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Using a stalking dog

In Denmark, and in other mainland European countries, the British attitude towards using dogs for hunting deer is incomprehensible. This has nothing to do with staghounds, but rather the scarcity of scent dogs trained to find deer wounded on woodland stalks. It is almost a running joke among people from Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic that British hunters refuse to train specialist deer dogs, though these critics are not laughing with us. They think it is, quite frankly, irresponsible.

So says Niels Sondergaard, leading tracker dog handler in Denmark and author of the definitive book on the subject Working with Dogs for Deer. Recently, Niels held a two-day seminar at Sparsholt College, in Hampshire, where he passed on his experiences to professional deerstalkers. ST joined on the first day during which the lecturer explained the basics of the Danish system of tracking a wounded deer.

?One of the most common errors that hunters make is not going immediately to the place where the bullet hit the deer,? Niels said, as we all went back to school in a college classroom. ?They go to where they think the deer went. You must train yourself to go to the spot where the deer was hit straight away and search for signs of impact.?

This is not simply because the hunter may have become disorientated at the time of firing and miscalculated where the deer had run. ?By going to the point of impact,? he said,
?you should be able to work out where the deer has been hit and so know whether it is wounded or not. If you approach a wounded animal immediately, then adrenalin can allow
it to escape, often for many kilometres. If, however, you can determine that it was not a clean kill, then your chances of tracking that deer successfully are greatly improved.?

Niels carries great authority on the business. Though only 35 years old, he has 14 years? experience handling hunting dogs and acts as a judge for new members of the tracker dog register in his homeland. The register of 150 voluntary dog handlers acts as a sort of automobile breakdown service for deerstalkers. If a hunter wounds a deer then he is legally obliged to report it to the registrar within six hours. The handlers, whose dogs have passed examination by judges such as Niels, are on call to help hunters find that deer and receive only petrol expenses in return. For all, it seems, it is a labour of love.

?Each hunter pays a licence fee at the start of the year, which funds the service. The registered handlers will also be called out to find deer wounded in road collisions, so, in effect, the hunters pay for road accidents too. This is something that is currently under discussion in Denmark.?

When studying the impact area, hair is the great indicator, according to Niels, and he distributed a book of hair samples from a roe deer taken from various places on the body. ?Often hunters will look for signs of blood,? he said, ?but that can be very misleading. For example, if an animal is hit in the stomach, then the intestines may engulf the bullet and there will be no blood. Or if it is a chest shot, the blood may stay in the cavity.

?A deer has to lose 48 per cent of its total supply of blood to die from blood loss. Therefore a 200kg red deer can lose nearly 5litres of blood and still survive. That is a lot of blood. So if you nicked a vein in its back end, there might be blood everywhere, but the deer could still travel for many kilometres. A large amount of blood at an impact site is often worrying.?

The team of students were set the task of determining where a deer had been shot, using one of the college?s resident sika deer to demonstrate the differences. Head of the gamekeeping department Martin Edwards shot the animal first in the heart, then the
lungs, brisket, liver, stomach, jaw and legs to demonstrate the different tell-tale signs, which each detective needed to find. Niels would then pass judgement on the best strategy to follow.

?Here you can see traces of liver,? Niels explained, at one of the wound sites. ?It tastes a little bit of hazelnut. That will be a fatal wound, but you are best to leave the animal for an hour or two to let it die quietly. If you wait, then blood loss, trauma and fever will weaken a deer and it will be easier to catch, rather than going straight in after it.?

Niels trains his own Labradors to track deer. They are taught to catch and kill a roe deer,
but keep red and fallow deer at bay until Niels arrives with his .308. ?I am the only one who
can take the shot at the deer. If anyone shot my dog, I don?t know what I would do to them! My dog is a big South African Labrador. I think it is important, though, to have a dog that concentrates solely on deer, without distractions of retrieving gamebirds, though any dog will find a lost deer more effectively than a human. The key is to have faith in your dog. There are many hunters who may tell me my dog is going the wrong way, but I will always ignore them. Nearly every time, the dog is right.?