Is April the right time to cull roebucks or is it too early? There’s not a simple answer, writes Iain Watson

For the roebuck — whether mature or a youngster — the rut used to be when he was most likely to become a statistic of a successful stalk. Today, the period of danger has spread. It seems that April Fool’s Day — or the weeks following it — is when the buck is most likely to meet his maker. UK CIC trophy records show a developing bias since the 1990s towards the early-season shooting of trophy animals, but is this now extending into the general population?

The growth in the use of social media has reached into the stalking world as it has elsewhere. The two Fs — Facebook and forums — now provide an interesting insight into the habits and views of a wide cross-section of stalkers. If the claims of success reported online are accurate in terms of the numbers of deer and the age classes that are shot, it seems that, on an anecdotal level, the “recreational deer manager” is active in his pursuit of early April bucks.

Contrast the number of stalkers today with the 1960s, when roe stalkers in particular were viewed as eccentric enthusiasts skulking about the woods and whose motivation was often questioned by their “betters” (those who pursued the “monarch of the glen”). But it’s not only the numbers of deer, and stalkers, that have changed. Our attitude towards deer and their place as part of our fauna has gone through a number of revisions. From a natural and economic asset, to arboricultural villain, a traffic hazard and, more recently, an urban invader, deer rarely seem to sustain a stable status in our view.

Change in management
As well as the way we view roe, our techniques for limiting populations have altered. The shotgun drive has long gone, replaced by high seats and that modern management technique, the controlled move, where woods are walked through to Rifles, allowing deliberate selection rather than random targeting.

For stalkers in general, our management of roe has changed enormously, largely influenced by our embracing stalker training and by the range of calibres we now have available. But there has also been a shift in the way in which many stalkers access their sport. Gone are the days of free roe stalking, replaced with structured leases and a requirement to meet pre-set cull targets. For others, the route to stalking is through the services offered by stalking guides. This can bring an expectation of instant success on the part of the client, and thus the need to obtain shots.

With the open seasons for bucks and does following each other, discussion has frequently centred on the shooting of does late in their pregnancy cycle. With bucks, less emphasis has been placed on early-season shooting, but for those of us who define ourselves as deer managers, is this any less of an issue? And is it leading to a reduction in the overall quality of the trophy roebucks that are harvested in the UK?

Looking at social media, it can be concluded — at least from the number of images that are posted on the Internet — that a high toll is being exacted on the roebuck population over the opening days of the season. Young animals seem to bear the brunt of this. So what of it? After all, it’s not a welfare issue but, if we are attempting to manage our deer, is it the correct strategy? Is it leading to undue pressure being applied to the long-term health and strength of our roe population if we excessively target the young and inexperienced?

When it comes to the culling of early-season bucks, opinions can run high. Some stalkers see no issue with the culling of young bucks while they are still in velvet. Others subscribe to the view that they should be left to clean before they are stalked. Some see the harvesting of bucks as a means of filling their home freezers, while others consider the trophy the animal has grown as the most important element.
Looking at our attitude towards shooting, it can seem a bit contradictory that, while we at times agonise over the shooting of females late in the season, we seem to have no such doubts when it comes to bucks. Reported reasons for cull decisions can make interesting reading. There seems to be a lot of young bucks with limps, and that live far too close to main roads, which happen to be close to permission boundaries, and while limping towards those roads they tend to wreak untold havoc on young trees!

I saw a telling post on a Facebook page showing a picture of a buck, which had sustained a horrific nasal shot, but survived. Someone commented that he would never shoot a buck through the head, but would do so with does to minimise meat damage. It’s important to remember that the coming of spring can be a difficult time for roe, particularly for those coming through their first winter. It’s often as winter gives way to spring that high mortality rates occur. There are widespread regional variations, as our winters become wetter and milder, so the influence of the prevailing conditions will impact on the way that animals sustain condition and, critically, are affected by parasites.

It’s also the time when deer can be at their most vulnerable. The need to forage for food, coupled with the lack of cover, mean they are easier to target. Roe that have struggled to maintain condition through the winter are not likely to be at their best for the larder.

The trophy of a lifetime
So is April the right time to cull, or should we wait until later in the season? Clearly, there can be no simple answer to this: we should all aim for a balanced cull by sex and age that benefits the landowners, the land use model, the stalker and, of course, the deer.

For the Shot taking a guided package, early April may be the ideal time to try for the trophy of a lifetime. For the manager with a young plantation to protect, maintaining the cull will most likely be a year-round chore.

If we are looking at the long-term structure of our roe population, there have to be benefits of allowing a significant percentage of young bucks through the beginning of spring. This enables the selection of those that can be culled, and to recognise those which have potential to be left to influence or strengthen the population.

While clearly our roe have to be managed, there are mutual benefits for both stalker and deer in spreading the cull over the open season. We can achieve a balanced age structure, in terms of the sport we get, the quality of the venison we eat and the trophies we take.