Stalking guide Chris Dalton stresses the importance of undertaking a roe doe cull and doing so in a way that will be of benefit to the entire herd
When the buck season draws to an end, it’s time to tackle the next big challenge: planning the winter cull. Many of my stalking guests ask me what I think is the best way to achieve a good balance of females on the many areas I control. There are a few answers I give, but ultimately, the issue is subjective – not an exact science. It is also a broad question and very much dependent upon circumstances and the type and use of your stalking ground. By this I mean the lie of the land, who is using it, whether there are game interests or if it is agricultural land, how often you can stalk there and whether it is broadleaf or conifer – open glades or narrow rides. These are some of the questions you must ask before you can decide on a plan that works for you.
Long before 1 November you will (or should) have assessed the density of deer on the ground – a subject that we could all write a book on, so I won’t try to cover it here in a few short paragraphs. Let’s assume you currently have a density of deer that seems about right, and by that I mean you are seeing deer but there are no issues with unacceptable levels of deer damage to crops or trees, and your landowner is not complaining about the systematic destruction of his newly planted oaks or winter turnips. Let’s also assume you have a stable deer population and numbers are not increasing or decreasing year on year, and you are shooting roughly the same numbers when you look back on your cull data (make sure you keep accurate cull details, it’s essential). When assessing such data, look at the frequency of your stalking. A career change that means you can only get to the ground once a month will affect your cull, so don’t overlook this when comparing cull achievement against last year’s figures.
You also have to recognise that controlling the females is the key to a stable and balanced roe population. I’ve heard folk say far too often that they don’t shoot many does as they want a lot of bucks the following year. This is completely flawed logic and not the attitude of a responsible deer manager. You must sort out your does and, having accepted that, work out how to go about it.
Get on with it as soon as you can. I hear the comment, “I could have shot three last month but I want some to shoot in February so I just shot one.’’ You need to get on top of your cull as soon as you are able to and when the chance is offered. Many times the opportunity will not present itself again; the doe and twin kids you saw easily in early November have gone in late December, as have the other doe and twins you saw in the hardwood plantation. In all probability they are still around somewhere but feeding in a different area, at different times or under cover of darkness. You get to late March and the spring growth starts, daylight hours lengthen and all of a sudden all the does and followers reappear along with a few family groups you were not aware of. You now have a problem as most of your mature does will also be carrying a new batch of young that will be born in a few months’ time. You are about to experience a major population increase and subsequent grief from your landowner at the resulting deer damage, notwithstanding the potential problems for the deer caused by a rapid population growth and subsequent competition for space and food.
I am fortunate that Tony and I can assess the areas we look after frequently and have a good idea of what is happening. I have regular, experienced syndicate stalkers who know the ground well and are my eyes and ears. We have a detailed and accurate cull record so I know what the cull needs to be and I can monitor its effectiveness. We also operate mainly in areas where other disturbance is minimal and don’t have a lot of ground that, for example, is also used for game shooting with the subsequent possible conflict in shooting interests. The keeper does not want you stalking through his best coverts and release pens at dusk just as the birds are going to roost. A shot from a high velocity rifle and the birds will be pushed off their roost and fly down to the floor – you will not be popular with the keeper but the resident fox will appreciate it. We do have disturbance, of course, such as timber extraction and replanting, but you can work round that and it’s all the more reason to get on with your cull when you can.
As a general rule, if you work on the accepted practice of around 60 per cent young (followers) to around 20 per cent each of old and mature, you shouldn’t go far wrong. To achieve this, my stalkers and guests are instructed to always take a follower and leave the mature doe alone. Depending on the cull requirements and if the opportunity arises, they may take both followers. If, however, we encounter a lone and mature doe, after a period of observation to ensure she has no followers, we will take her. By adopting this method I find that my cull ratio always fits very closely to the 60:20:20 split. Furthermore, I do not leave young kids to fend for themselves through the winter period – they may survive, but will benefit and have a much better survival rate under the guidance of the doe. By culling does with no kids you are probably also removing older animals that have not bred or that have lost kids for whatever reason, so again these are the animals to remove. I do not like the practice of shooting the mother with an expectation that the kid may hang around or come back after running off and then you can shoot it. This does sometimes happen but surely it is better to take the kid and to take the mature doe at a later time if needed.
Enjoy the social side of your winter stalking – you don’t have to get up at silly o’clock to be back home in time to enjoy a meal and a beer. But remember, if you are not on top of your winter doe cull by the time February ends, you are running late (stalkers on shooting estates excepted, and I sympathise).