the approach actually involves having to cover little more than two-thirds of that distance. Any attempt to hurry the stalk is bound to end in disappointment.
Using the trunk of a an ash tree as cover, you make 200 metres more or less upright and completely unseen, but from this point on it’s going to be all crawl. Hanging the rifle beneath the chest and tucking in the binoculars to stop them swinging annoyingly and noisily into the rifle, it’s 10 metres at a time with the knees soon becoming saturated, muddied and assaulted by flints.
Woe betide the man who forgets his gloves. I favour the cheap Thinsulate type, which protects the fists from cuts but remain warm even when wet. In driving sleet you might be tempted not to use binoculars as the lenses soon become wet and blurred, but it is important to do so. Even if one of the roe has clocked you, the group is less likely to react in poor weather.
As the crawl continues, it becomes increasingly important to minimise your profile. The last 50-100 metres will almost certainly be a belly crawl. Over the hour or so the stalk has taken, the sleet may have turned to snow, and you and the deer could now have a light covering. The hands may be chilled but it is important to keep warming them to ensure a good trigger release at the firing point.
As ever, the most challenging time is the moment when you drop the bipod legs and have to lift the muzzle of the rifle into a firing position.
If you are making a collaborative culling effort (certainly recommended), a quick exchange between the two rifles is necessary so as to plan the order of selection, and hopefully the result will be a job well done.