Rutting Reflections

Be ready for bucks to lose their natural wariness

David Barrington Barnes looks back at roe ruts he has experienced in previous years and questions the ethical considerations involved when calling roe at this precious time

Whenever deer stalkers gather in advance of the rut, they dwell with obvious anticipation on what the coming rut will entail. Weather often stalls or curtails rutting activity, and there are countless other factors to consider. When you watch a roe rut in full swing, you soon realise what a powerful urge it is that gets the roebucks and does running in rings. It is those compelling instincts that cause roe in the rut to throw their innate natural caution to the wind and show themselves in ways they rarely do during the rest of the year.

The first buck I ever called and shot was in a wood, with far too much, and too tall, ground cover for calling. Taking up a position in an unkempt box-bush, I saw my calling rewarded by the appearance of a buck even more naïve than I was. I dropped him at 10 yards, threading a shot through the nettle stalks. A rut later, I called another in as close, which offered a neck shot for my son off the sticks.

That was, I recall, in a hot, active, super-charged rut packed with calling opportunities. On another morning, I installed my son in a high seat whose leaning tree was in a belt adjoining a wood. I took station on the side of the tree and seat furthest away from the wood. I made sure my son could see me, which was prudent as the buck came from my side of the tree. The perplexed roebuck worked all round my position, and it was some minutes before he moved sufficiently and stood long enough for a shot.

During another rut, I needed to cull a young buck that was causing considerable and very visible fray damage to coppice regrowth in a square, five-acre plantation. On two sides of this were arable fields outside my area, which made the plantation a difficult one to stalk. My early morning visits that spring had been unsuccessful. Meanwhile the fray damage was ongoing, and with this in mind I slithered into one corner of the plantation in the full heat of an early August afternoon.

It makes sense to spare the best bucks

The coppice was, again, far too dense but I began to call and in no time at all spotted the head of a roebuck having a look through the branches and leaves. I squeezed off a shot only to find to my annoyance that I had shot a mature buck.

As I started the gralloch, I became aware of a stand of hazel shaking quite violently a mere 30 yards away. I thought it was the wind until I remembered it was a still afternoon. Grabbing my rifle, I gave a couple of squeaks in response to which the young buck – my intended, original target – rushed forward and presented himself nicely for a shot.

Once in Argyll, while calling from bracken, I had a young buck race up to my knee, which prompted the comment from the observer with me that she thought I was intending to stick it with my knife.

The common thread of all these tales from the rut is that roebucks lose their natural wariness at this time. The buck who responds to the call and comes within 10 or 20 yards of the deer stalker, as on occasion they will, has his brains between his hot haunches, and really has no sense of self-preservation at all. For every individual deer stalker this raises the legitimate question as to whether buck stalking in the rut provides a worthwhile quarry at all and, if so, the subsidiary question of how we carry on in such a way that we continue to respect roe deer as a quarry while stalking during their rut.

My answer to the first question is that roebuck stalking in the rut enables me to cull surplus bucks that I never or rarely see at any other time of the season. It enables me to shoot selectively if I want or need to do so. It’s a great time to take out guests, perhaps to introduce them to the sport. Finally, it’s a fun time to be out on my ground.

Rutting activity can be magical to behold

As to the respect question, I impose some guidelines on myself and try to stick to them: not to overcall, not to hammer the same ground, not to shoot any buck primarily for its smart headgear and not to shoot any buck facing me.

Overcalling undoubtedly upsets the local roe does that often hear and respond to the call. As they will usually have dependent fawns, this can cause disturbance that should be avoided. I have seen confused does after calling. Overshooting an area during the rut has a similar detrimental impact.

The headgear point is simple. A good buck with a good head in the prime of life is the local stud. It makes sense to spare him until he goes back.

The last point, the avoidance of head-on shots, is particular to bucks called in the rut. The reason I eschew this shot is because of the frightful carcase damage that will likely be caused by a raking shot into a facing beast.

I have seen, and I am ashamed to say inflicted, some shocking examples of this. It happens because the buck so often appears at close range and the deer stalker, likely standing on the ground with sticks, has a ‘now or never’ moment. He does not have the luxury of knowing he can almost certainly wait until the buck turns broadside, as he does in the other months of the buck season.

A young buck feeling his way before the rut proper. Photo: Andy Lee

No doubt some deer stalkers will consider me squeamish and other deer shooters fastidious. I don’t care at all, as these are the standards that I try to apply while stalking roe bucks in the rut, although sometimes I succumb to temptation and breach them. Each to his own, I guess.

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