The Buck Cull

Older bucks keep their winter colours for longer

So you’ve assessed your population – now which bucks do you actually shoot this season? Roe authority Dominic Griffith has some indispensable advice

While the doe cull can often present a challenge, the buck cull is a relatively relaxed affair. The season is long, the days are long, and the weather is more conducive to spending time in the woods.

Although many stalkers like to get out on 1 April, I believe they would do better to wait. There are several factors that influence stalking success: temperature, air pressure, moon phase, wind, rain, availability of feed, undergrowth, and relative territorial activity among the bucks.

In April, new grazing starts to become available but it is often cold, the wind bites, and territorial behaviour becomes subdued. Stalking bucks in those circumstances can be a depressing affair. In May, the average temperature is higher, browse becomes plentiful, and territorial behaviour intensifies.

Stalker and quarry operate on completely different time, space, and sensory planes. The temporal aspect of stalking, which is critical to your chances of coming across the right buck at the right time and in the right place to permit a safe shot, is limiting enough. Add the deer’s different use of its senses, and its different understanding of topography (where, for example, thick bramble bushes do not represent a barrier), then it is perhaps extraordinary that stalker and quarry ever come together.

To increase the chances of colliding with your buck, it helps if he is moving around. In late May, the bucks are at their most active outside the rut, and are readily stalked despite the growth of ground cover. I have spent many miserable days stalking in April trying to ‘beat the cover’, but enjoyed unprecedented success in late May. Furthermore, it just does not seem right to be stalking a buck in its coat change, and with uncoloured antlers.

Antler condition and positiong can indicate a buck’s age. Photo: Andy Lovel

Selection of bucks to be included in the cull often produces fierce debate. In my opinion there are only two important criteria. Firstly you have got to have some idea of what is on the ground in spring (so you have got to spend some time doing a census), and secondly you have got to ensure the cull removes a representative slice of the population, targeting the older age classes, sparing the young middle-aged (or improving) bucks, and taking the required number of yearlings.

The important points are to fix the number of bucks to be culled, to avoid shooting the younger middle-aged bucks, and to be aware of the mistakes you are bound to make. Longer-term success will rely upon your ability to make as few ageing mistakes as possible, and this is something which comes only with years of experience, and even then is not infallible.

Ageing mistakes lead to a cull that is essentially a random slice of the population – but as long as it is truly random, it is unlikely that long-term mismanagement will occur. Unfortunately too many stalkers set aside their mistakes and continue the cull without amendment to the cull plan. If you have stalked buck ‘A’, shot buck ‘B’ by mistake and found that he was not as good or as old as you had hoped, then I’m afraid that either Buck ‘A’ has to be spared for the season, or if he is so old that he will die anyway, then you must make a commensurate reduction in next year’s cull.

I have found the most useful live indicator to be the angle of the coronet. Where the coronets are flat, obvious and close together, the buck is almost certainly young. Where the coronets are sloping in the form of a ‘roof’, and positioned apart, then the buck is almost certainly old. This may be difficult to see at 100 metres in poor light, but it is amazing how few stalkers check the bases of the antlers, instead getting carried away by height and bright points, which can be misleading.

Coat change is another useful indicator – old bucks tend to retain their winter coats into late May. Gait is also important: unstressed, an old buck will hold its head low and patrol his territory with quiet confidence, while a younger buck will be constantly alert and looking around him, holding the head high. Sharp white tines are associated with youth; short, blunt tines and swept-back antlers are associated with age. A fat belly will often mean an old beast – as its teeth begin to wear, a deer will find digestion and conversion of cellulose increasingly difficult, and a starving deer will often die with a full belly rather than an empty one.

Having established how many you are going to shoot, how do you decide whether a buck that appears is to be included in the cull or not? Firstly, there must always be a conscious decision-making process, and secondly you must remember what has happened previously. Is the cull progressing according to plan, or have you made so many mistakes that you cannot afford to make another? It is no good completing your target cull in numbers, and then adding another half dozen because up to now you haven’t shot any really old bucks.

Once shot, it is important to check the carcase for all the other ageing indicators. It is often said that the man who really knows the age is the one who boils the trophy. While a young middle-aged buck is an easy job, with the meat almost falling off after 25 minutes boiling, an old buck can be a fearsome job with the sinews adhering to the skull and doubling the time taken in cleaning.

The cleaning process provides an extremely useful check of age based on ossification of the central nasal bone. The principle is that as the buck ages, the central nasal bone, in youth made up from flexible cartilage, becomes steadily more ossified along its length, the ossification starting from the inner part of the nasal system and progressing right into the extremity of the nose.

Photo: Andy Lovel

Having completed the boil, there is another very useful, but perhaps less reliable, check on age, based on examination of the pedicle. Firstly the pedicle shortens with age, and secondly there is a correlation between the thickness of pedicle against the thickness of antler at a point about 2cm above the coronet. A thin pedicle and thick antler will tend to indicate youth; a thick pedicle and a weak antler may indicate age.

Medal trophies have formed an important part of my life as a professional deer manager, and are indicative of the continuing success of deer management input. But I do not go out to shoot all the medal trophies that I see in a particular season. I assess a buck’s propriety for culling by age class, and i f it has a good head, then so be it. So medal-class trophies are represented in the cull at the same percentage as they exist in the census. Medal heads often take us by surprise. Tall trophies, which at 100 metres look outstanding, often suggest youth and thus are liable to fall disappointingly below medal class. Short, thick heads often deceive in the other direction, and give a pleasant surprise.

In summary, although a full count and accurate ageing in the field is impossible, and mistakes are bound to occur, it is still possible to take a structured and deliberate cull that broadly targets the very young and the very old, while sparing the middle-aged. Best practice is difficult to achieve, but poor practice is readily avoidable.

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