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A bright start on the roebucks

My shared stalking patch covers about 2,000 acres of Hampshire woodland with a few open areas of rough pasture. It is perfect roe country and produces some very high-quality bucks, big in both body and antler. We try to preserve these and do our best to weed out the poorer youngsters along with those clearly past their prime. We also have growing numbers of muntjac, which we are doing our best to keep on top of, and the occasional fallow.

Our roe management philosophy is fairly simple. A census in March confirms the number of deer present and a cull plan is devised to keep the population at an acceptable level. The buck cull focuses on the younger animals with less emphasis on mature deer. We leave the mature bucks until later in the year when we have a better idea of the overall quality of the population. By the time the rut is over in August we aim to have completed the buck cull.

Despite sharing the ground with a large pheasant shoot, a good understanding between the keeper and stalkers means that we can all get on with our business and complete the doe cull well before the end of February. Though the law now allows doe culling to go on until the end of March, I don’t like shooting heavily pregnant animals. It’s also good to be able to leave the deer in peace for a while to recover condition after the harder times of winter. Of all culling work, getting the right number of does is the truly essential part. After all, it is they who add to the overall population. Collecting a trophy for the wall is almost irrelevant in an effective deer management plan.

“A group of three roe, still only dark shapes in a field, watched me drive past as I headed for the shoot.”

There is, however, always an element of excitement about the first outing for the bucks in April. It was early morning and still dark as I drove on to the patch on a still, dry day, which promised to be fi ne and warm once the sun had risen. Ahead of the little Suzuki a muntjac doe skipped off the road verge into the brambles, its tail vertical in protest at being disturbed by the headlights. A group of three roe, still only dark shapes in a field, watched me drive past as I headed for the shoot hut. I parked up as the sky was starting to lighten, so at least I’d got my timings right. I aim for about 15 minutes before the time for sunrise given in the newspaper, which seems to work well enough.

A quick test of wind direction decided the plan for the morning. As I screwed the moderator on to the .243 Tikka, I ran through my mental checklist to make sure that I had everything. I’m a complete convert to sound moderators and fi nd that their advantages far outweigh the inconvenience of the extra weight. Finally, pointing the rifle into an earth bank for safety, I fed a round of ammunition into the breech, checked the safety catch, slung the Tikka over my shoulder, muzzle down, and set off.

My route took me up a rough track laid with clinker, so I took care to walk on the mossy edges to reduce the noise of my footfall. A squirrel bounded over the track a few yards ahead, crossing like a wisp of smoke in the early-morning light. I frequently stopped to use the binoculars to scan the surrounding woodland. It was still relatively bare but already starting to show signs of vigorous new growth. I picked nothing up for the fi rst few hundred yards beyond a foraging fox. Even though I normally shoot these on behalf of the keeper, it was too early into the stalk to disturb the woods with the sound of a shot, moderated or not.

“I couldn’t make out any sign of a tush…there was no option but to get closer and find out.”

Rounding a slight bend I spotted something pale against the green foliage 200 yards or so ahead. A scan through the glasses confirmed that a roe was feeding intently with its head and chest buried in the hedge, leaving only its rear end visible to me. Whether it was a buck or doe, I had no idea. At this distance I couldn’t make out any sign of a tush, that little inverted patch of hair at the base of the white tail patch that only female roe have, so there was no option but to get closer and find out.

Getting off the track and out of sight of the deer, I was able to advance carefully. After I thought I had halved the distance between us, I eased myself back on to the track to find that the animal had disappeared. Had it got wind of my presence or simply quietly moved on? A scan of the bushes where I had last seen it revealed branches moving — no, it was stillthere and browsing happily on the new buds. I couldn’t get any closer without revealing myself, so it was a question of being patient and waiting for it to show itself again.

After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than a couple of minutes, patience paid off. The deer stepped on to the track, revealing itself to be a doe. Even though she would not be due to give birth for another month or so at least, already her flanks bulged visibly. As I watched, she crossed the track unconcerned and disappeared into the wood.

Rather than move straight on and risk disturbing her and any other deer that might be in the vicinity, I decided to stay put for a few minutes and watch the area around me. This turned out to be the right decision as another animal, this time a mature buck and definitely not on my wish list for today, emerged at the point I had first spotted the doe. After snipping a few mouthfuls from the track side, he went silently on his way.

“His thin neck, light body and small, velevet-covered antlers marked him down as very shootable.”

I cut off the main track on to a narrow footpath, making sure that the wind was still in my face, and moved on slowly. No matter how slowly you stalk, you can rest assured that it’s always too fast. I must have switched off for a moment because, coming round a corner with less caution than I should have taken, I came face to face with a young roebuck just off the path and browsing in some low growth. His thin neck, light body and small, velvet-covered antlers marked him down as very shootable. However, he had seen me and all I could do was freeze without any hope of getting the rifle off my shoulder before sending him running.

I could see that the buck wasn’t sure what I was. Neck craning, he took a few cautious steps towards me, licking his nose to improve its scenting powers. Fortunately, the wind was still in my favour. He stopped and lowered his head as if to feed — a typical roe trick, for no sooner had he seemed to relax than his head whipped up again to stare at me. Throughout all this I could only stand still, scarcely daring to breathe, as the buck looked at me from little further than 30 yards away.

We were at an impasse. At this stage, had thebuck been older and wiser, he would probably have barked and shown me a clean set of heels. Luckily for me, this yearling hadn’t yet learned prudence and instead wanted to fi nd out what I was. Keeping his distance, and very cautiously, he started to move round me to try to get my scent. As he disappeared behind a patch of brambles I took a chance and quickly got the rifl e on to the shooting sticks. The buck reappeared on the other side of the cover and, sensing that the tableau had changed somehow, he paused broadside to me, one foreleg raised, offering the chance I had waited for.

I had a good backstop and a stationary target. The buck dashed into cover after I had taken the shot, but I wasn’t worried about that. I would have been surprised if, full of adrenalin and ready to take fl ight in an instant, he had dropped to the shot straightaway. I took what felt like my fi rst breath for five minutes and picked up the empty cartridge case, which had been ejected as I instantly reloaded.

After waiting a few minutes I moved forward cautiously with the rifl e still up on the sticks, ready to fire again if necessary. It wouldn’t be, however. Copious amounts of bright-red arterial blood showed that the animal had been well struck. I found it lying only 10 yards away, the top of its heart shattered by the 100-grain bullet.

A short while later the buck was clean and hanging from a branch by a couple of S-hooks. I prefer to gralloch a hanging animal rather than one on the ground, as gravity does most of the work for you, there’s less chance of contaminating the carcase and you always get a better result as the blood drains away at the neck end.

Returning to the car with the buck in my roe sack, now with the morning sun full on me, I had the good fortune to collect a muntjac buck which stepped out and offered me a shot. A roe for the gamedealer and a muntjac for my freezer — what a great morning to be out and a very promising start to the season.