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The first day of the roebuck season

The diary is full of regular clients, but the chance of a beast at first light on the opening day of the roebuck season is too much of a temptation

We are already a quarter of the way through 2023 and the roebuck season is upon us. Daylight hours have been lengthening rapidly and there is, at last, some warmth in the rising sun. There’s a feel-good factor in the air and, as I stalk at first light, the birdsong is breathtaking. The distinctive scents carried on the heavy morning air from willow and gorse make my senses tingle; it is a time of new life and regeneration. 

Deer must feel this too. They browse for longer periods on the tender shoots and buds as they work to gain condition after the harder winter months. It has been a mild winter but we seem to be paying the price for this now with one of the coldest springs on record. It appears that extreme temperatures are becoming the norm.

With the booking diary for April and May already full as regular stalking guests return, it is difficult to fit in new clients. The work on cull planning and monitoring is an all-year-round operation and constantly under review. Mid-February to mid-March is the ideal time to confirm my plans; deer are drawn to the grass and old stubble fields as they flush, and, in the case of the grass, post-fertiliser applications must be made in preparation for silage or for livestock grazing. 



The condition of does and hinds coming into the larder over the winter has been as good as I have known it, with kidneys encased in fat, so they have clearly fared well. Similarly, the roebucks are looking superb, with the older dominant bucks clean quite some time ago, and it looks like we have a good year in prospect. Unless things change, I would expect to see high fecundity and retention rates among the ladies. 

After spending the past few months watching the bucks, I try to allow myself the luxury of a stalk, just me and the hound. I managed to keep the opening morning free again this year — admittedly after successfully dodging a last-minute tasking from Anne at the eleventh hour. 

With Zosia on high alert Chris glasses the fields

What I must decide now is where to go. That’s not as easy as it might seem when you have a lot of ground and a diary full of clients who want to shoot bucks starting to arrive. Not all guests are physically able to cope with some of our ground — due to fitness, age or mobility issues — so in the planning I already have an idea where to take them based on any limitations. 

There is little point in me heading out looking for a young buck that can usually be found in a particular spot at broadly the same time, and in an area with relatively easy access. So my plan was to head somewhere that is difficult to access or a vulnerable site where there is evidence of crop damage. I had two areas in mind that met the criteria; however, as often happens, things change. 

I got up on the opening day to a text from my neighbour advising that, on his way to the farm over the past week — he starts at 4.30am — there was a group of roe feeding close to the road. As he was returning to the farm that evening, he had a near miss when the deer ran back to the wood and he narrowly avoided hitting one. He asked if I could go and have a look, so I collected Zosia well before dawn, loaded the pickup and headed out. 

Two roe does cross the ground ahead of Chris and enter the cover of the adjacent woodland

There was a cold blustery south-westerly, which is our prevailing wind direction. The road where the near miss occurred is close to arable farmland with a large mixed broadleaf wood on the other side. We also have a flightpond in the lower section and the rougher margins have been planted with a wildflower mix. The ground drops away from a high point at the side of a railway line. 

Accessing the top section via the side of the railway affords a great vantage position to scan below into what is in effect a large basin. This early in the season it’s a real draw for deer — they love the pond margins and the areas of wildflowers. 

I had not been for a while, having finished my doe cull some months ago, so there should be some bucks here. I walked carefully along the fence line with the wind blowing
on the back of my neck; as long as there were no deer directly in front of me all would be fine. The thermal allowed me to check in front while it was still dark and avoid the risk of bumping into deer and sending them into cover. 

I arrived at the wood’s far corner, the wind was blowing across and away to my left, so any deer browsing in the fields below would not wind me. I scanned carefully and four white images pinged back. I was a little surprised as I expected there to be more deer in view, but the bitterly cold wind may have kept them hunkered down in cover. 

I worked halfway down the hedge line and sat for a while, glassing while I waited for the light to come up sufficiently to sex the four deer browsing below. They were slowly feeding closer to me and with luck would come into range. Frustratingly, as soon as the light allowed, I could see they were all females. 


Blissfully unaware

I had to try to get past them so I could check the other side of the pond and I needed to move to get some circulation back into my legs. Fortunately, the deer walked around me, heading for the wood. At one point they were a mere 40 yards away and blissfully unaware as Zosia sat transfixed, quivering in the expectation of fresh kidneys. 

With them out of the way, I worked along the fence line towards the willows. Zosia stopped and indicated to my right. I followed the direction of her nose where four roe appeared on the edge of the field. They must have been couched out of the wind. I felt hopelessly exposed; the deer were above me and I had little cover on the open fence line, so I slowly crouched down and froze. I sneaked a look; three does and a buck in velvet. 

With the chosen beast in a better position, Chris gets prone to take the shot

They were initially aware of something but did not seem too spooked and after five minutes or so they settled back to browsing. A range check with the binoculars had them at 300 yards; if I could reduce the distance by 100 yards or so I had a shot. Nothing finer than crawling through smelly, claggy mud but, after a slow and very unpleasant 15 minutes, I arrived at the little mound of clear grass I had selected as my potential firing point. 

I checked with the binoculars. Good, the deer were feeding and settled, but four had become six. The new pair was on the other side of the wire stock fence and one was a buck.  

I focused on the first buck and deployed the bipod, got prone and tracked him. He appeared crystal clear through the Swarovski. I watched as he paused, now broadside, but he crouched and had a pee. I allowed him to finish then very gently increased pressure to the trigger — he dropped with hardly a kick. I knew the shot was good. 

As I walked to the deer, I could not help but reflect on how many times over the years I have done this. The pleasure and genuine feeling of privilege to be here has not diminished one iota in all that time.