Shed hunting is a popular and rewarding close-season pursuit, as Barry Stoffell discovers on a day of fossicking in the hills of Kerry
Despite being in the depths of the close season, this time of the year offers deerstalkers something for nothing. By the end of April, most of our sika and red deer have thrown their antlers, with the fallow following suit a few weeks later, and there are few better ways to spend a fresh May morning than scouring hillside or forest for shed antlers.
When do deer shed their antlers?
‘Shed hunting’ is a hugely popular spring pursuit in many parts of the world and, in the US in particular, whole organisations are devoted to it. Here in Kerry, I always set aside a few days in late April or early May to walk the high and wild places where the stags hang out and I’m usually rewarded with something for my trouble. Since far fewer stags than usual were culled this year due to COVID-19, I was hopeful of a bumper crop and, keen to make the very most of nature’s bounty, I decided to raise my game and consult an expert.
I spoke to Ashley Glover, a fellow stalker and veteran shed hunter of the Wicklow mountains. A collector of discarded headgear from the sika and hybrid population of Wicklow for many years, Ashley was happy to share his experience and tips. “Once you are confident that you’re in an area that holds a decent number of stags, shed hunting is a mixture of understanding deer behaviour and good, old-fashioned common sense,” he said.
Creatures of habit, the average stag’s daily routine involves moving between his bedding areas and feeding areas. Understanding the locations of these is as much a key to successful shed hunting as it is to deerstalking later in the year. Many shed antlers are found on the upper reaches of south-facing hillsides, where animals bed down in the sunshine during the day, often dropping antlers in the process.
In counties Wicklow and Kerry, many deer make their home in woodland or forestry, making a daily commute to the closest area of grassland, much to the frustration of the farming community.
The tracks made are not usually difficult to find, especially if the deer are present in numbers. Along these travel corridors, loose antlers are most commonly thrown at boundaries where the stags have to squeeze under or jump over something, knocking or jolting the antlers off. Ditches, fences or low foliage are all good places to start. On several occasions, I have come across antlers at the margins of forestry, where sika stags regularly emerge through a dense belt of birch before jumping the adjacent sheep fence.
Narrowing down the search areas still leaves a significant amount of ground to cover and, in areas where every stick and gorse-stalk looks like an antler from a distance, locating them is a challenge.
“Hill antlers are much easier to spot from above,” advised Ashley. “So always walk higher than where you expect the antlers to be. Let your eyes do some of the walking and use your binoculars — you’d be surprised how much easier this makes it. Don’t rush, once you get your eye in it gets much easier.”
A few people I know have told me their dogs are quite useful in an antler hunt, but I never enjoyed much help from this department. Our Irish setters, despite being perfectly capable deer dogs, rarely unearth anything and when they do, bearing neither feather nor fur, they feel under no obligation to alert me or return it. By the time I get hold of it, they’ve usually chewed the tips off.
Fortified with Ashley’s words of advice, I took to the hills behind the house in the middle of May with high hopes. I knew from past observation the general pattern of stag movement here — a long and gentle traverse of the hillside from a high plantation of conifer forest to the grass-rich lowlands, crossing several fences and ditches in between.
At the forest margin, it didn’t take long to locate some deer tracks and, despite my lack of faith in her ability, the youngest setter found a heavily-weathered single-point almost immediately. One rarely finds antlers from previous seasons, these having been eaten by the deer themselves, assisted by the other fauna of the hillside, providing a valuable source of minerals and helping with the production of the next batch.
We set off along the cervine highway and a pleasant few hours of fossicking yielded a small selection of sika antlers. These were generally fairly diminutive, typical of the sika in this particular area, but a few were large enough to provide material for thumbsticks and unearthing each one felt like a triumph, regardless of its size. I turned homewards with a pleasing rattle in the gamebag. This was the closest I would get to a stag until September.
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Shed antler expeditions
I always relish our close-season shed-hunting excursions, providing as they do a perfect excuse to get up into the hills in April and May and keep in touch with our wild neighbours.
All successful deerstalkers are, after all, patient students of deer behaviour. Paying attention to the movement of deer throughout the close season not only adds to your antler collection, but will also make all the difference when autumn arrives and stalking begins again.
I have also found it to be extraordinarily popular among the youngest generation of naturalists who should know when deer shed their antlers. If you are fortunate enough to be present when a six-year-old finds their first antler, then you’ll never forget it, even if you had to plant the antler yourself. It’s a truly rare hunt in which nothing is killed and yet another reason to be thankful for these terrific creatures that live beside us.