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Balancing shoot and deer management

Some time ago I enjoyed being sole stalker on a few hundred acres of prime ground in Hampshire, a perfect mix of arable fields, deciduous woodland and some new plantations. I shared the sporting rights with a small shooting syndicate, but all of the sporting interests got along well — I had a good head of roe on the ground and took a moderate, balanced cull each year. The deer were healthy and body weights were generally high; the trouble was that I never seemed to hold any decent mature bucks.

The issue was with my neighbours. On one side of my ground lay a large, commercial estate, which let the stalking for a significant sum of money, and on the other was a farmer who shot indiscriminately. I had no real chance of bringing on any quality bucks; all they had to do was cross a boundary in any direction and they ended up in a freezer or on somebody’s wall.

Boundary issues

The situation was not helped by a nearby nature reserve where the deer were never shot. This acted as a sanctuary and breeding reserve, ensuring that whatever I shot was immediately replaced by young, non-territorial animals that created disproportionate damage among the young trees. Pure deer management was not an option; I tried to keep some mature bucks, but my main effort was to keep roe numbers and sex balance reasonably in proportion to the ground. Encouraging antler quality was out of the question and it was all rather dispiriting.

It was clear from speaking to other local stalkers that I was not alone. The problem is not so great in areas such as the Highlands of Scotland, where deer are managed on a landscape scale. Farther south, though, where land is owned in smaller holdings, neighbouring landowners may have wildly different objectives as far as deer are concerned. My little piece of Hampshire was typical, where aims varied between “pure” management, recreational trophy hunting, venison production and, worst of all, no management whatsoever.

Furthermore, deer do not respect man-made boundaries. People who talk possessively about “their” deer are only fooling themselves; the deer will range wherever they like and only become actual property once dead. This, then, is where problems can arise.

Human nature does not help. If a stalker is faced by a large mixed group of deer, which offers the chance of a shot, it all too often seems that once the smoke has cleared something big with antlers is left lying on the ground. In the meantime, the females in the group are usually allowed to make good their escape and carry on breeding.

Trophy hunting policy

Unrestricted trophy hunting is hugely damaging to the dynamics of any deer population, but is particularly so among the larger herding species. Fallow must be one of the most mismanaged species of deer in this country, and I frequently meet stalkers bemoaning the lack of big bucks even where overall densities are high. At a recent meeting of a deer management group in the south of England, Jamie Cordery of the Deer Initiative summed up the matter. During a recent night session counting 290 fallow deer with infra-red equipment “there was not a single mature male to be seen”.

Fallow range widely, and constantly cross boundaries. Stalkers, not working to a planned cull, are simply taking the best that they can, in the knowledge that if they don’t, someone else will.

The situation is not restricted to fallow. Dorothy Ireland of the British Deer
Society is concerned by the unrestricted shooting of big red stags around the edges of the New Forest. “Five years ago we had at least five master stags rutting in the Forest,” she said. “This year there was only one to be seen. If they stayed inside the forest they’d be safe. The Forestry Commission, which manages the cull within the National Park, preserves the big stags, but once they step outside it’s a different matter. I have heard of people paying thousands of pounds to shoot New Forest stags on private ground. As a result, the big stags are dwindling and the situation is not sustainable.” As if that isn’t enough, Dorothy is also alarmed by an increasing potential for hybridisation between red and sika deer as red stags become fewer in number.

A further problem is people taking on more stalking than they can handle, or worse only bothering during buck season and doing nothing, or too little, during the shorter days and less clement weather of the doe season. Few would argue that deer in general are not increasing in number, with associated problems of environmental damage, deer vehicle collisions and other conflicts with human activities. This must be addressed, but shooting males alone solves little. You can have one buck to any number of mature does and there is a good chance that most, maybe all, will be pregnant at the end of the rut.

So, is there a place for trophy shooting within deer management? Of course there is, as long as the deer are taken as part of a balanced cull plan. The acid test is to ask yourself if you see good-quality, mature animals every year? If the answer is “yes”, you are getting it right, for if your ground is capable of consistently producing good trophies it is a reliable sign that the local management policy is sound. There is a misconception that you cannot have low deer numbers and trophies; it is maintaining a balance that counts. Indiscriminate trophy shooting does nothing for the species or for balance in general. A need for self-restraint is clear, but it is just as important to communicate with your neighbouring landowners to agree a common approach. This is where the importance of deer management groups and intelligent discussion, taking everyone’s viewpoints into account, comes in. It may not always be possible to achieve unanimous consensus, but it is usually possible to meet people halfway and at least recognise their objectives as far as deer are concerned. It is good to talk.

Greed and indiscriminate shooting ought to have no place in deer management. It’s up to all of us as individual stalkers to get things right — for the environment, for our successors and for the ultimate good of the deer. The quote from King George VI that opens every edition of Shooting Times could not be more appropriate: “The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust. We must account for it to those who come after.”