How to think like a deer
To become a successful stalker, you must consider all the senses employed by your quarry, says Niall Rowantree in the first of this two-part series
Did you know that deer have six senses? They share with us those of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch or feeling, but there’s an extra. The vomeronasal organ is based in the roof of the mouth and is an important one to consider when stalking. You may have spotted a stag lifting its head, opening its mouth and wrinkling its lips — that’s the vomeronasal organ at work, and that reaction is known as the flehmen response. The organ is linked to the reproductive part of the brain, and can detect pheromones, making it an important part of the deer’s communication, particularly leading up to and during the rut.
Understand the senses
Once you understand a deer’s senses, and how they use them, you will stand a much better chance of successful deerstalking . A deer’s sense of smell is used for communication, to find and identify its food and to detect predators. Like ours, it is affected by climatic conditions. If there is wind speed of any consequence, deer will seek shelter to be able to smell properly. So in windy conditions, seek the deer in places that are sheltered.
Touch or feeling is not a sense that many stalkers naturally attach much importance to when in pursuit of deer, but it can have a huge effect. Ever seen the lead hind in a herd of reds stamping her foot? This behaviour is to attract the rest of the herd’s attention, because the nerve that runs between deer’s toes enables them to pick up vibrations. This same nerve will also allow deer to feel any vibrations a stalker might create — whether jumping over a burn or gate, or thrusting a stalking stick into the ground with force. It is one to be aware of if you have a heavy tread.
A deer’s hearing is good but, like its sense of smell, this will be affected by climatic conditions, so will also push them to seek shelter from strong winds. Deer use their hearing for communication of course, but also to avoid predators while feeding, and the directional sense of hearing complements their eyesight because they can swivel their ears almost like a radar.
The deer’s sense of taste is what will lead it to feed, and this can give the stalker good opportunities to predict where deer may be at what time of day. For example, roe will come out of woodland to feed on forest edges at dawn and dusk, and red will come down from the higher ground to feed in richer pastures or on seaweed. Again, weather plays a big part, and bad weather can push deer into woodland or down from the hills, and can concentrate the deer in specific areas, which can give the stalker a good opportunity to spot suitable animals for culling.
A deer’s eyesight works very differently from ours. While they cannot make out oranges or reds very well, they can see blues and greens. Their perception of depth is not good, and this is where a stalker’s clothing and behaviour can give him or her the upper hand. Disruptive camouflage, and this includes tweed, will disguise your outline well, and ensuring that the colours you wear do not stand out from the background will improve your chances substantially. Deer see movement well, which is why you should stalk slowly and avoid sudden movements.
A stalker needs to think like a deer- and to do this all the above senses will come into play, as will the deer’s three priorities in life: to find food, to reproduce and to avoid predators.
Deer do sometimes sense that there is something afoot, and you will see a hind or doe licking her backside and flicking her head up. it is a bit like playing grandmother’s footsteps when she does this, and she will be trying to catch sight of movement. Funnily enough, deer will sometimes not move off if you walk past as though nothing is happening, whereas if they spot you sneaking up on them they will disappear.
Some species of deer are territorial, while others have distinctive areas they range in throughout summer and winter. a stalker can take advantage of those behaviours.
If you have roestalking, it is worth watching for where the bucks are marking their territory. You can almost set your watch by a roebuck’s rounds of marking, so it is worth putting out trail cams on these spots or lying in wait. If it’s a healthy, dominant male, you will want to keep him on the ground, but lesser bucks will make satellite territories, and will often follow the dominant male’s path. Roe does are also territorial, and their territories will overlap with other bucks and does: think along the lines of the Olympic rings.
Red hinds never stray far from where they were born and research has shown that they are unlikely to ever travel more than three-and-a-half to five miles from their birthplace. this means they know their home range intimately, and they know exactly where to go during bad weather — a hind will choose a spot where her senses can protect her, so out of the wind, and with a good vantage point. Perhaps the biggest difference between the sexes with red deer is that, while among the stags it is every man for himself, the hinds work as a herd. they fight for each other. if there is danger and the herd flees, the matriarch will watch out for the others.
A season for all
There is an old Scottish phrase, “the white shepherd”. In the past, the culling was left until the snow had pushed deer down from the hill to more accessible places. It made extraction much easier. Now, with modern transportation, this is not as much of an issue. The main thing is to get the cull out of the way well before young are born, so that the deer are not disturbed in the lead- up to calving or kidding. With bucks and stags, take advantage of the rut. Post-rut is best avoided — the bucks and stags become elusive, and they will have lost a lot of condition, so be less suitable for the freezer and disappointing to hunt.
With lowland stalking, you want to get as much of your shooting out of the way early in the spring, when vegetation is still low. Not only will you have far more opportunities for a good clean shot, but you will be able to assess the animals better and, should follow up be required, you will not have such a struggle finding the animal.
With sika stags, I would not even think about stalking until mid-September, as big stags will not appear until then. I say this not because I want to shoot a trophy animal, but because the best way of assessing which beast to take is to wait until most are visible. The same, of course, is true of red deer. Again, the big stags will appear on the forest edge or the hind ground from mid-September, and the lead-up to the rut, as well as the rut itself will offer good opportunities to pick off the weaker beasts. All too often, however, you hear of or see stalkers charging up the hill and killing a stag holding hinds. The stag holding hinds is the dominant stag, so why take him unless he’s old and going back or demonstrates poor genetic features?
Almost invariably there will be a lesser animal nearby, one whose genes are not as good. Just before dark is when these young pretenders will appear near the main herd, pushing the dominant stag around and trying to sneak in to the hinds.
Next time: Niall shares his tips and advice on how to put this knowledge into practice and looks at some of the ethical issues surrounding good decision-making when you are out stalking.
Find out more about Niall Rowantree and West Highland Hunting.
You can read part two of this article Steps to a successful stalk here