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Deer dogs: trustworthy partners

When a shot fails to track down a roe, the tracking dog is on her trail, says Jon Snowdon

deer dogs

Alfie was a big character

The opening of the roebuck season starts on 1 April. The deer management group occasionally go out together to catch up on the last few does for the cull and if a member feels they need a bit of guidance and companionship. I have returned home from one such successful outing.

While mulling over this with a dram in hand, I started to think back to my past deer dogs. Some of you may remember Patch from my early days writing for Sporting Gun. He was a spaniel – not the best of deer dogs, you may think, but he was a star from day one. Many people remarked that he was well trained but, apart from the usual sit, lie down and return training, it was all down to Patch’s innate talent. In particular, he produced some tremendous tracking in thick cover. (Read our piece on using trail cams for deer management.)

After Patch retired, along came Alfie, whom readers may remember because he was the topic of every piece I have written since about 2007, when I was lucky enough to bring him to Greenlee, until his death in 2019.

Ozzy sets off nose to the ground, in search of the injured deer

A number of deer dogs

His escapades, which cover everything from five-star behaviour all the way down to no stars at all, are all there in past Sporting Gun issues. I have had the pleasure of a number of deer dogs but Patch and Alfie were very special. Both were great companions, absolutely loyal and loving to the end, truly a part of the family. Having said that, it didn’t stop them taking the mickey out of me when they could, both their amusement and mine. Well, most of the time.

I now have Lotte, who is a different dog, good at what she does and a pleasure to be with. While Patch and Alfie were determined in their job, they would always stick with me. Lotte, however, does have a mindset that goes beyond persistence. Once she has decided on something she will not give up. That is a trait that a tracking dog needs; both Alfie and Patch had it too but not in the same dogged manner as little Lotte. This is one reason why I always use the harness and lead with the little beggar. (Read our advice on the best slip leads.) 

That said, she is maturing, as they do, and a very close bond is forming between us. I am a softy really but I do believe that a dog’s character needs to be nurtured and not quashed. They aren’t perfect, nor am I.

The wounded deer is tracked and despatched, thanks to labrador Ozzy


Back to the last trip. I was there purely to see the team and it was a perfect day for it. Sunny and cold, near the end of the season when the ground cover is down and sight lines are good. In addition, the roe deer are not territorial at this time of year and there is often the chance to see groups of four, five or more. This can often lead to being able to select the specific deer you want so late in the season. (Read our piece on deer shooting seasons.)

On this day’s outing, another deer was shot only to run off. The rifle was reloaded and the usual time taken to observe any further reaction to the shot that may be observed just in case follow-up shot is necessary if possible. In this case, a second shot had not been possible and the deer had gone off like the clappers. There was very little sign of a mortal hit other than a little bit of an unsteady gait visible as the animal disappeared out of sight.

deer dogs

Little Lotte and Jon are forming a close bond

It was not the best of scenarios but help was at hand. We had Ozzy with us. Ozzy is my colleague Dean’s black labrador who had been trained to deer. Of course, the dog couldn’t understand why we were not off chasing the deer immediately, which was obviously exactly what he wanted to do. This is where his obedience training kicked in. Unless given the command, he was sticking with his hunter.

Off target

The deer had gone a long way and much of it out of sight; the slight reaction to the shot seemed to point to one that was off target. With any shot that may have wounded a deer, time was taken to allow the animal to hopefully die or at least seize up. When that time had been taken, off went Ozzy, complete with harness and tracking lead. He had not been needed to carry this out for a long time and my colleague, understandably, was a little apprehensive about how Ozzy would perform.

There was very little blood at the shot site, just the odd spot in the occasional slot left in the muddy ploughed fields. Ozzy kept dipping his nose into the slots before firmly carrying on along the tracking trail. Always a good sign. For the handler, this leads to doubts whether the dog is on the specific deer track or one that others had trotted earlier. My experience is to always trust deer dogs as their hunting skills are on a different level to ours.

The tricky bit came when we passed a wood where a deer had been gralloched earlier that morning; any dog will investigate. It was the only point where my colleague gently commanded Ozzy to help re-establish the track. He did so and, in thicker grass much further on, Ozzy pushed out the deer. It demonstrated that faltering gait mentioned earlier and was despatched a little further on by a waiting colleague.

The shot proved to be low; it had clipped both legs, miraculously without breaking them. This left very little blood trail and Ozzy had excelled himself with a textbook trail of nearly a mile with, from our point of view, virtually nothing to work with. Needless to say, Ozzy was one happy dog. As for my colleague, well, it will take a month to get the smile off his face.

There will be times when Dean will sit back as I am now, with a dram, recollecting all of his canine companions efforts with pride. Ozzy will be up there on the list.

A spaniel might no be a typical deer dog, but Patch was exceptional

Tasks in hand

The doe cull completed, we are now looking forward to the buck season and an early start before the ground cover becomes too high. We also have a number of towers and ground butts to place. Where they are to be situated has been considered throughout the season. We have to get on with their manufacture and get them erected.

The deer management group will have a meeting to discuss the year ahead and what may be necessary. We will jointly have another look at all the recorded data we have regarding sightings, as well as what priorities that may have changed on the estates we manage. Monitoring areas also need to be placed enabling accurately assessed deer damage. It will be a busy year certainly but it’s always great to be out and about.