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Protection for deer: 50 years on

The 1st September 1963 represented a landmark for deer in England and Wales, for on that day the Deer Act came into force which, for the first time, prescribed legal close seasons for deer and restricted the methods that could lawfully be used to kill and take them. It is hard to imagine now that deer were once totally without protection, but in the years before the Act they were in many cases treated as little better than vermin.

In the past there were far fewer deer present than there are today, but it was in the 1950s and 1960s that country people started to realise that roe, which had not been seen across much of the country for 250 years, were rapidly recolonising their former haunts. Re-introductions had of course taken place in the 19th century, but it was the advent of large-scale afforestation with the establishment of the Forestry Commission that had provided roe and other species with a springboard for population growth.

Driven to shotgun

Heavy felling had taken place as a result of the demand for timber during World War II, and the following decade saw the growth of thicket-stage woodland in which deer flourished. As numbers increased, so did the infamous winter deer drives, in which roe were driven to shotguns. One Northumberland keeper, writing in Gamekeeper and Countryside magazine, commented that ?all sorts of people turn up, from all walks of life.?

Sometimes a dozen roe were killed, but as many again were wounded, and some would die a lingering death. It was the very obvious cruelty of these drives that prompted responsible opinion within fieldsports, landowning and countryside circles to realise that more humane standards of control ought to be set and that the rifle should take the place of the shotgun. Several of the leading protagonists for this argument were ex-servicemen with experience of roe management in Germany. They, together with others who had a scientific interest in deer, were early members of the British Deer Society, which held its inaugural meeting at Woburn in February 1963.

Compromises to the Bill

It was the British Field Sports Society and its champion Marcus Kimball MP, who steered the Deer Bill through Parliament. The Bill?s second reading was held on the 8th March 1963 after a careful compromise that provided the foundations for better deer welfare but avoided outlawing certain aspects of deer management such as hunting with hounds which, on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills, had a huge following and was seen as the principal rationale behind the local red deer conservation.

Close seasons were proposed ? red and sika stags and fallow bucks from 1 May to 31 July, with red and sika hinds plus roe and fallow does from 1 March to 31 October. Curiously, no close season was afforded to the roebuck, which could continue to be hunted all year round.

Crucially, deer were elevated from the status of vermin to that of a sporting quarry. Night shooting was prohibited, as was the use of arrows, spears, traps, snares and poisoned or stupefying baits. The police were given powers to apprehend offenders and the courts could forfeit any deer, or any firearm, ammunition or prohibited article used in an offence.

The use of shotguns was not, however, prohibited. It was recognised that many farmers and landowners did not have access to a centrefire rifle should they have to control deer on their property and that in most cases the shotgun would remain the only firearm available. Also, the deer hunts of the south-west of England used a shotgun to despatch at close range deer that had been brought to bay by hounds.

Standardising firearms

There was thus a debate about suitable firearms and ammunition. The minimum calibre for rifles was set at .240in and the minimum muzzle energy at 1,700ft/lb.

For shotguns, the minimum calibre was set at 12-bore with a cartridge containing shot of no less than .269in ? that is to say SSG, which has a nominal size of .27in. Yet some who had used the 16-bore strongly advocated its use with an SSG cartridge.

Spherical ball and rifled slug also had their adherents. Both projectiles were prohibited by the Bill and there were suggestions that it should be amended to include them. One advocate, writing under the name of ?Flintlock? in May 1963 as the new legislation was making its way through Parliament, pointed out that while the main argument against ball or slug was that they were dangerous at long range, both had an unusually large ?drop? compared with a rifle bullet and any shots taken at near the horizontal would strike the ground within 150 yards in the event of a miss. On the contrary, a load of LG shot could, he argued, retain dangerous energy over distances as much as 300 or 400 yards and would spread widely: ?If careless shooting occurred, the LG might well be the more dangerous,? he argued. ?Remember these ?pellets? have a slightly larger diameter than a .38in revolver bullet and they travel far faster.?

The Bill was not amended to allow 16-bores, but the law was changed later on to permit the use of a rifled slug from smoothbore guns. Occupiers continued to enjoy wide powers to kill deer on enclosed land, and I well remember accompanying my father on the roughshoot he had in the late 1960s on the edge of Thetford Forest where on shoot days we would always carry a couple of SSG cartridges in case a roe should cross the ride in front of us. The day of the organised deer drive to shotguns, however, was over.

Deer in England and Wales were now a legitimate sporting quarry to be treated with respect. They required management to be sure, but primarily with the rifle, according to accepted ethical standards. In due course, that management was to evolve into the fledgling sport of woodland stalking which, over recent decades, has become one of the fastest growth areas in shooting sports. Stalkers today have every reason to be grateful to those far-sighted individuals who built consensus over deer protection and management half a century ago.