Managing ground for deer comes with great responsibility. It is so much more than merely shooting deer. Just to shoot deer at every opportunity without considering the animal makes the stalker nothing more than a killer. True stalkers are deer managers, and as such are conservationists by default.
There’s a huge difference between ‘preservationist’ and ‘conservationist’. The former wants to protect wildlife at all costs (even to the detriment of the animals themselves); the latter believes in sustainable use and management best practice for the better good of the species, locally and nationally. Boiled down, conservation in the stalking sense equates to the wise use of a renewable resource.
There’s a huge number of variables involved in managing any deer species, all relative to the area of ground. Small stalking permissions can only be effectively managed if you have co-operation with neighbours and an agreed management plan. The temptation is to take all your chances in case the neighbour fills his freezer or bags your best buck (most often the one that should be left), but this will put too much pressure on the resident deer. Larger areas can be better managed as one has complete control over what to shoot, or more importantly, not to shoot. When the stalker starts passing up beasts because they are in their prime, and turns their attention to finding the correct animal to cull, they have become a true deer manager.
The biggest problem I’ve found over the years is getting ‘buy-in’ from the other land users on the ground. Selling the cull plan to the estate manager or farmer is often a challenge as other stakeholders may have a biased opinion. Left of the arc is a member of the Bambi brigade (a preservationist), who sits in a land-use seat of power and would be happy to dispense with your services if he or she could. On the right of the arc you have a forester who sees every deer as his living nemesis and pressures you to wipe them out.
Fortunately, these are extremes, and despite experiencing both of them, I did eventually sell a management plan to both, through carefully considered conservation principles and the reinforcement of sound sustainable use. The first was won over by pointing out that taking out recreational stalking guests would not only assist the management plan but would also generate revenue to the landholding. Indeed, the lady in question is now a stalker herself. The second took more convincing, but once he’d seen that leaving a dominant buck in an area of young trees actually meant less damage, he was won over. Diplomacy is the one aspect of deer management that is most often overlooked, but it is crucial – not only to one’s land lease, but also to the management of the deer therein.
As a rule of thumb, the stalker should cull around 30 per cent of bucks and 30 per cent of does on their ground each year. (There will be more does than bucks.) Counting deer in spring has become easier since NV and thermal imaging equipment became available to the stalker for observation purposes. That said, these are not the sole solution – there is no substitute for time spent in the field, when you will get a good idea not only of numbers but also of habits, and assess individual deer with a view to cull or not.
Shooting females is the only way to restrict a free-living deer population. Shoot all the bucks out and natural immigration of displaced bucks will fill the vacuum. With it will come excessive damage to young trees through frantic fraying marking new territories. Does are the key to keeping the balance. There is a lot of guidance in stalking literature about selecting bucks, but little attention is given to selecting does. Again, sticking to general terms, one should attempt to cull 60 per cent young and 40 per cent old. The selection of young during the doe season is simple, as the kids will be following their mother and be easily identifiable by deference and size alone. It is still essential to accurately sex the followers, and that will take more effort.
Shooting mature does without kids at foot is relatively straightforward. However, this is where previous time spent in the field is invaluable. The attentive stalker will know if a doe has lost her kid and is therefore not barren. This is more prevalent in the northern blocks of sitka spruce, where life is much harder. Foxes are more plentiful and more attuned to seeking out the yearly crop of fresh-born, vulnerable roe kids, which are undoubtedly a short-lived but significant food source for hill foxes in the annual cycle of life. The point is, don’t take it for granted that a roe doe without followers is a barren animal. Barren does are best identified in late spring – an obvious lack of pregnancy is better noted then, and the doe can be watched with an eye to cull as soon as the season opens.
Shooting the required number of does is much harder than bucks. Everyone is eager to head out after a buck in the spring and summer mornings, when one mostly has the woods to oneself. The winter months are a different thing altogether. Daylight is short, the weather more inclement, and when it comes to land use, game shooting takes precedence. I tend to harvest as many earmarked does and followers in the first half of November, before game shooting really gets going, and then pick my times through the shooting season until February. Once game shooting is over, I move up a gear and try to get my cull done by the end of the month. Ideally, I will leave March quiet, let the deer settle down and assess what I have buckwise for the season to come.
The problem with leaving the doe cull to February is the work involved. Chances must be maximised, and when conditions are conducive to stalking, one must postpone other obligations and head to the woods.
This is the time to pool resources. Placing a number of rifles in prime positions and gently moving the deer will work wonders to fill the larder. The benefits of a concerted effort cannot be underestimated. Indeed, if organised properly with experienced rifles, one could complete the cull in a weekend. Performing the cull this way also disturbs the deer less.
Here’s how to do it: One stalker who knows the ground is usually enough to move deer to waiting rifles. Every effort must be made to get the rifles into the seats quietly and unobserved. The deer driver needs to walk carefully using little noise, and if accompanied by a dog, Fido should be at heel or kept close. Work the wind to send scent forwards to move deer slowly, not make them bolt for dear (no pun intended) life.
By the new year, kids will be savvy enough to survive without the does’ leadership, if sufficient food is to be found. Indeed, kids will be weaned before the start of the doe season, but are still dependent on the doe until after Christmas. The exception will again be northern spruce forests where roe deer scratch an existence. But there lies its own dilemma. Do you risk shooting a doe and missing an opportunity to shoot the follower, who, newly orphaned, may struggle to survive? Or do you pass and put more pressure on the already limited food supply, which could in turn result in starvation for both? The overriding imperative is to reduce the doe population, so sticking to the rules, the doe should be shot and every effort made to take the follower.
If you can shoot quickly enough, the selected doe and kid can usually both be harvested. The kid will be confused when the doe collapses, giving you an opportunity. Groups of roe (the collective noun is a bevvy) are more tricky. The stalker must keep an eye on the follower if mistakes aren’t to be made. Once the doe and her follower/s are grassed, you will have to quickly assess the remainder of the bevvy if there are others earmarked to shoot. These will quickly get over the confusion and be led away by the buck.
Culling does isn’t an art form. It’s an applied science – a basic one, but one that needs a sustained effort. The rule of thumb is to shoot a few more does than bucks. After two or three seasons you will get a good feel for your population and will increase or decrease the cull accordingly. Keeping accurate records of age, location and weights will over time help massively with population assessment, and will look professional when handed in to the estate office or farmer with your annual stalking rent.