I always feel it’s important to get cracking with the roebuck cull the moment the season opens on 1 April. Not shooting the big bucks, mind (they come later), but what a lot of people like to term “cull bucks” — the yearlings and two-year-olds that form the greater part of any management plan aimed at a well-balanced roe population. These younger animals can be relatively easy to stalk as they don’t have the wariness and experience of their older counterparts, but it’s easy to forget that as spring progresses and the older bucks protect their territories ever more jealously, the lesser animals spend more and more time avoiding them. The result of this increased timidity is that they can often become all but invisible to the stalker by early summer.

One year, I became aware of two young roebucks during an early season drive around the patch. I like to do this whenever I have time, normally after an early morning stalking session, just to see what is about and build up a picture of where I should be directing my efforts. I prefer not to shoot from the vehicle on these occasions, even though it is now legal (as long as the vehicle is stationary and the engine turned off). This is not down to any form of purism, it’s just that I appreciate the deer standing so that I can have a good look at them through the binoculars. If I feel a need to shoot I’ll generally drive around the corner, park up and stalk back on foot. Once deer come to associate road vehicles with danger they are usually away like a shot the moment one appears — a useful indicator that someone else may be up to no good.

The two small bucks were feeding about 40m off the track as I halted the little Suzuki. They watched me with mild interest as I studied them through the binoculars out of the car window, relaxed enough to put their heads down and snip a piece of tempting new growth between stares. Both were typical yearling roe, with slim, light, leggy bodies and thin necks, still in full winter coat, neither of them anything special to look at and both ideal additions to the buck cull.

I was already beginning to see some mature roe in hard horn and clean of their velvet, but youngsters are inevitably behind in the annual antler cycle. It’s not unusual to find them still cleaning their new headgear well into June. The antlers on this pair, such as they were, consisted of no more than an inch or so of velvet-covered growth that clearly had some way to go. I marked them down as twins from the previous year, though there was no sign of a mature doe with them. Presumably she had either become a statistic in the cull plan a month or two previously or fallen victim to the main road on our boundary. Eventually they moved off showing no real alarm, just a gentle trot into the woods leaving me mentally earmarking them as subjects for closer attention with a rifle in due course.

The next encounter

Work demands meant that I wasn’t able to get on to the ground for the next few days but the Saturday morning was clear and I was ready to go at first light. The wind was perfect for the corner where I had last seen bucks, so this seemed to be as good a place to start as any. The foliage had not yet started to thicken out on the woodland floor so I had decent visibility for at least 100m through the trees in all directions, and a grassy footpath enabled easy progress. Stopping to glass around me every few paces, I quickly picked up a roe feeding quietly. As I watched, a second stepped out from behind a tree to join it. From their build and underdeveloped antlers I could see that these were the two yearlings from earlier in the week.

Despite the lack of any real ground cover, there were still too many obstructions to allow a shot from where I was so I decided to close the range and look for a clear line. A large clump of brambles provided plenty of cover so I could move round unobserved by the deer and I was confident of success. In fact, with a sound moderator and if the deer had not seen me by the time I took the first shot, I had every expectation of collecting both of them.

A short crawl from the brambles was an ancient oak, plenty of cover for me to get to my feet, set the rifle on the double sticks and ease myself around the trunk ready to shoot. But 50m away, where the deer should have been, there was… nothing. In the few minutes it had taken me to move into a shooting position they had disappeared. The wind was perfect and, as far as I was aware, they hadn’t suspected my presence. Had something else disturbed them or had they simply decided to move on? There’s no way of knowing but that was the last I saw of them that morning. It wasn’t an issue as there would be other chances and the morning wasn’t a washout anyway. Only half an hour later I encountered a lone fallow pricket — a welcome cull opportunity. I didn’t come across the twins (as I had now started to think of them) again until a fortnight later, when I saw them out feeding on a small grass meadow about half an hour before last light. Once again, the set-up was perfect for a simple stalk along the wood edge with a dry ditch to allow me a final approach. I emerged from the ditch to see a deer rump disappearing into the wood line on the other side of the meadow. At least I had the consolation of knowing that it hadn’t been me that sent the twins packing, as a large dog fox was sitting staring in my direction. I’ll swear he was grinning, a few metres from where the deer had been a moment before. Clearly his presence had made them uncomfortable enough to decamp. To add to the insult, he didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a shot. A week or so passed and I came across the two brothers again, this time chasing each other around in play, as young deer often do, through a scrubby area not far from our previous encounters. All I had to do was set my rifle on to the sticks and wait for them to emerge from behind a few small bushes. All they had to do was carry on in the direction they had been heading, turn right towards me or turn back and I was in with a chance. True to form, however, they took the unseen path and that was that.

As the season progressed, I saw the twins fairly regularly but no real opportunity to get close to them developed. They seemed content to stay together rather than split up and perhaps, subconsciously, I’d decided to give them best. It’s not as though I was going through a lean stalking patch as happens from time to time. I was successful enough elsewhere but it was simply as though these two were just not fated to join their fellows in the larder.

Our last meeting

Eventually, with the roe rut fast approaching, we had what was to be our last meeting. There was nothing momentous about the occasion, no classic stalk or hair-raising sudden encounter. In fact, it all came as something of an anti-climax. I was in their corner of the patch and about to gralloch a small muntjac doe that I’d caught crossing the meadow where the fox incident had occurred. With rifle unloaded and resplendent in blue latex gloves, I suddenly became aware of a small roe stepping out of cover only a short distance away. Lying flat on the ground I refitted the magazine, chambered a round carefully and reached for the sticks. To gain a safe backstop the shot had to be taken standing but, as I prepared to raise myself slowly into a shooting position, the second twin also came into view. Caught in the open and with nothing to conceal myself behind, there was no option but to try for it.

Amazingly, neither deer seemed to notice me rise to my feet. At the shot, the buck left standing simply took a couple of steps and looked around to discover why his companion had suddenly dropped. A second .308 bullet left the barrel and the whole business was over in seconds.

There was certainly nothing remarkable about the two yearling bucks. Their antlers comprised no more than a couple of short spikes, they were small compared with their contemporaries on the patch — they might well have been identical twins. Perfect cull bucks, but for some strange reason I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty that it was no more than dumb luck that finally allowed me to catch up with them.