After a long, cold, snowy and wet winter, the Chinese water deer started the spring season in poorer condition than normal, with the bucks looking like they hadn’t recovered from the rut. Chinese water deer normally carry a good layer of fat across the saddle and haunches, but they had to use their reserves owing to the long cold winter. This could have resulted in fewer fawns for the summer, but instead it was a bumper year for the Chinese water deer, with the does producing multiple fawns. Thanks to the fantastic summer temperatures, the young have been thriving, with minimal losses.
We try to have a head count on different areas so we can put a management plan in place before the season. This year I can guarantee that there will be record numbers of Chinese water deer culled during the season.
Being a field dweller, the Chinese water deer are always on view, so they have to deal with the consequences of modern-day farming, weather or vermin. The females generally give birth at the end of May, but there are always some early and late ones. Depending on the cropping plan, this can make a big difference to the fatality rate of the newly born fawns. The worst crops are obviously silage and hay making, as the fawns tuck up tight in the thick, long grass, and the mower unfortunately catches them. The second is the spraying of the crops – the fawns come out to dry on the tram lines and get trapped by the sprayer wheels. Also, vermin play a big part, with crows taking out their eyes when first born, similar to lambs, and then foxes are on the prowl throughout the first few weeks. We try to minimise this as much as possible by running the dogs through the meadows and grass lay for a few days before the cropping starts, and we are also hard on crows and foxes during this time of the year.
Despite all this, the does have managed to rear multiple healthy fawns, and this year the Chinese water deer have been a problem again with my maize game cover crops. They need to get water in some form, and they can consume acres of the juicy young stems in their quest to get what they need to survive.
The plan this year is to take off several more animals from each estate to try to reduce the numbers in certain areas because of the damage they are causing. This reminds me of two different hunts from the previous year, where we shot two mature bucks that had enormous tusks but remarkably different body weight and size. The first was a buck in early November. A client had come from the Netherlands to try for a good Chinese water deer buck, allowing himself three days to achieve this task. On the first day we headed to an area where I knew there had been a phenomenal buck that held a territory next to a pylon on a hill. The farmer had contacted me several times asking me to reduce the numbers, as they were starting to graze on the winter barley. This was a good excuse to remove another animal from this area.
Jasper and I headed to the range for a couple of shots first to make sure he was happy with the rifle, as he was using my kit. After this, we headed straight down to the pylon and set up right underneath it, facing down to the quarry where the buck would be coming from.
After getting set up and spying for a while, it was easy to see why the farmer was complaining; there were Chinese water deer popping up everywhere. We spied the animals until just before dark, and there were several good bucks out there, but not the one we were after. The bucks had started doing some pre-rut chasing, but weren’t showing their normal aggression, so they were not really moving across the fields. It was a good first introduction for Jasper – he couldn’t believe how many animals there were.
We spoke to the farmer that evening, and he showed me a picture of the buck in question. It had been in his garden that evening, eating his flowers! The buck was a recognisable beast, with a ripped left ear, which would make it easier for us to distinguish him.
The following morning, we decided to head to the garden area, which led out to three grass paddocks surrounded by sheep netting and the furthest paddock full of old ewes. We arrived before light and waited patiently on the sticks to see if he would come from the thick cover across to the garden again. We saw a couple of Chinese water deer running the fence line, but no joy, so we decided to stalk around the edge of one of the paddocks. As we moved, he appeared behind the fencing on our left, and trotted along the line to the junction where all the fences met – but he was still behind too much cover to get a clear shot. The sheep fencing seemed to interfere with his daily routine – he seemed unsettled and maybe slightly trapped. It was definitely the buck in question – the tear in his left ear was in the centre stretching from the tip to the base. He was an old warrior, but his body mass seemed small considering the ivory he was displaying.
Jasper had gone from being an enthusiastic stalker to an incredibly excited one, and was most disappointed when the buck suddenly jumped and disappeared without a trace into the thick brash, with no opportunity to follow. We stalked up quietly to where we had last seen him, and thought it would be a favourable plan to wait to see if he would show himself at the other end, as there were still numerous deer moving.
We got set up on the sticks and waited with fingers crossed, hoping he would appear. The sheep in the far field had seen our movements and headed down thinking they were going to get an early feed. A big buck appeared 80 metres away and into the ditch line. We instantly spotted the tusks, but I wasn’t convinced on the colour, and couldn’t see the ripped ear. We stood there spying with the binoculars at this particular buck, not realising that Mr Ripped Ear was in hot pursuit, and suddenly he appeared in the binoculars’ view, attacking the other buck. Jasper didn’t need to be told twice, and waited for the buck to come out of the ditch line and present the perfect position to get the buck on the deck. He was thrilled with his ripped-eared monster, but also amazed that such a small body weight and size could produce such big tusks.
The second buck is one we took off an area that has a lower density of Chinese water deer, but still having numbers that are unacceptable to the farmer. In this particular area they are very aware and alert to anyone on foot. They must have had a lot of poaching that season.
Ole had come over from Germany with his fiancé to hunt muntjac and Chinese water deer. They had bagged a couple of cracking muntjac, and he was set on taking a good Chinese buck.
We set off early afternoon to do a perimeter walk of this particular area, the plan being to stalk back into the centre as it got darker. After walking the first boundary edge, we had seen several animals, but they were seriously on their toes, spotting us a good field and a half away and not giving us a chance to get in closer.
We decided to head back into the centre early because our plan was not working, and one of the centre fields was stubble, with wild bird mix sown through, giving them lots of cover. We stalked up to the centre oak tree to give us a good viewpoint, with the wind blowing perfectly into us. Animals seemed to appear from under every leaf; my theory that not many animals would be here owing to poaching pressure was quite incorrect. They were using this field as a sanctuary.
Eventually, a large-bodied animal came trotting through the cover towards us. We could see he was a very good buck. The buck seemed to have other things on his mind and travelled at speed past us and towards the boundary hedge. Somehow, he knew there was a rival animal in the area, and flushed a lesser buck from the ditch line, which he pursued closely, thrashing his tusks into the buck’s flanks. They disappeared into the neighbouring field and out of view.
I turned and told Ole to set up in the direction of where he had disappeared, as the buck would soon be back to his territory. In that moment the buck was in full tilt back towards his domain. I prepared Ole for the shot on the sticks, and the buck was obliging too well, as I had to stop him charging towards us with a sharp loud bark. He put on the brakes, and Ole dropped the buck on the spot. We had an exceptional hunt, with a great-quality buck and a seriously long walk home carrying this buck – he was one of the biggest Chinese water deer bucks I have ever carried.
It’s amazing how you can encounter two mature bucks of similar age with a very similar quality of tusks, but that are so different in other ways.