What makes a good buck?

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Leading trophy measurer and roe expert Dominic Griffith looks at the variables that contribute to roebuck antler development

Taken over the past 20 or more years, the annual variation in quality of roebucks remains an enigma that captivates and puzzles all roe enthusiasts alike. We’ve had some great years (most notably 1991, 2002 and 2006) and some shockers too (few will forget a miserable 2007). But why is there such a variation from year to year? With many theories put forward, it is worth examining what may or may not be the case.

Surely the most compelling argument must be quite simply food and shelter. Provided the buck has a sufficient food intake to ensure a surplus to put into his antler development, and provided that the weather conditions are no worse than average, then surely he will flourish? Sadly even this simple concept has flaws – what do we mean by good weather? I remember when I started stalking professionally we used to reckon that the deer ‘needed a bit of snow on their backs’, which ‘made them work for their food’ to create good antlers. Maybe what we meant by this was enough cold to kill or suppress the ecto-parasites, taken alongside the natural association between a cold, dry winter as against a mild, wet and windy one.

Add to that pot the concept that Vitamin D from a winter of relatively high winter sunshine hours might also benefit calcium development. Clearly it takes less energy to simply keep warm as compared to keeping dry and warm, so the former ensures surplus nutrient for antler development. As for winter sunshine and Vitamin D, it seems to make sense. I wish it were that simple, but recent years have tended to bring dry, cold winters, and without the results that might have been predicted.

I’ve seen some truly awful years. Low sunshine hours, the wettest Novembers and Decembers on record, cold snaps without the associated clarity of air that normally follows snow. In these situations it seems the roe will have no chance – but who knows?

If food is important, and to some degree it must be, then surely high protein food must be a key component. The most common source of high protein food is sourced in pheasant feed – predominantly in wheat. Where roe have access to high protein agricultural crops and in particular to a commercial pheasant shoot, they certainly thrive. This explains why central Southern England and the central agricultural belt of Scotland regularly produce the finest heads, but it does not explain the annual fluctuation in that quality. That said, I concede that one estate I know was formerly famous for its roe quality when at the same time it supported an extremely intensive commercial shoot. The shoot was closed down some years ago, and there seems little doubt that this is reflected to some extent in an apparent current overall reduction in roe quality.

Photo: Andy Lee

Some say that access to the best ‘territory’ within the stalking area is the most significant aspect of antler development, and that may well be true but, again, it fails to explain this annual variation within overall good quality. Furthermore, trials in the UK with salt licks or feed supplements are inconclusive, the roe being inherent browsers and having sufficient natural browse here to satisfy them.

Richard Prior, universally considered to be the greatest authority on roe, was interested in a theory which was proposed by the Duke of Bavaria that the most important aspect of a great buck was its birth year. So instead of examining the winter immediately preceding the year of antler development, we should instead be examining whether the buck was born in one of these great birth years when presumably all the kids had a better than average start to their lives. This is an absolutely fascinating argument, and one which I have long considered. I have no idea if it may be the nemesis, but I am worried about the association in that it fails to tally with how bucks often develop in the first year. When selecting bucks as yearlings it is common practice to select on antler development and many stalkers will quite reasonably shoot their cull of yearlings simply from those with antlers ‘below the ears’. However, the records show that such bucks are often the heaviest, and indeed that just as often those ‘wonderful yearling six pointers’ are frequently found to be the skinniest and weakest in body condition. Nowadays my own view is to cull yearlings based on body condition alone, almost regardless of antler development.

Other eminent roe experts have suggested that the quality of the bucks is solely down to the quality of the dam (the mother doe). If this is the case then sadly there is little we can do to influence the outcome. It does not seem a convincing argument to me, but cannot be discounted.

One thing is true: the number and range of quality roe is increasing. Twenty years ago, despite roe being present in Yorkshire and Cumbria, bucks of medal class were virtually unknown. Today both counties contribute regularly to the annual reviews.

The argument of genetics versus environment remains unclear, although there seems little doubt that the roe of Hampshire derived from two separate sources, one from Sussex and one from Dorset. The Sussex buck was always identifiable as a narrow, heavy and well-pearled trophy. The Dorset buck tended to be wider, more regular and less pearled. It seems that Hampshire, un-colonised until the early 70s, may have benefited from some hybrid vigour, inheriting the best characteristics of both sources.

Trophy heads aren’t just luck… a sound management plan is required to create them

The Norfolk roe definitely have smaller skulls, but is this down to genetic or environmental factors? Norfolk and Suffolk now both contribute the occasional trophy to the annual reviews, though they rarely did a decade ago. But overall quality is one thing, the annual variation is quite another.

In another 25 years I would love to be in a position to answer this conundrum but, in the meantime, the only influence we can have is in the basics of overall quality. We cannot choose which county we live in, but that is clearly an important factor. We cannot necessarily influence the farming practices, but would hope for mixed cropping (with a bias towards winter wheat) and low livestock levels. We cannot necessarily influence the forestry policy, but would hope for mixed farm woodland with good understorey, plenty of edge and within an environment of mixed species and age class. If there is a pheasant shoot, so much the better as that will ensure no shortage of winter food and cover and the possibility of some high protein supplement.

For our part, we must allow our bucks to live a stress-free existence and where possible employ low pressure management techniques. Finally, and most importantly, we must allow them to get old enough to develop to their greatest potential.

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