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Winter roe management – the pros and cons

February and March are conducive to keeping on top of the roe deer population because of the lack of vegetation, but there are drawbacks as Jon Snowdon explains


The roe doe open season now extends to the end of March

For us here in Northumberland, whilst we hope to have at least come close to our management plan cull, the month of February is a critical period. As an aside there may be some of our readers who recall that the roe cull used to finish at the end of February. Due to the deer population increasing this was changed and the roe doe open season now ends on the 31 March, a month later.

Many at the time did not agree that it was necessary to shoot female deer after February. In fact, I still have clients who have been coming for years that do not come up in March for that reason. Roe does are obviously very pregnant at that time. They are likely to give birth to their young in May.

Some of you may have read my piece about seeing a young roe kid on 1 May that had obviously been born in the last two weeks of April. I can understand some stalkers finding it distasteful to take a roe doe out in March that on the internal carcass inspection (gralloch) has a fully formed roe kid. I can’t say I look forward to that either, however the rising numbers of deer do need controlling for both the landowner and, more importantly, the health and condition of the deer population.

Everyone has their own opinion and we have to respect that. Saying that, the roe doe is technically pregnant by September and even in December but, of course, it is not that obvious. Roe deer are the only deer that demonstrate embryonic diapause (a temporary arrest of embryo development) and even though mated in August the foetus is often not visible until January.


Crucial time of year

For us, February and March have become an important time of the year for us to catch up on numbers. The main reason being that at that time of year the ground cover and the foliage has gone. Sight lines are clearer making identification much easier, with the added bonus that the lines of fire are clearer of obstruction and therefore bullet deflection is less likely. In short, it is more likely that a safe humane shot can be taken with confidence due to the clearer view. Before this period, certainly up to the end of December and often even in January, there may still be tree foliage and ground cover, and shots will not be taken for those reasons.

Here in Northumberland, as a result of a very mild 2022, the trees had some foliage right up to December and ground cover, although thinning, had certainly not withered. 

February and March are the time that we will be out because it is the perfect time to gain a much clearer picture of what is still on the ground, leading to a much more accurate estimate of the recruitment of young, purely because we can see them. (Read more here for how to estimate the size of deer populations for a management plan).

As a group, up to mid January we do not shoot does, but we will always try to take the young to ensure kids are not left without their parents’ mentoring through the most difficult period of the year for the deer. Once we reach the end of January, the young are very likely to survive (depending on the winter) so we will also cull adult does more often. However, as with many things in life, there is always a drawback. It naturally follows that if we have clearer sight lines through the woodland, so do the deer and they can see stalkers more easily. Swings and roundabouts. Hey ho a stalkers life. 


From the wood to plate

I had the pleasure of hosting a group of chefs who attended a deer carcass butchery course here at Hill House. BASC North had organised this for the team from Northcote, a luxury hotel in the Ribble Valley on the edge of the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. 

I was not quite sure what I could offer on the course that would be rewarding to a group of dedicated professionals. Before the course I thought that most chefs would be supplied with the cuts they wanted, rather than a complete carcass, where waste would be reduced, an important factor in the production of any meal.

The group was really interested to see a whole roe deer carcass steadily broken down to produce the numerous cuts. They were all professional and, as you would expect, committed to their art. What was rewarding for me was the lack of inhibition and everyone was happy to get stuck in. They did, of course, have all of the expertise needed when handling knives and equipment as well as very high levels of hygiene necessary for their profession.

Jon, centre, with the group of chefs on the the butchery course

Both shoulders from the carcass were removed and diced. There is the option of rolling the shoulder but on a roe shoulder there is so little meat it is better to dice it for either mincing or using in casserole dishes.

Then came the removal of the loin fillet. Personally I always fillet the loin. It can be left and taken with the complete saddle or cut into chops, however it is such a marvellous cut I feel that to roast a saddle is a waste. Far better to use the loin fillet as medallions. In doing that you can get the cut and size you want to suit your cooking method.

This group knew exactly the temperature and time required to produce the perfect, delicious rare loin medallion. My mouth was watering just imagining the sauces these guys would create. The haunches were then butchered into the separate cuts that comprise silverside, topside, the round and salmon cut. 

As with the loin, my personal choice is not to roast the haunch. The muscles (cuts) within a haunch are very different in taste and texture and because of that they should have different cooking times to produce the very best dish from each individual cut. This can’t be done with a whole haunch. Finally the neck fillets were removed.

The course demonstrated how to break down a roe carcas

I certainly learnt a lot from this dedicated team, especially about what the chefs may prefer as well as a clearer idea of how to present it. The group was happy to share information, in particular the sauces hinted at were mouthwatering.

I was really impressed at the end when they asked for and took the bones to make the stock for all of those tempting sauces. Alas we had run out of time. If we had had more time I would have attempted to purloin all their secret recipes.

Lunch for us all was created by Andrea – no pressure there then. It was a very simple, tender, rare loin fillet in a bun complemented by some delicious apple and rosemary jelly that she had made early last autumn. That wonderful mix of game and slight sweetness of the jelly was perfect and it certainly seemed to go down well with the group.