Chris Dalton talks about living in the golden age of roebuck
The rise in high-quality roebuck produced by good management prompts Chris Dalton to call for an end to the stigma surrounding trophies
Heading into April, the thoughts of many stalkers turn towards roebucks. It’s one of the most eagerly awaited times of the year, akin to the Glorious Twelfth for keen Shots, and there is very little that can beat the excitement of heading out at first light on 1 April. The start of the roebuck season marks the end of winter. There is always a feel-good factor in the air and the adrenaline of getting out after a big buck starts to kick in.
As a deer manager, I am constantly monitoring the roe on my grounds and particularly so in early spring, when I can fully assess how the deer have fared over the winter months.
It is the most critical period for many species and very few animals do well if it has been wet and cold. This causes them to lose condition rapidly, with the youngest and oldest deer being the most susceptible. It is bizarre that the time of highest mortality is precisely as we are on the cusp of the emergence of nutrient-rich buds and shoots.
I am hesitant to use the word ‘trophy’ here — there is such a stigma surrounding the term. This is utter nonsense that is born out of misinformation and, often, barefaced lies. In all my years as an outfitter, I have never met any stalker who only wants to go out and shoot large males of any species in the UK.
This was brought home to me recently after a conversation with one of my regulars, who seemed almost embarrassed to ask me about the possibility of shooting a quality roebuck. This was someone who has stalked with me for around 20 years, shooting a number of deer as part of our cull plans. For the most part, these animals were taken for his own table, as he aims to live as sustainably as possible.
However, he decided that he would like to try for a decent roebuck and have that mounted on his wall. There is nothing wrong with that and it is a great shame that folk — including seasoned stalkers — are uncomfortable with wanting to do it.
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In order to consistently produce high-quality roebucks, the management of the roe in the area must be good. Sufficient males must be left to mature to ensure a balance in habitats where does are also being controlled. If this management is not in place, the first thing that suffers is the deer themselves, followed by their habitat.
When I first set up, approaching 20 years ago now, some of the ground that I manage had been syndicated. People were travelling up independently from south of the border for a few days of stalking.
They shot roe as the opportunities presented, but followed no clear plan. To them, there was no point leaving a young six-point buck to mature and continue looking for a lesser beast when they might not get another chance — or the next stalker might shoot it.
We have since started to apply some management principles and now produce medal-class roebucks on the ground each year. These principles are set against clear aims and the requirements of the landowners. Our management is now based on an accurate assessment of deer numbers and deer species present, male to female ratios and retention rates.
These principles were often not in place, even 10 years ago, but it is incredibly satisfying to see a tangible and obvious improvement in the quality of the roebucks here. If there are commercial considerations, then I accept that the roe population must be maintained commensurate with damage tolerances and the like. However, do not forget that a dominant buck will keep youngsters in check, significantly reducing fraying and browse damage.
Large-scale commercial forestry planting is relatively new in the UK, only really starting on a national scale a little more than 100 years ago. If you add to this more recent commercial game shooting and farm stewardship schemes, which provide payments for set-aside areas as well as taking field margins out of crop production, the changes have created the ideal habitat for deer.
Consequently, we have seen a rapid improvement in the quality of roe deer in England and Scotland. As long as the populations are correctly managed, most modern roe will reach much larger sizes than at the turn of the 20th century. England’s southern counties — Somerset, Sussex, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Surrey — have historically produced most of the gold-medal heads over the years. But some counties not generally associated with producing big bucks, such as Northamptonshire and Yorkshire, do seem to be appearing more frequently in the lists.
Meanwhile, most of Scotland’s medal-class bucks have come from Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Fife and Angus, along with the Scottish Borders. In recent years other areas have started to feature by producing top-end bucks. Generally, these areas are well populated with arable farms, situated on fertile, rich and well-drained soil.
By the same token, there are high numbers of game shoots providing havens for roe deer. Even if they are not large, commercial ventures, there will be game cover crops and feed hoppers distributed throughout the ground and kept well topped-up in February. Consequently, this provides both cover and readily available sustenance throughout the winter months. It’s little wonder that roebucks thrive where there is game.
I recall my first trip in pursuit of a medal-class roebuck. I was taken out that evening into a 50-acre field of carrots, which was flanked by strips of mature fir trees bounded by maize and 10 large feed hoppers. This was deer heaven. I was not long into my evening vigil before deer began to emerge to munch on the carrot tops. Shortly thereafter, I had a thumping silver-medal buck that takes pride of place on my office wall to this day.
Despite all these near-perfect conditions, the deer populations must be managed correctly and cannot simply be left alone. You must accurately assess the numbers on the ground and establish a healthy and sustainable balance. It is not good having too many females, or shooting too many good bucks coming through the ranks. Doing this creates a problem that takes many years to redress.
On lesser ground, where conditions are not favourable, careful management of a small population can produce some spectacular roebucks — they simply need longer to fully develop. The season here in Scotland will run until 20 October, but the best time to catch up with the mature bucks is in April and May, when the cover is not too dense, or during the rutting season.
The larger medal-class bucks will be clean of velvet and coloured very early. By the opening day of the season, they look very impressive as they patrol their turf.
The peak of the roe rut is usually from late July to mid-August but generally, the further south you are, the earlier the rut begins. At this time, you will often be able to tempt the dominant bucks from cover by calling them.
We should not be made to feel awkward when discussing representative or medal heads from any of our deer species. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as the animal is taken from an area with a healthy deer population and with sustainable, ethical management in place. The fact that you have the option to do this is likely to be a strong indication that the management of roebucks in your area is being done correctly.