Testing tracks

David Barrington Barnes gets to grips with his old nemesis – fallow does – during the winter cull, but it takes a change of technique to get the job done

My regular readers will be aware of the bane of my deerstalking life: fallow does. If any species and gender of animal seems to have been put on this earth to try my patience, fallow does fit the bill perfectly. My grudge against them is quite gender specific – it certainly does not extend to the male of this species.

I start my male fallow deer cull as soon as it’s open season in early August, and combine some very sporting stalking with a proper management plan. Restricting the male cull to prickets and sorrels on the whole enables me to reduce the numbers of males in that cohort, and save the crops and woodlands from the attention of upwards of twenty guzzling young bucks. Having weighed in grallochs at up to 17lbs, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that I am assisting the profitability of the estate’s farming and forestry enterprises by this cull.

My team have long since got ahead of the prickets, and the cull is achieved by a mixture of high seat and ‘spot and stalk’ work. My stalking partner, Jason, is particularly energetic and adept at this job and has achieved several rights and lefts and, once, a triple. From a sporting standpoint, I myself delight in checking out discreet, grassy corners and then setting up a ground ambush overlooking these. Tracks from the woodland edge to these ‘restaurant’ areas are easy enough to see, and when these are supported by ripped vegetation, fresh droppings and couching beds I know it’s only a matter of waiting for a favourable wind before I am in business. It’s then I like to hang a long bipod off my rifle and sit quietly as the summer evening fades away, confident of a shot at a last light pricket. Often enough, this is exactly the outcome!

Well-worn run: Snow highlights the deer’s favourite routes and feeding spots

In the course of this cull, the does are always in evidence, so much so that they and the calves are often in danger of tripping over me. Seemingly quite incautious, they are feeding greedily against the hard times ahead. If not in these set aside corners, they are out in the crops, and oilseed rape, field beans and wheat are particularly fancied.

And it’s the harvesting of these crops, followed by the immediate cultivating, ploughing and reseeding of the fields, that makes these female deer so hard to stalk. The fields provide a feast until harvest, where they are deserts of famine until the drilled corn provides a bite again, which, with some exceptions, will likely be in the following March. With no incentive to come out, the fallow does hole up in the woods, the most favoured of which are sanctuaries off my ground, and can sit out the hours of daylight in safety, only emerging, if at all, at night. As a legitimate, law-compliant deerstalker I am unlikely to see them, let alone shoot them.

The one exception to their nocturnal predilection is in snow. As soon as snow settles and looks if it will stay, I get out on the ground to see what and who is about. Fallow deer tracks are easy enough to identify on heavy land, and even easier in snow, and study of these confirms their paths and crossing points and gives an idea of numbers.
In the 2011 winter there was a good fall and, with high pressure, the weather turned crisp and cold, but with blue sky and sunshine on the top of the day. I scouted out heavy tracking on the south face of our big wood and sat up there in both the early morning and evening without seeing any appreciable deer activity. The sub zero temperatures made these vigils bone-chillingly cold, and all the colder for being unrewarding.

Doe down: A doe and a follower fell to David’s carefully planned ambush

One morning, on a hunch, I decided on a change of plan. I would lie in and then visit the site on the top of the day. Arriving at the estate at midday with a sandwich and a flask seemed all wrong. The bright winter sun, blue sky and snow covered fields made me feel I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Only the knowledge that fallow deer had been making the tracks I had observed kept me to my task, and I sidled into a high seat at the north end of the wood as discreetly as possible. Once settled there the midday sun was so warm and pleasant that I unzipped my top jacket.

Only a few minutes later it was ‘action stations’. Parcels of fallow were coming on to the field in front of me from all directions. Some were stepping out of the wood, with others trekking over from another wood in front of me. There must have been fifty beasts on the field, which was a big one, and the draw was a combination of the warm sun and the drilled wheat. Some does could be seen scraping the snow away to get at the corn, with others just enjoying the sunshine. It was a pretty sight.

It was with just a twinge of regret that I realised my shot would break up this party. This only lasted until I recalled the run-around that these self same fallow does had given me. Sitting very still, I waited for an opportunity. There was a deal of movement among the deer on the field, but it was an incoming doe and follower that provided my shot. For whatever reason the doe, which had come from the wood opposite me, wanted to come in to the wood on the face of which I was in ambush. She came on at speed, bringing the follower with her, and I had to shout twice to stop her. She lurched to the shot and dropped in the woodland edge. The follower retreated twenty yards, stopped, looked, and was also shot.

By the time she fell the field was clear, and only the tracks of fallow deer in the snow showed that they had been there at all. There being no purpose in waiting futher, I did what I had to do and made my own tracks for home.

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