Editor-in-chief Pete Carr looks at the unpredictable month of April in roe stalking terms and relates an April stalking anecdote from the beginning of the 2018 season
The first day of April may be a day of foolery for most of the nation, but for stalkers it is one of the most important dates in the calendar: the opening day of the roebuck season. Here in the UK we are fortunate in comparison to the rest of our European cousins, whose roebuck seasons mostly start a month or so later.
In terms of roebuck stalking, April is a fickle month. An early spring with sun and warmth will ramp up territorial activity and bucks will be out and about asserting their authority and displacing interlopers on ‘their patch’.
Dominant bucks will be doing their regular rounds marking and scraping in strategic points, basically leaving the ‘hard word’ for any prospective bucks chancing their luck at a bit of prime territory.
Evicted bucks are immediately obvious by their demeanour and temporary homes on the periphery of good territory – these form the greater percentage of road traffic accidents (RTAs). It’s no surprise that roe deer RTAs increase in April and May during the territorial phase, and again in July and August during the rut.
Though it’s mostly the periphery bucks in spring that become RTA victims, during the rut I’ve noticed a higher loss of the established bucks. I have a theory as to why this is so: During the spring territorial phase the fight’s often won quickly and the master buck loses interest in pursuit once the interloper decides it’s best to get out of Dodge and turns tail to run.
The winner puts in a half-hearted chase before breaking off to complete his territorial rounds of scent marking, fray marking and flexing his muscles with any other chancers threatening his dominance. However, during the rut the master bucks are nothing but fixated on procreation and fighting anything that threatens their dominance over the does in their territory.
Bucks are far more aggressive towards interlopers during the rut, and they will chase them harder and for longer. Unfortunately if there are a lot of roads in the area, this can be disastrous. A buck with his blood up in hot pursuit has little thought for oncoming cars and often end up paying the penalty. I’ve a lot of roads across the ground I manage and I can say from experience it’s a devastating blow to find a prime buck dead at the roadside.
Equally, April can be a frustrating month if it’s a late spring, especially if that is accompanied by cold north-easterly winds. The resident roe deer will bevvy back up into family groups and territorial activity will be virtually non-existent save for the older bucks becoming increasingly impatient towards last year’s male followers.
Roe stalking is my number one passion. I’m fortunate enough to manage a few adjacent Yorkshire acres that, combined, add up to a sizeable block, which allows me to implement a considered cull plan and generally have maintained a healthy population of roe deer and antler quality and kept deer damage down to an accepted minimum.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to harvest some excellent old stagers, and looking at their antlers on the wall brings back fond memories. However, these days I’d rather take a guest to stalk an old stager who’s reached his time and let them have the experience of stalking an old buck with a good head. I do occasionally get out to engage a good buck if the situation demands ‘immediate action’, though. The following two roebuck anecdote illustrates one such buck, a perfect ‘season start’ in any stalker’s book.
The keeper had noted ‘a real big bugger’ at the far west of the estate living up an old overgrown hedgerow that followed a land-drain that was effectively the estate boundary.
On the opposite of the boundary were a number of small paddocks and then allotments that serviced the local village. It wasn’t an ideal territory for such a bruiser so I headed off to check the ‘big bugger’ out at the earliest opportunity.
The Shooting Show cameraman Stuart Wilson and I spotted the buck on the first recce as we headed down the boundary drain in the ATV. He was indeed an old boy with a thick neck and a heavy-looking set of antlers. The buck bounced across the drain and stood his ground for a few moments as we pulled up, allowing us to check him out in the Swaros.
He was unperturbed and after a while turned away and showed us his hooves as he cantered down the drain side, skipped back over to the other side and disappeared into the hawthorns. That he was old, there was no doubt. That he carried a medal-class head, there was no doubt. That he was on the boundary and in a bad place, there was no doubt.
It was simple and the right decision to try and take him, but it wouldn’t be easy. The ground was flat, I had no high seats in this area, and there was little cover on my side of the boundary. Stuart was excited – he’d always wanted to capture a medal buck hunt on film and I was happy to oblige. Having a cameraman in tow always increased the challenge and this was going to be a very interesting hunt indeed.
However, try as we might, this buck proved elusive, with the added challenges of topography (or lack of it), excessive rain (which made the drain impossible to stalk down), lapwings of all things (which dive bombed us with a vociferous and very effective alarm call), and not least the buck’s unnatural ability for self-preservation.
My average is three outings for one buck but I am selective. I’d engaged this particular buck nine times, five of which were with Stuart, all to no avail. Then one sunny Sunday afternoon, the War Office declared, “Why don’t we go stalking”? I don’t need asking twice and as we’d just had a ploughman’s lunch (I’m not big on Sunday roasts), I grabbed the Merkel RX Helix, trigger sticks and Swaros, and away we went.
Approaching the allotment buck’s corner, I cut the engine on the Ford Ranger and the vehicle crunched to a halt on the gravel road. This part of the farm track was slightly raised and afforded a good view of the surrounding area. Spy as I might, I couldn’t pick him out along the drain or under the hawthorns. What I could see was the lapwings still in residence.
It was a west wind and I would have to get past them unnoticed, so I had to tell the War Office that unfortunately it would be too difficult for us to both stalk in and she would have to remain in the truck and observe events unfold. That, as you can imagine, wiped out a month’s worth of ‘brownie points’ in one go. Unperturbed, I grabbed the rifle and sticks, winked at the wife and put in a big loop to gain access to the drain unseen.
This was going to be difficult and uncomfortable. To get past the lapwings I’d have to be in the drain. This meant wet feet for sure as it was flowing at least a foot deep. Thankfully it had a chalk bottom so it lent itself to wading, but I was still going to get wet.
I slid into the dyke and felt a refreshing breeze full in the face that boded well. The water spilled over my boot tops as expected, and I moved off, careful not to move to quickly and make a splash. My feet soon warmed up as I moved forward and it couldn’t have been a more pleasant April morning.
The primroses were in full display along the banksides and a dipper moved on in front of me, stopping and bobbing his displeasure at this trespasser ruining his daily business. A kingfisher buzzed past – it really couldn’t have been a more delightful afternoon for anyone deranged enough to want to wade down a dyke.
Once I came to the first bend, I knew I was past the lapwings. I crawled up the bank, pushed my nose through the primroses and spied the land… nothing. There was no sign of the buck and the only thing of note I could see was that the wife had lost all interest in proceedings and was chatting away on her mobile inside the truck’s cab.
I carried on to the next half-bend and pulled myself up the bank again, but still the same result. I reached the boundary and stopped at the brick culvert that served as a gated bridge to the next-door property and allotments.
Clambering up the bank side without much care and attention – I’d virtually given up at this stage – I was surprised to hear a commotion at the other side of the culvert that was on the neighbour’s land and somewhat overgrown. The buck burst out of the cover and ran out into the barley on my side.
I made the last step up onto the bank top, deployed the trigger sticks and rested the rifle. The buck, bless him, stopped and looked back, and I fitted to the Helix, ran the illuminated dot up his front leg, hovered over his heart, exhaled and touched off the shot. The buck reared, I reloaded, he ran 20 yards, crumpled, and kicked out a few times as life left him.
I gave him a few minutes and walked over to him. The shot had been good and he’d died well. He was a real old stager. He’d no doubt traded hoof and antler with numerous bucks and taken as many tumbles with the does and had a good life. He was one of the best bucks, if not the best buck, I’d ever grassed. It had been his time and I’d done the job well. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
I WhatsApped a photo of the buck to Stuart, who replied with a message questioning my parentage. I had after all promised him he could film this buck, but it wasn’t to be. He’ll get over it – I think!