With a new area on which to manage deer, a thorough recon outing and trail cams provide very important insight for Barry Stoffell
Over here on the wetter side of the Irish Sea, April has the potential to be something of a gloomy month for deerstalkers. The seasons for our three deer species don’t reopen until September, so the action still seems a long way off and, as April Fool’s Day arrives and the roebuck season opens across the water, it can feel as though the joke’s on us.
So I was delighted when a call came in late March from the owner of a private forestry plantation not far from me; 800 acres of mixed conifers spread across a mountainside high above the Kenmare Bay. Shooting rights to the adjacent forestry were let to a Dublin syndicate — who only show up for a few weekends each October if the weather is fine — so sika numbers were rising, animals were moving across the mountain and some young trees had started to get hit hard. (Want to join a shooting syndicate? Here’s what you need to know).
Would I have time to undertake deer management later this year?
Getting access to new areas is always exciting for any deer manager, but in order to make the most of such opportunities, significant reconnaissance work is inevitably required. Even if the location is a carbon copy of other areas you manage, every forest — and deer population — is in some way unique and the stalker will be repaid for treating it as such.
So on 1 April I was on the mountain, parked at the gate marking the start of the track that led upwards into the new block. Beneath me, the track wound lazily back down to the coastal road through a few kilometres of rocky rough grazing before disappearing into another regimented block of forestry further along the shoreline. From this lookout, I could see several other large patches of conifer draped down the dun mountainside, stretching westwards along the peninsula.
The enduring legacy of a policy that paid farmers to plant trees on hillsides that would support little else, from this vantage point it wasn’t hard to appreciate how these numerous enclaves of food and shelter had facilitated the rapid spread of sika.
In the past three decades, it is estimated that the range of sika deer in Ireland has more than trebled in size. Here in south Kerry they have expanded from their historic strongholds inland near the lakes of Killarney to these wild coastal hillsides, growing to a healthy population requiring intensive annual management. As a frustrated south Kerry forester once said to me: “If you plant it, they will come.”
Wondering how many of the Japanese invaders had reached this particular forest, I shouldered my pack, hopped over the gate and took my first steps upwards into terra incognita.
Despite its elevation, there wasn’t a scrap of phone signal here and I’d made myself a rough map the previous evening with the help of Google. Aerial imagery is invaluable when assessing large new areas, giving a good idea of the access, the topography and the location of potentially useful rides, tracks and clearings before you arrive. Thanks to the eye in the sky, I could see that I would climb through mature forestry and past a large cleared area before ascending again into the more vulnerable young plantation that was currently subject to unwanted cervine attention.
Poring over the map the previous day, I’d been relieved to see the clear-fell. Very few mature forests I encounter were planted with deer management in mind and intentional ‘deer glades’ are rare, leaving stalkers to make the most of rides (often overgrown), margins (involving adjacent landowners) and felled zones. This can make catching up with the elusive sika in dense conifer plantation a frustrating affair, but I have to keep reminding myself that when these older trees were planted there were almost no sika here at all.
After a short hike, the track turned sharply to traverse the slope and the forest opened up. I wasn’t disappointed; the felled zone ran for several hundred metres both above and below the path and gave a good view of hundreds of metres of treeline.
Edging cautiously along the track and into the open, a movement below caught my eye. I scanned the lower treeline and was rewarded with the sight of a trio of sika hinds, heads erect. Standing just beyond the trees almost 300m away, they would’ve been out of range on a ‘work’ day without further efforts on my part, but deer activity in the open was encouraging nonetheless.
Pausing for long enough to watch them return to their breakfast, I marvelled at their camouflage. In the drab, grey-brown winter coat it would have taken keen eyes to separate them from the brash and weathered pine stumps if I hadn’t seen them move.
A short climb brought me into the young forest at the top of the plantation. I immediately began to see the signs of significant deer activity; first slots in the mud at the side of the track, then groups of pellets, many of them fresh. I ventured down a couple of narrow rides that crossed the single access track and began to discern clear browse lines and tree damage at chest height.
It was obvious what the owner had been worried about; the average sika is far happier grazing than browsing conifers, but the higher you go the less forage there is. Here, near the top of the mountain, there wasn’t much alternative for them.
Short of erecting a substantial high-seat or hunting tower, culling deer within this section of the forest would be nearly impossible, with nowhere offering a decent field of view. My best bet would be to catch them at the margins but as I followed the well-worn tracks of feeding deer, they all led back to the forest below.
I set a handful of low-cost trail cams nonetheless. I would need to return to these budget units to retrieve the footage, but in the first phases of reconnaissance I usually find that coverage is key and more — therefore necessarily cheaper — cameras give a better result than a smaller number of premium ones.
The best trail cam in the world isn’t much use if it’s in the wrong place and I fully expected to have to move them several times to get a clear picture. By September I hoped that the cameras would give me an overview of the deer density and, critically, their hours of activity. There’s no substitute for time spent watching in person, but a stalker can’t be everywhere at once and a few months of data would ensure that my time later in the year was wisely spent. (Looking for a trail cam? Check out our list here).
Over the next few hours, I catalogued the various signs of deer movement and damage in the plantation, setting up a few more cameras and adding notes to my increasingly dog-eared map. By the time I settled down on a handy log stack overlooking the clear-fell for a late lunch, I had done all I could.
As I drained my Thermos, it occurred to me how much I enjoyed these close-season reconnaissance trips. Freeing me from the in-season pressures of finding animals for clients or simply filling cull quotas, these solo trips into the high and wild parts of the county had become a highlight in themselves and a very welcome opportunity to remain connected to these marvellous creatures the year round.
Lunch over, I reluctantly shifted from my comfortable log and walked back to the vehicle, satisfied with what I’d seen but loath to leave this island of calm and return to the real world via the coastal road that was already filling up with seasonal traffic ahead of the Easter holiday.
Passing an ancient idling tractor on the way down, I exchanged pleasantries with a farmer of similar vintage. As is customary, we quickly established several common acquaintances and when I explained the purpose for my visit, he confirmed he was happy for me to shoot “as many bloody deer as you can” from his land on the southern margin of the forest, helpfully pointing out where he often saw them crossing in the evenings. We further established that he liked his venison burgers on the thick side, without too much pepper, and parted as friends. (Read more in our venison recipe archives here).
Later on, crawling homewards behind a convoy of French-registered caravans on the coast road, I couldn’t help but smile. There might have been no roebucks for me on April Fool’s Day but based on what I’d seen today, come September I might well have the last laugh.