During the winter stalking season in East Anglia, there is quite a lot of deer moving. As a local deer manager and stalker, I am privileged to have organised collaborative culls along these lines and participated in them as a guest. A few thoughts on deer-moving days may therefore not come amiss.
From the management standpoint, my number one priority is for the day’s ending to have everyone back at HQ safe and sound. Achieving this is not the simple matter it may sound. Good planning and organisation are prerequisites.
First, the deer manager needs to ascertain whether the landowner understands and consents to a deer-moving day, which will inevitably involve a larger than usual number of stalkers and their vehicles on their property. Next, the other stakeholders on the land need to be informed as to what will happen. If, for example, forestry work is going on, liaison with them or their manager is essential. The farm manager needs to be on side so he can leave the ground quiet for safety’s sake and encourage the movement of deer. Other interested parties may be in the woods by invitation or otherwise.
I recall placing a line of walking rifles in a big wood when, as we waited to start, a man ran from behind us through the line into the ‘moving area’, shouting that he had lost his dog. On National Trust land, members of the public have been seen to read warning notices before ignoring them and entering the danger zone.
Secondly, you must decide whether to involve neighbouring landowners. With the right mix of land, a ‘landscape-scale’ cull can be very effective for the same reasons that roost shooting pigeons in February is most effective when there are guns in every wood and spinney. The downside, and it is a serious one, is that when denied any sanctuary, deer become stressed. When this happens they can be seen during daylight hours milling in the middle of large fields with steaming breath and earth-clogged hooves. Deer distressed like this definitely do not tick the ‘deer welfare’ box. On one occasion, neighbours hit the deer really hard on such a day, and afterwards a local man told me off for mistreating the deer, saying a herd of them had run right past his car, scared and lairy. In blaming me he was picking on the wrong chap, but I had to admit I knew just what he meant.
In picking a team for a deer-moving day, it’s not a bad idea to have a mix of stalkers, including one or two ‘greyhounds’ who can be sent to distant locations. Having a good, keen team in the larder will enable the deer manager to pass on prime carcases to the game dealer. Having a dedicated person to recover shot beasts and work in the larder can be a big time saver.
Time is, of course, the enemy on short winter days, but even so, the team should not be overworked. Sitting up for too long or starting early and finishing late can result in the participants becoming over-tired, with potentially adverse safety consequences. My own policy is to start early, recover and process shot deer by mid-morning, then try a move or two before taking a lunchtime break. After this, another move and, depending on the weather and the strength of the team, possibly an evening session from high seats – but more often than not I call time before this on the basis that everyone has had enough or that darkness is fast approaching.
It’s a great help to have trusted assistants who know the woods and fields and the location of high seats. They need minimal briefing, whereas rifles unfamiliar with the place have to be fully and carefully briefed throughout the day. It is easy for a stalker to miss his allocated high seat in the pre-dawn dark. I was a participant on one estate with a seat in the middle of a big wood and, anticipating problems I might have locating it, visited before the day, marking my route to the seat by tying white plastic strips cut from a feed bag. My neighbouring rifle was not so fastidious; unamused, I watched him approach my seat by the light of his torch. He stopped just short of it before retreating, with no more harm done than causing me to have a blank morning. Of course, rifles coming some distance cannot always do a recce, and unless their seats are unmissable they should be accompanied to them by the deer manager or one of his assistants.
In giving instructions – I hesitate to call them ‘orders’ – it’s essential to keep them simple. One morning I discussed a possible moving exercise from Wood A towards Wood B, which the team were familiar with. After lunch I decided to do a similar move from Wood C to Wood D. In spite of the fact that I named these woods and described a different manoeuvre, two of the party were convinced we were going to implement the Wood A to Wood B plan. At times like these, there is no use blaming others – everything is the deer manager’s responsibility.
If you want to read up further, I strongly recommend John Thornley’s book, Stalking Fallow. Chapter 11, headed ‘Collaborative and Team Culls’, is helpful to those organising and participating in such culls, and should assist in having productive and safe moving days. One safety measure I have introduced is this: on one stalker joining another, perhaps after a sitting-up session, the stalker on the spot assumes seniority and asks to see the chamber of the second person’s rifle so he can check for himself that it is clear. My team have adopted this and now present their rifles upon encountering each other. There is no fuss or embarrassment about this – it’s done quite routinely.
I have been asked whether collaborative culling days are truly ‘sporting’. I think they are, provided they are conducted with some moderation of scale and frequency. If they make the deer lairy then they flag up deer welfare issues, so I would say that if we must move deer, we should do so with a light touch.