Why do we keep deer heads?
There are a number of important reasons why, says Graham Downing in Shooting Times, not least because they are an essential record
Why do we prepare and keep the heads of the deer that we shoot? Why do we measure deer heads and treasure them in the way that we do?
Since the dawn of time, hunters have retained the antlered heads of the deer that they have taken in the chase. Initially, no doubt, it was in order to demonstrate their own personal prowess and the richness of the hunting grounds over which they had control and also for sheer delight at the beauty of the antlers themselves — one of nature’s wonders.
Appreciation and enjoyment of what is effectively a piece of natural art is still with us. One only has to look inside the average interior design shop to see that the artificial representation of an antlered head manufactured for hanging on the wall of a living room or study is still alive and well. They may be multicoloured miniatures sculpted in plastic or resin, but stag’s head wall mounts remain popular decorations.
Story of a succcessful hunt
For the deerstalker, though, the urge to retain and display antlered heads is about more than simply decorating the house or workspace. Each head tells the story of a successful hunt. It helps us recall a day when, through our own skill, we took a wild animal from hill or wood. It enables us to bring to mind precious memories, to celebrate our quarry and afford it the respect it deserves.
Each head also lays bare the story of the deer itself. Its age and status within the population, the time of year at which it was taken, or maybe the effects wrought by injury or disease. At once, it becomes more than a mere memento. It becomes part of the record of the species and its management.
When I started stalking muntjac seriously, more than 20 years ago, I made the rather rash decision to cut and prepare frontlets of all the bucks that I shot. I started to mount them in sequence on a piece of timber, marked with the date and place where they were taken. I maintain that collection today, each antlered buck I shoot receiving the same treatment.
Whether it is a simple first head or a potential medal, each specimen is carefully skinned, cut, boiled out, cleaned and mounted on a board, with location and date written underneath. It’s a permanent record of my stalking, an interesting decoration, initially for the walls of the utility room, but which has now spilled out into my office, and a token of respect for the animals I have shot. But actually it’s more than that.
I can see certain antler formations recurring on the estates where I regularly stalk. I can follow dates of antler cast and regrowth. I can pick out oddities, such as malformed antlers and rare multipoint heads, and I can cross-reference the heads on my wall with the entries in my game diary to enable me to relive a particular outing.
An organised collection of heads is a physical record of the management of an estate or stalking ground. From a muntjac perspective, on a property where the aim is simply to control numbers, I can see the age class alter over time. On one estate where I have shot for 15 years and where I once took a regular harvest of mature or even medal-class heads, the proportion of young to old heads has increased significantly, simply because muntjac have less chance of achieving old age.
Today, my more interesting muntjac heads tend to come from out-of-the-way places. Isolated woods and small farms with thick hedgerows that are rarely stalked, where an old buck can establish a territory and lurk for several years in peace and security until his presence is finally rumbled.
Curious or uneven heads will often signify the presence of disability or injury. It is interesting, for example, how often a leg injury that alters a buck’s gait during the crucial annual period of antler development will result in an antler deformity, very often on the opposite side of the animal from the affected leg.
The cause is not entirely clear, but is probably associated with a limp that causes the head to move unusually with each step. Deformities that are the result of injury to the pedicle during antler growth are more obvious, sometimes producing an amorphous castellated bony mass in place of the conventional antler beam.
Roe management may well produce a significantly different collection. For the roe stalker, consistent proportions of young, mature and medal-class heads year on year will signal that they have got things about right, removing a regular cull of younger animals while allowing better, more promising ones to mature, assume territories and improve the quality of the population. On an estate where there is commercial interest in stalking, even muntjac may be judiciously managed in order to supply a small number of quality antlered bucks. Field observation of the detail of a muntjac’s headgear being virtually impossible, such management tends towards culling bucks with closely set pedicles that are unlikely to go on to produce the wide antler span that will potentially attract medal status.
While it is fair to say that most stalkers like to take, once in a while, a really attractive mature male of the deer species that fascinates them, the quest for medals is not the be-all and end-all of stalking.
Measurement of heads does, however, provide an internationally recognised baseline of the quality of our wild deer, a recorded dataset against which the performance of populations can be assessed over time. There is no doubt that it also furthers interest in and respect for the various deer species. Each year, I look at the heads that I have shot, maybe take a tape measure to them myself, and if I think they’ll make the grade, I will get them formally measured.
The result is a smattering of green ribbons and medals dangling from the rows of muntjac heads on the wall. Once, these would have been called trophy heads, but today’s twisted terminology associates such things with ‘trophy hunting’, a now politically incorrect activity frowned upon by government.
It’s terribly sad and not a little frightening how quickly attitudes towards hunting trophies have shifted since the Cecil the lion affair. I have no doubt that the change in popular opinion is a permanent one, but it underlines the gulf of misunderstanding between, on the one hand, the average consumer of social media and BBC news and, on the other, those of us who spend much of our lives outdoors observing, studying, hunting and trying to understand the wild creatures with which we share the countryside. If you preserve and collect the heads of the bucks that you shoot, does that make you a trophy hunter?
It all depends upon your personal hunting philosophy. I hunt to control deer for the landowner on the ground where I am privileged to stalk. I hunt to produce quality wild venison for my family and for sale to people who want to eat it and I hunt because I find hunting fascinating and challenging.
The antlered head is a by-product of the hunting process — an important one that enables me to engage in a rather special way with the creatures I hunt. Prepare it, mount it, label it, keep it and admire it or dispose of it along with the legs and bones. The choice is yours.