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The wonder of the roe rut

A break from stalking clients provides an opportunity to head out for the roe rut - but is it too early? Chris Dalton reports back

deer stalking

It's a beautiful morning to be out with a rifle and a hound and Chris Dalton is ready and kitted up by 4.45am

A great deal of my day job involves roe deer, particularly as we approach the rut. Each year, around early August, we welcome stalking clients from far and wide, all eager to experience these key few weeks in the calendar. When you get it right and hit the ground with the bucks full on, it is a breathtaking spectacle and an experience never to be forgotten. The difficulty, as with most things wild, is predicting the timing.

Historically there are trends, but each year is different and, even if you manage to get your guests on to the ground when the bucks are in full swing, you might not be there at the right time of day. I’ve been stalking long enough to know that you also need luck on your side. The client bookings will have been made months in advance, every one of them hoping to catch the peak of the rutting action. No pressure then.

All I can do is prepare for the best chance of success based on previous years. The first two weeks in August are typically about right for Ayrshire, a little later than in the south. This season, for the first time since I started outfitting, I had a free day at the end of July and decided to get out on my own, with Killochan Castle top of my stalking list. Having recently taken over management of the deer, I was keen to spend time there to become more familiar with the place. The grounds extend to 140 acres of mostly broadleaf trees, and having stalked an adjacent farm for many years, I knew the ground comprised mostly roe deer.

Killochan dates to the 14th century and was owned by the Cathcart family. After some changes in ownership across the centuries, the new owners, Millie and Rip, are descendants of the original family. The land, bounded on one side by the river Girvan, is teeming with flora and fauna; there is an abundance of wildflowers planted sympathetically and maintained in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. It is a delight to wander here. I cannot think of a better place to be out with the rifle and the hound, nor a better time to do it.

roe deer

Chris watches a doe and her kid browsing on the edge of a field before they hop into the safety of cover

I have said countless times that to start calling too early in the season is a mistake. I will wager that most folk do it all the same. I find using a roe call too soon – or heading out to ‘give it a go’ – is counterproductive and only educates and stresses the deer, especially the protective does with kids. In my view, it is far better to wait until you have seen deer rutting, or at least the early signs of it. They are easy enough to spot. Look for the well-worn ‘roe rings’, flattened paths created as a doe leads a keen suitor on a merry dance. Often these rings circle around boulders in a figure of eight; the doe will not stand for a buck until she is ready. Sometimes such a chase will last for hours. (Read our guide to the deer seasons.)

deer stalking

Chris heads for the western boundary of the permission, pausing to glass across the valley ahead of him

Fox-red coats

It was 27 July before I saw any such activity, driving home after an early morning recce for foxes over some recently harvested winter barley. My drive took me down a lane and past a potato field that bounds Killochan. It was warm so, with the window down, I was looking into the fields hoping to see signs of roe. It was the fox-red coats, so obvious in the morning sunlight, that drew my eye. I stopped and grabbed the Swarovskis from the back seat for a closer look.

A doe and a nice young four-point buck were moving along the edge of the field. He was sniffing the ground behind her and pawing periodically with his front leg. As she tried to move forward, he ran in front and moved her back. This went on for quite some time. It was the telltale sign I had been hoping for. I quickly texted the castle, requesting to stalk early the following morning.

deer slots

Slots in the soft ground are a sure marker of roe in the area, but the bucks prove elusive this day

I was out of the truck and kitted up by 4:45am the next day. It was a lovely, bright morning, although it was surprisingly cool for the end of July. I was glad of my Deerhunter smock. It was not the classic humid weather that often kickstarts the rut. Early rutting activity always follows a warm July. In the absence of strong rutting conditions, and very few signs of activities other than the previous morning’s antics, I decided to stalk as normal. I did, however, grab my calls, as I wanted to try to call the area where the small buck had shown interest in the doe. If she was coming into season, then a response was possible.

It’s a bright, surprisingly cool morning – not the usual humid weather that typically kickstarts the roe rut

I took two calls; a Buttolo and a Nordic Roe. I invariably start with the Buttolo – it’s simple and consistent – then depending on the situation, I usually switch to the Nordic. I set off, heading for the western boundaries with the wind behind me. I planned to drop down to the side of the of river and work back into the wind and through the trees to the area where I had spotted my young lovers in the potato field.

The initial walk took me across the top of a steep bank, where I paused to glass across the valley. Below me, about 70 yards away in a small meadow, was a doe browsing contentedly. I watched her for some time; there was no sign of a kid and, significantly, no buck either. If the roe were rutting then there would usually be a buck in close attendance, especially around a mature doe. The fact that she was so settled convinced me to move on and was another clue that the rut was not in full swing yet.

I pressed on. Reaching the boundary, I dropped down to the river with the wind now fully in my face. I spotted another chestnut back among some greater willowherb, a pretty weed that is an important source of nectar for my honeybees. I made a note of the location. A look through the binoculars revealed that the chestnut back belonged to a young doe, but this time with a well-grown kid. It was great to see. I never tire of watching deer, seeing them move and interact with one another.

A mature roe deer browses contentedly in a small meadow, with no sign of a kid, or more significantly, a buck nearby

The pair browsed purposefully along the edge of the field, moving slowly in my direction. Eventually, they were so close I could almost touch them. The doe paused briefly, trying to establish what I was, before quietly bounding off. The kid was more curious, staring at me, obviously inquisitive about the apparition in front of her. Then, with the realisation that mum was gone, she too hopped away to the safety
of cover.

I continued onwards, quietly entering a stand of mature beech trees near to the potato crop. This was where the four-point buck had been courting. Finally, I readied the Buttolo in my breast pocket. It was worth a call on that basis that I had seen the buck clearly interested in a doe just 24 hours before. She may well have been coming into season. I leant with my back against the large grey trunk of a beech and carefully placed the rifle on the quad sticks.

With no buck in sight, Chris returns to the truck, but will be out again when the rut begins in earnest

Morning reflections

I gave the Buttolo a gentle squeeze from inside my smock; I prefer a muffled, less harsh sound for my initial calls. I repeated the quiet ‘peeps’ in sequence, pausing for a few minutes between each set of three. No reaction. I stopped calling and waited for another 15 minutes; some deer will sneak in rather than charging. Still no reaction. I decided to make my way back to the truck, mulling over what might have been.
During the walk back, I reflected on the morning and soaked up my surroundings. I will return after the roe have decided it is time and then my calling will be more purposeful; the result, however, may well be the same and that, after all, is the beauty of it.

Chris’ Kit List