Image: Christoph Ruisz / Getty
I have always believed that deer deserve our utmost respect and that our attitude to their management must reflect that deeply-held esteem and admiration. It is a privilege to manage deer and the sense of achievement in seeing a healthy, stable herd of the highest quality is something to which we should all aspire.
Before you can truly manage deer you need to know what is on the ground. If you are to recognise changes in population it is essential to conduct an annual census, and to undertake this at the same time of year in as similar conditions as possible so that one year can be compared against another and trends up or down become instantly recognisable. Clearly the most effective time of year to see the maximum activity is in March, when the deer are emerging from winter inappetence, the does are taking in as much food as they can in anticipation of their impending fawning and the bucks are beginning to compete for and establish their territories. As I have said before, for these reasons I do not believe that this is the time of year for continuing the doe cull. If possible, complete the doe cull by the end of February, give the deer a rest and complete the census as a separate task. Census done from the car, provided you do not habitually shoot deer from motor vehicles, causes them little or no stress as deer quickly learn to differentiate between predatory and benign activity. As well as giving you a total count, a census should also indicate sex ratio, age class banding, and quality.
Once you know what you have got, you can make a plan based on those statistics. Of course you can never expect to see and record every single roe, and an allowance for unseen deer should be made dependent on the type of habitat. For example, in the open farm woodland habitat of central southern England it is probably possible to directly count 70 per cent or more of your population. In dense woodland the number unseen will clearly be much higher, and you must make a judgement based on your specific habitat. Nevertheless, this ‘sample’ method of census is robust and if numbers observed remain stable when compared to the previous year, then the cull too can remain the same. If, however, the numbers have increased or decreased so too should your cull plan reflect those changes. The cull plan should look to the coming buck season and beyond. It can be useful to plan what should be taken in April and May, and what should be left until the rut or even after. You should even know how many does you are aiming to cull the following winter.
In undertaking a survey, one class of animal is easily identifiable, but I would still recommend carrying a spotting scope to ensure the best opportunity to identify particular animals. Adult bucks should be recorded, described, aged and even photographed if possible. The very oldest may well be clean by March and, if not, the velvet may already have taken on a shrunken and less fleshy appearance. Territories should be broadly established but the middle-aged bucks will be constantly attempting to improve their standing by competing for the very best territories. The adult bucks are the indicators of good management and they are also the most vulnerable class of animal to over-exploitation. Over the years, the number of stalkers and the amount of ground stalked have both increased. In the old days there was always a pool of replacement bucks to fill any gaps caused by local over-culling. The same is not true today and we must all be sensitive to maintaining sufficient mature males to satisfy a cull plan. The 30 per cent rule stands today as well as it did 30 years ago. If you have 10 adult bucks on your ground then three may safely be included in the cull plan, particularly if you are able to select the oldest three. If you overshoot one year you have to hold back the next. You simply cannot sustainably shoot more than 30 per cent of what you have, and so counting and recording what you see is of utmost importance to the cull plan.
March is also the month with the lowest cover. Brash is easily burnt and it is certainly the time to address any clearance needed around high seats or in stalking rides. Although constant attention is needed through the summer as extending leafy branches begin to obscure shooting lines, major chain-saw works are best performed now when visibility and access is at its best. High seat maintenance should also be carried out and any suspect timbers replaced. Health and Safety legislation requires a regular and recorded maintenance programme for all equipment so it’s also time to inspect and service the rifle after a winter of intense use. Rifles should not lose their zero, but occasionally they do. Even a new batch of ammunition from your regular supplier may change its zero a little, little enough not perhaps to be noticed during the season but either way now is the time to check and double check.
So there you have it: just five of the things you might want to do before the roebuck season starts. Complete the census, record the bucks, create a cull plan, check your high seats and maintain your equipment. So there is plenty of essential non-culling work to do in March, and not enough time to do it if you are still shooting. Hang up the rifle for a month – it will give both you and the deer a rest – and concentrate on planning the coming year.