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Deerstalking: Rewards of the rut

What a strange roe rut we have had this year. I didn’t expect to see much real activity here in Hampshire until the last week of July, and it would then usually go on for a week or 10 days into August before finally petering out. It was very surprising, then, to receive a phone call on the Wednesday before The CLA Game Fair — which was itself quite early in 2013 — and learn that the rut was already in full swing on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, by mid-July.

It could have been something to do with the atypically hot summer we experienced earlier in the month. By the time I had returned from Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, the rut seemed to be running in fits and starts, rather than in the full-on manner we normally hope to see.

As July turned into August, I planned to go stalking one evening and the following morning in the hope that I could account for one or two cull animals. The rut is an excellent time to get a good look at your mature bucks, which can be elusive throughout the rest of the year. When the urge to breed overtakes them, however, they become rather less cautious and easier to see, making the job of selecting which ones join the cull plan much simpler.

It was warm with a cooling light breeze as I arrived on the patch for the evening session. Sadly the hot, heavy and humid atmosphere that threatened thunderstorms the previous day had cleared, which was a shame because this kind of weather is considered to be the best for encouraging rutting activity. Still, I set off with high hopes, planning to walk, stalk and hopefully call in an animal or two rather than sit in a high seat.

Ominous sign

There seemed to be does everywhere, but ominously many were accompanied only by their kids. This was a bad sign. What I really wanted to see were lone does that had left their kids somewhere safe before going off to entice a buck on to their chosen rutting ground, offering a chance to call in a buck by imitating them, or bringing in a doe already accompanied by a buck by using a kid’s alarm call.

A small piece of new, clear fell about half the size of a football field looked promising. At one end of it a lone doe fed quietly alongside the main tree line, and I settled down to watch her and see if she was actually alone.

After a few minutes I thought I’d try to draw her closer with a few kid “fieps”, but the result was not what I had expected. Although her head went up, another lone doe appeared from behind me and approached hesitantly to within a few yards before identifying me and going off barking. The original doe remained where she was, but seemed to be watching something intently away to another side.

Soon what looked like a buck emerged and stood within a short distance of her. I couldn’t make out its antlers properly, but there seemed to be some small growth on its head — an old buck who had “gone back”, perhaps? If so, he would be an ideal candidate to join the cull.

Something felt wrong, though, and my suspicions increased as the buck was joined by a small kid. I looked in vain for a pizzle on the animal but couldn’t see one, and concluded that this was an old doe that had produced some rudimentary antler growth. Shooting her would have been a disastrous mistake, leaving an orphaned kid, and a good reminder to identify your target carefully before you shoot and not to leap to conclusions.

Finally, a genuine buck appeared, in company with a doe that he was clearly interested in, if not actively pursuing. As he was not particularly big, either in terms of body or antler size, I decided he was shootable. There was a complication, though. By this point there were half a dozen roe in full view so I dared not move, and could only watch in frustration as he and his doe fed off, screened by a hawthorn bush, in the only direction that blocked any possible shot.

He proved to be the last buck I saw that evening. Calling over the next hour only produced does, some of which came in at full speed, but no bucks. I was beginning to wonder if the 2013 roe rut had finished as early as it had started.

To be on the ground at first light the next morning meant a 3am start. While getting up so early is always hard, it’s certainly worth it to be there when the sun comes up. I decided to move through the woods to the corner of a large field and try some calling to see what might turn up. There was no need; a pair of roe was already there, grazing unconcernedly on the clover among the short grass.

I recognised the buck as one of the patch’s bruisers, a big-bodied animal with antlers that would certainly have made at least a silver medal, so I decided to leave him in peace. He and the doe, another large deer, eventually moved off and I carefully edged up the wood line towards where they had disappeared.

Halfway there, I spotted the unmistakable rump of a roe behind a protruding bush. Had the two animals decided to come back on to the field? I got the rifle up on to the sticks, and just in time as the animal, a small doe and certainly not the one that had just left, came into full view and stared at me.

The roe pantomime

There was a buck with her, now just visible behind the bush. I froze. The doe stared, then went through the typical roe pantomime of pretending to put her head down to feed before whipping it back up to stare again. The buck moved out to stand behind her, an average six-pointer, which was fair game, but could I get a shot?

As is so often the case under these circumstances it was the doe that took the lead and, despite not being sure what the two strange objects in front of her were, decided that it was time to leave and led the buck off across the field. It was time for desperate measures. As they were not in full flight, a sharp whistle persuaded them to stop and look back for long enough to get an aimed shot away.

The bullet took the buck across the top of the heart. He leapt forward and collapsed, while the doe made off at full speed. He lay still in full view of us. I watched carefully for a while, but a cautious approach and a tap on the eyeball with the end of the stalking stick confirmed the shot had been instantly fatal. A nearby tree provided a branch to perform a suspended gralloch and shade to hang the carcase in while I carried on, unsuccessfully, to look for another shootable buck before the sun signalled that it was time to stop for the morning.

I went home satisfied, particularly with fresh liver to form the centrepiece of a proper stalker’s breakfast.