Roe rut advice: Why turning bucks down is more important than shooting them

David Barrington Barnes says the mark of a true stalker isn’t number of bucks shot. Quite the opposite – it’s the level of restraint shown

The famed foxer, stalker and caller Pat Carey, aka The Warrener, once said to me during the red deer rut: “I like to make something happen in the woods!” It’s often possible to do just this by deploying the appropriate methods: for fallow with grunts, red with roars and sika with whistles. Muntjac can be fooled by squeaks at any time of year. As for roebucks, in some circumstances they will come running. There is no more breathtaking moment in stalking than when one or more bucks respond to the call.

Pat was right. The excitement is in making something happen – not in shooting. Bringing a beast in close enables the stalker to have a good look at him, to assess him and his suitability for culling. A stalker who has called a buck does not have to shoot him. He can hold back just as easily as he can squeeze the trigger – it may be that restraint is the right course of action because the buck is a promising youngster or a mature beast in his prime.

Alternatively, there may be a shortage of bucks on his ground – our roe deer are hard pressed in places. My 1950s Observer Book of British Birds comments that roe are “now mainly to be found in our northern mountain woods” and states that there are very few of them. I sincerely hope it will never be necessary to write that again about this species of beautiful deer. Some personal restraint is now needed in hunting roebucks. A good thing to do to before taking any shot is ask yourself, “Do I really need to shoot this buck?”

This said, I am lucky enough to have many pleasurable rut-time recollections of roebuck hunting, many of which still merit a smile. On one evening I made my way into the corner of a wood, using infinite care to effect entry to it quietly. Once within the wood, I realised that the ground outside it – a field of sugar beet – could not be seen. I started to call, expecting the buck to come through the woodland in front of me. There was no response to the call, and after some time I pulled out and stepped into the open only to meet the buck, which was walking through the sugar beet. Needless to say, he departed, barking loudly. Since then I have chosen my calling stations more carefully and held them longer after I have finished calling.

Another morning outing reinforced the need to stay at the calling point. After an early start that morning, the sun came up and promised a hot harvest day. So early was my start and so hot the morning sun that, after calling from a hedgerow outside a big wood, I nodded off in the long grass. I awoke after half an hour to see a cull buck creeping cautiously towards me in a comical manner. Were it not for my nap I would most likely have moved on quickly; as it was, fortune presented me with the ideal buck for a shot.

Measured success: A buck called out of the crop and taken with a considered shot

As a rule, I deploy an engine-room shot against roebucks. Such is their nature that waiting for the buck to turn broadside rarely results in the chance of a shot being lost. An undisturbed buck will almost always turn at some point and present the stalker with a shot at his vitals that is also unlikely to inflict meat damage. But the behaviour of called bucks in the rut is the exception to their usual slow nature. A called buck is likely to be head-on to the stalker, often coming on quickly and stopping at close range. Head shots are risky and will likely spoil the trophy. A neck shot off sticks could see the bullet continue into the saddle or haunch, causing bad meat damage. This is an unsatisfactory outcome and I now leave bucks that only present this kind of shot. It’s disrespectful to shoot a buck in a place that will inevitably spoil the carcase.

The emergence through cover of a fox-red roebuck as he answers the call is perhaps the greatest excitement a stalker can experience. I have in my den a malform head of a buck I called and shot in Argyll. In response to the call, this buck appeared from the bracken, ran in over a grass bank and stopped at my feet before retreating on the bank and presenting a shot. My companion said afterwards that she thought I was going to stick it!

On other ground I knew of a magnificent medal-quality buck, having called it up for inspection in several successive ruts. This magnificent buck always responded to my annual call with enthusiasm and enabled me to inspect his impressive racks from close range. One spring I noticed that he had lost his territory to a younger beast and moved to a small plantation bisected by busy public roads. To avoid a likely RTA, I sadly arranged for him to be culled.

Another memory is of a hot early August morning, when I stalked into woodland and started to call. A few squeaks, a pause, then a few more calls. Quickly a patch of red in the brush caught my eye. Time stood still until, a few moments later, a four-point roe buck showed 30 yards in front. In the silence of the stand-off neither of us moved until the buck stepped forward half a yard and exposed his flank to me. Then only the rifle shot, unnaturally loud in the confines of the wood, broke the spell and the quarry was mine.

I was pleased with that effort as the shot had to be threaded through the understorey of the woodland to ensure a clean kill and avoid a deflection and a missed or wounded beast. Ultimately, at that range and from a steady rest, I was confident of a successful outcome. I didn’t chance it and I didn’t let myself forget that acclaim for the roebuck stalker should be based not on the number of roebucks he shoots but rather on the number he forbears from shooting.

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