A heavy midday summer silence hung over the wood. Stretching ahead of us was the ride, a dark green tunnel splattered with bright patches of sunlight filtering through a canopy of branches. Only a pigeon murmured its soft triple coo. Slowly, oh so slowly, Ken Sifford, headkeeper on the Malshanger estate near Basingstoke, in Hampshire, moved ahead of me, pausing, listening and looking into the deep woodland.
Then, slowly and carefully, Ken set up the tripod he was carrying and, finger hooked, beckoned me forwards. I dropped Jodie, the Labrador, and moved forwards to rest the .30-06 on the tripod, pointing down the ride to where we hoped to catch sight of the young buck in poor condition that Ken was seeking.
Three plaintive squeaks came from Ken’s cherrywood call, and then a long pause. I peered into the heart of the wood, more in hope than expectation, and then another call from Ken. Nothing — only the silent woodland. The rut was now well on and, I wondered, were we too late, had the hot activity petered away? Then Ken turned slightly and nodded at the woodland to one side. I heard the slightest rustle and suddenly saw the buck standing 50 yards away, a dark silhouette in a patch of trickling sunlight.
There was no chance of moving the sticks, so I decided to take the shot off-hand. Ken nodded and as my slightly wavering scope lighted on the beast’s shoulder I fired — and missed over the top. We went through the motions of looking for blood but there was not a trace and I knew, despite my dog’s best efforts to convince me otherwise, that I’d managed to spoil what should have been a successful demonstration of calling.
Calling card
Ken was very good about it and suggested we try again in another plantation. I agreed but insisted that, this time, he should take the shot. My morale was smashed to pieces. Ten minutes later we tried again, this time at a clearing where two rides crossed, but no deer moved and the only sign of life was the hoarse, guttural bark of a muntjac, an alarm call picked up by two more of these small deer, so that the woodland echoed with their angry outbursts. Muntjac, Ken said, are now reaching almost plague proportions on the estate and, despite efforts to control them, results have been poor and the deer are steadily multiplying.
Twenty minutes and some brisk walking later found us repeating our earlier manoeuvre along another broad ride cutting through bracken and bramble-choked woodland. Again, Ken called with a triple note. Silence. Nothing moved. Another call with the same result and then, moments later, he tried the Buttolo held in his pocket. Still no movement, only the lazy circling of a buzzard high overhead and then a flash of russet at the edge of the ride, perhaps 80 yards away. At the shot, the buck leapt in the air, and vanished back into the thick woodland. We walked slowly forwards, my Lab at heel, and at the strike we found several small drops of blood.
“Put the dog in,” said Ken. We slowly followed Jodie through the chest-high brambles, long tendrils clutching at our legs, as the dog worked forwards. Suddenly she stopped 30 yards in, and there we found the yearling buck, dead.
It had been a masterly performance by Ken and, shortly afterwards, having loaded the beast into his vehicle, I asked him to explain his method of calling.
Getting the wind right
“Well,” explained Ken, “I use a small cherrywood call with a rubber Buttolo call. I first try with the wooden call, as it’s softer and sometimes seems to work better than the Buttolo. But if I get no reaction I then use the rubber call, usually holding it in my pocket to muffle the sound. Little and not too often seems to be the secret. The best time to call is on a hot, muggy day, just like today, and if the weather is really heavy and close the bucks seem to rut better.
“I try in the morning, but not too early, then between 11am and 2pm, and also in the evening at about 6pm. I find the midday period is often the best. When the bucks are really rutting then they’ll come to almost any call, but the most important thing is to get the wind right. I always try to make sure a buck can’t get behind me. An old, wise buck will try to approach behind the call and so will pick up your wind. He’ll also choose to come through thick cover to a clearing in a wood rather than risk crossing a ride, whereas young bucks will usually come to the call without hesitation, just as we’ve seen today. Usually, if you use the kid call, the doe will come and bring a buck. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it’s a question of persistence. Everything has got to be right, otherwise you’re wasting your time.
“An old buck, if he’s the slightest bit suspicious, will just drift away. I called an old buck for a visitor last week, but the animal wouldn’t cross a ride and stayed in thick bracken. And though we could see his head and the top of his shoulders, we couldn’t get a clear shot. He was there for several minutes then vanished back into cover.”
This season, explained Ken, the rut has been on and off, due largely to the poor weather. “Some days there has been quite a lot of activity, but three or four days could go by without any movement. The cover, too, has been very thick and even though the rut was still on, no deer would come to the call. In other years you call and it’s almost too easy, especially with young and middle-aged bucks.”