By the time you read this, it will be November, and the winter cull can begin. Indeed, it must begin now if success is to be guaranteed. The fallow rut is drawing to a close but there is still enough activity to ensure a good start can be made with those normally elusive does. The prickets and bucks will move first of an evening, and it is more important than ever to show patience and self-discipline in allowing these bucks to move on while you wait for the does, which inevitably leave it until last light before emerging from cover. In my experience, if you exercise such discipline, early November can account for as many fallow does as the eight weeks that follow.
The game shooting season is in full swing, and all deer will adapt their behaviour and feeding patterns to cope with that disturbance. Most keepers will still be tolerant of stalkers, particularly if using high seats and at least until the new year, by which time their birds may be much more vulnerable to being ‘walked off’ the estate by an unwary foot stalker. In any event, all stalkers should be sensitive to release pens and to disturbing pheasants as they go to roost. Therefore, these early weeks create opportunities that will become scarcer and scarcer as the winter deepens to the shortest day.
Stubbles are generally much rarer now owing to changes in farming practice. Minimum cultivation means the previous crop is quickly sprayed off and the next season’s crop drilled. Where stubbles are left, the roe will take full advantage – wheat and bean stubbles are a particular favourite. As the daylight shortens, so does relative deer activity, and the early weeks of November are key to making headway with the roe does. I have always found it a particularly good time to identify those really old does, usually distinguished by the shape of the skull as rudimentary pedicles begin to form under the skin. Perhaps surprisingly, these does are still likely to have twins at foot, as borne out by FC research at Alice Holt, which showed that roe does become increasingly fertile, in terms of the percentage pregnant and the number of kids per pregnancy, until the age of eight. When it comes to culling policy, therefore, it makes sense to adopt a ‘kid first’ strategy at least until the new year when targeting these old does.
Once you get past the third week of November, it is my experience that you might as well pack up and go on holiday – which is exactly what the deer appear to do. The return on time invested declines exponentially as the month advances to the extent that by the end of November you begin to wonder where the deer have gone, or worse still, whether poachers have been in. The reason for this is, of course, the impact of winter inappetence, which is a natural biological coping mechanism for animals overwintering when food is in short supply. Triggered by day length, it can be described as partial hibernation, and its impact is a requirement for less food and a corresponding and visible decrease in activity. The process begins to reverse after the winter equinox, but only becomes really noticeable in the first few weeks of January. Suddenly the deer are active again, and progressively more active right up to the end of the season.
While fallow are much less weather-sensitive, roe are manifestly so. To stalk roe in wet and windy conditions is almost always a waste of time. Dry and cold weather, however, is great, and during such spells, roe will be found grazing the winter corn or lying up in the sparse hedgerows and fence lines of the winter landscape. At this time, roe can sensibly be stalked all day, especially in farm woodland environments where they will take advantage of winter sun and step out of cover to lie up. Save the wet days for a careful stalk through the forest for a group of fallow. In fact, the wetter and windier the better – just remember that even a large group of fallow can occupy only a few square metres of forest floor. Extreme caution must be made in the approach, almost literally one step at a time and with a good spy between each step. With dozens of eyes potentially alert to movement, it is an enormous challenge, but one worth the effort.
For better visibility, a snowy day is always a bonus. Inevitably necessitating a long crawl clothed with suitable camouflage, a clear day after a heavy snowfall makes resting and feeding roe very visible. Once they are preoccupied with scraping a hole through which to feed, a slow and methodical approach can be made that ensures an interesting mixture of extreme cold from the ground and extreme heat from the exertion of the crawl. It is much rarer an experience today than it was 30 years ago, but it brings a different challenge within a suite of methods and techniques available to fulfil the challenge of the winter cull.
The season for roe and fallow does is shorter than that for the bucks and is necessarily further shortened through days lost to bad weather and the pressures of game shooting. The extension of the roe doe season into March has now been with us for 10 years but I personally continue to be uncomfortable with that change in legislation. Fallow does calve at least a month after roe and their close season allows some two full months of peace and quiet before calving. With roe calving as early as late April, I simply cannot adjust to their close season starting just a few weeks before that date. To that end I believe it makes good sense to complete the roe cull by the end of February, but to do this undoubtedly requires the best use of time and resources through the challenging months of winter.
February is the most useful month. Game shooting has finished, the does are active and the days are lengthening. Groups of fallow emerge from the woods in the middle of the day to lie out in the sun; in my experience this can lead to many more productive opportunities than normal evening and morning stalking. Repetitive behaviour of any sort must, however, be avoided as fallow learn patterns of predatory behaviour all too quickly and will adjust their own behaviour accordingly. February, too, is the month to conduct collaborative culls. These are very effective if done just once a year, even giving the opportunity to start and complete culls in a single day. Almost too effective for roe, but an essential element of a successful fallow cull if groups of estates can come together on a single day to address these transitory herds.
As ever, the buck cull is the easy part of deer management, with long evenings, a long season and predictable patterns of territorial or rutting behaviour. The real key to successful deer management lies with the doe cull and the many challenges that it presents.