There are parts of central southern England, formerly famous for their roe, that are now over-run by fallow. Is this simply because a bigger, more dominant and more gregarious species displaced the roe? Or is it because we removed the roe and made space for the fallow, which then strip the habitat of everything that was once important to the roe? The answer is difficult to establish; I suspect it might be a combination of the two. What is apparent is that this change started 10 years ago, when many deer managers started to report a regional drop in roe numbers. The change coincided with the Regulatory Reform Order of 2007, which extended the doe season until the end of March.
There is, however, clear evidence that roe and fallow can live perfectly well together in the right habitat. For over 15 years I managed a large forested estate where the two species lived perfectly happily alongside each other, despite occupying different times of day and periods of dominancy. During the fallow rut, for example, you would scarcely see a roe when driving through the forest. In spring the roe would exercise their territorial domination and the fallow would be more difficult to find. In general, the roe would come out to feed an hour or so before dusk and return to the woods just as the fallow emerged at the very last light. Sometimes roe would be disturbed out of cover by an unruly mob of fallow, but in general both species lived quite happily together, sharing the habitat and growing to their full potential. Medal quality and body weights for both species were among the highest in the UK, and we enjoyed the privilege of having two great species on our ground. Even when muntjac came along, nothing really changed, though we were keen to keep numbers of this third species low owing to the inevitable impact they would have on that vital lowest 18 inches of cover.
I remain absolutely convinced by the principle of low-stress deer management. This is the concept of leaving them alone as much as possible, and stalking them intensely for short periods at a time. Deer stalked regularly become alert to any movement around the forest and can eventually become nocturnal in behaviour. Deer stalked from vehicles become particularly alert to human activity. Stressed deer are difficult to see and difficult to manage.
In my view, one of the greatest tools in deer management is to get your deer tolerant to vehicles. On new areas this can take up to five seasons, but it is utterly achievable in almost all circumstances. Having achieved tolerance to vehicles, the deer become visible, approachable, settled and thus manageable and easy to census. Deer learn threat very quickly but take years to unlearn it.
Roe are relatively easy to manage and to stalk. There is a long seven-month season to cull the bucks, but a shorter five-month season to cull the does. Up until the Regulatory Reform Order of 2007 the doe season was only four months, ending at the end of February, and no one seemed to find that restrictive. With the onset of winter inappetence, winter stalking becomes increasingly difficult as day length shortens, and then begins to ease as the day length starts to lengthen after Christmas. Nevertheless November roe doe stalking is very productive, and by February it becomes really rather easy as pregnant females emerge from inappetence needing food. Even in those days as a full-time professional stalker with a cull of 300 roe to take, I never had any problem completing the quota by the end of February. Yes, it took commitment, but the behaviour of roe in February meant it was entirely possible.
Completing the cull in February left March as a quiet but essential month in the stalking calendar. A month to take stock, to undertake a comprehensive census, and to allow the now heavily pregnant does a time of low stress just before giving birth. The roe seemed to recognise that the season was over and changed their behaviour accordingly. It was a month of rest for stalker and stalked alike.
Everything changed in 2007 with the change of seasons. With March now available for culling does, what stalker would bother to struggle going out on a miserable December’s day when you could wait until March when the deer are so much more active? Indeed it was easy – almost too easy – to take the cull in March. By the end of the month the evenings were even quite long. The problem is that those used to basing their culls on what they saw in February were given a false impression of population density by what they were now allowed to see and select from in March. If you base your cull on March activity, it is easy to misjudge. What’s worse is that roe are vulnerable to over-exploitation in March – and there is no doubt that some took advantage of that vulnerability, with unsurprising adverse effects on local populations. Deer managers began to complain of low local populations and linked this to the extension of the doe season.
I am sure that in two respects the Regulatory Reform Order was an own-goal for deer management in the UK. The extension of the roe doe season and the change of law to allow shooting from vehicles brought about populations in some localised areas that are either difficult to manage or over-exploited, or both. This local problem can have an effect on us all, and unless you manage a very large area, you will almost certainly have noticed a change.
But did a hole, possibly made by over-shooting roe, allow fallow the opportunity to replace them? This is less clear, as fallow management has its own particular difficulties. Fallow are notoriously the most difficult species to approach. The males are far more gregarious and likely to be the first from cover in the evenings. The buck season is long, and the does are itinerant and practically nocturnal in some areas.
To have a real impact on fallow populations requires enormous commitment, restraint, and hard work, with requirements for a more advanced skill set, better equipment, and close collaboration between neighbours. While a roe can be culled, prepared, and taken to the dealer in moments, a few fallow on the ground can be a morning’s work. If fallow exist at above habitat capacity, they quickly strip out the under-storey, making it all the more difficult for roe to re-colonise. I do not underestimate the challenges of fallow management, but it is possible to achieve success – and the month of March, unlike for roe, is a pre-requisite of that success.
I believe it was a mistake to extend the roe doe season to the end of March, and I have never found it necessary extend the cull beyond the end of February. It is almost certainly the case that some roe populations have been adversely affected by localised over-culling and have been replaced by the more difficult-to-control fallow. It will be even harder for roe to make a comeback when the habitat has been so damaged by fallow. But there is a simple solution. You do not have to cull roe does in March and I suggest that, except in exceptional circumstances, it should be avoided. Use March instead, if you have not been able to complete the cull, to devote exclusively to fallow does – there are plenty of other months for the bucks and prickets. Fallow give birth at least a month after roe and can still enjoy an important quiet month during April before giving birth. Use March to reduce the fallow doe population, and hopefully in time the habitat will recover to allow roe to return.
I know that many stalkers have their access restricted by game shooting and are often obliged to leave the start of the cull until February. In those cases my recommendation would be, if possible, to renegotiate earlier access rather than forcing late completion.