Where has January gone? 2012 finished in the typical damp, grey and dreary fashion that we have come to expect in the UK. Personally, I was glad to see the back of it although we are still seeing repercussions of the awful weather even now.
My last blogs mentioned the Venison salami and the Withy Quad pod, little did I know how successful both would turn out to be. The next batch of Salami is currently ‘in process’ and largely sold and poor Derek has been inundated with orders for the Quad pod – talking of the pod, although I haven’t yet broken mine, I did come up with a couple of very minor tweaks that are now incorporated into every set, one of which we only became aware of whilst out in the snow – at least we can now say they have been tested in all weather conditions!
The recent hard weather certainly pushed the deer back into the woods and the heavy snow that followed was just what we were waiting for, it always allows us a chance to get ahead or as was the case this year to catch up a bit. Right through from August when the Fallow bucks came into season we have been behind on numbers. At first it didn’t really bother us as we can usually catch up at some point but by the end of September I was beginning to get a bit worried as we were a long way down on normal. We started October full of enthusiasm, this is our favourite month by a long chalk – the Fallow rut would be upon us any minute with the woods alive to the rhythmic belching of the Master bucks calling in the does with fights aplenty, but two weeks in and I was beginning to fear the worst, something wasn’t right. The bucks were there all right but not on the traditional rutting stands, they were wandering around all over the place, and where were all the prickets, the teenagers of the fallow world, full of testosterone looking for the girls? It was only during the last week of October that things became even remotely normal with the rut reaching a crescendo on the last weekend in October when a few lucky clients got to see some awesome spectacles, with Master Bucks fighting off younger rivals and shouting their dominance whilst groups of does and hopeful prickets gathered round – we certainly made hay that weekend with a good number of prickets and immature bucks lardered. Literally two days later, it was over, I saw a big buck take off with a big group of does never to be seen again – just where and how they manage to disappear is still a mystery but five days after that fantastic weekend the woods were lifeless, but no matter, the does were now in season so a chance to redress the balance – or so we thought.
Earlier in the year with our deer managers hats on we had discussed the population of both Muntjac and Roe on the estates we manage. Derek loves Munties and I love Roe – neither of us really gets too excited over Fallow as we know there’ll usually be plenty, but we both got the feeling that in past years we had maybe been a bit too hard on the Roe and Muntjac so a joint decision was made to go easy on them both and see what would happen – more as an experiment than anything. From early on it was evident that Munties are prolific, even as far back as April which is the beginning of our year we were seeing plenty and so it continued throughout the year, similarly with the roe although we tend to see more later in the year when they move back to the woods from the open fields. My concern this year was what effect would the horrendous weather have on the population recruitment for the year. Apart from other deer managers I rarely get to talk to people about the deer population dynamics, why? Because it doesn’t affect 95% of stalkers who are recreational stalkers and who may blame lack of numbers on their ground on an over zealous neighbouring stalker, this then leads to the old “well if I don’t shoot it someone else will” syndrome and before we know it the deer population is over shot in that area, sadly with deerstalking still gaining in popularity this will continue to happen. Often when I get asked questions about Level 1 & 2, the way I describe them is that Level 1 is “Could I shoot it?” Is it in season, is it safe etc, Level 2 is “Should I shoot it?” Is it the right doe to shoot and why, are they doing so much damage as to warrant shooting it or is just shooting it for the sake of it? Sadly I suspect far too many deer are shot for the sake of it without a thought as to the overall management.
I digress, back to our redressing the balance. The weather in November was just as dire as the rest of the year with low pressure system after low pressure system sweeping in and keeping us miserable, we ended with our worst November to date, following our worst October, September and August! By now we were really concerned and were clutching at straws, ok, so we hadn’t shot any Muntjac or Roe and a number of animals and opportunities had been missed by clients but even so we were still well behind on previous years, December followed suit and we only just managed to keep our butchers supplied for their Christmas orders. By now we had written the year off, clearly something had happened, but what? The few people I spoke to had little explanation apart from mortality rates due to the inclement weather (we lost a baby Alpaca in June to hypothermia) but I refused to believe that the weather would have resulted in the loss of so many wild animals with plenty of woodland cover and an abundance of natural food available. Would we ever find the answer?
January saw a break in the horrendous weather albeit temporarily and an icy snap gripped the country. I had very few clients booked and only a Level 1 course to get in the way in the middle of the month, I was going to have to do this myself, I was determined to find out what was going on so it was a question of knuckling down and finding the deer. My first visit of the new year and it was like a switch had been flicked, from the minute I got on the estate I was seeing deer and only minutes later I’d missed my first of the new year! Twenty minutes later however I didn’t miss and a doe with a follower had been added to the cull. However, on approaching the fawn I could see something wasn’t right, it was tiny. During the gralloch I was expecting the worst but everything was perfectly normal, it was just tiny, back at the larder it was weighed at 10.5kg clean! I would expect a normal fawn at this time of year to weigh nearer 18kg minimum. The next two weeks were business as usual with plenty of deer in the woods and subsequently in the larder, and then the snow arrived as forecast. We love the snow, not because we can go sledging, but because we know that the deer will come into the woods and we are generally waiting for them! It snowed pretty much constantly for a 24 hour period and when it stopped we had a good foot of the stuff, passing stranded and abandoned vehicles I made my way to the woods, I knew where they’d be and I wasn’t to be disappointed and after three hours I stopped shooting, there was an hours light left and I had a lot of deer to extract and from the sound of it Derek did as well! Usually when I am shooting ‘on the move’ and expect to shoot several I’ll shoot them, bleed them and leave them nearby for pick up later and then have a big gralloching session to maximise my effective time on the ground. It was two of the last three that surprised me, a doe and two fawns, the doe and first fawn were straight forward neck shots and on approaching the fallen animals it was clear they were expired, the third was a fawn about 140 yards away which off the quad pod is as steady as a bipod but I still took a heart/lung shot which flattened it and on approaching it I could see why, I’d had a quick glimpse of the first fawn and thought it was small, the second was even smaller. Gralloching done I made my way back to find Derek who was also finishing up with similar success, I then made my way back to the larder to discover the grim reality. The bigger of the two fawns weighed 12kg and the smallest weighed just 9.5kg clean. What on earth was going on? Unfortunately this was on a Saturday, who could I ring who might be able to give me an expert opinion, I needed someone with some proper experience with wild deer and I could think of only two and neither would thank me for calling them on a Saturday night!
I just couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the weekend, I had theories but could they be right? On Monday morning I rang Nick Lane, the head of the training department for BASC, Nick has had over 30 years in the industry and is also the head assessor for DMQ. He was a little puzzled but agreed with my theory of late fawns, but just how late can a fawn be born and survive to be that weight in January – October is the answer, as opposed to June or early July as normal. My next question was unfortunately met with no answer, why is this happening? Nick didn’t know. I know some animals, Alpacas included, can delay giving birth for a few weeks if the weather is inclement but 3 – 4 months is pushing it a bit. Nick did however throw another spanner in the works, certain leading authorities are extremely vociferous about fallow never giving birth to twins – now, far be it from me to disagree but, I have shot quite a few big does late in the season on estates where the pheasant shooting keeps us off till February, that have twin foetuses. This last year there has been an abundance of food for all deer species with cuts of hay and silage delayed and cereals in some cases never combined, who is to say that with such a supply of easy food some of these twin foetuses haven’t gone full term and these very small fawns aren’t actually one of twins, the trouble is by next July/August when we see does with two followers we automatically assume that it’s the doe with a new fawn and the previous years in tow. I then picked up the phone to Peter Pursglove, the assessor I use for my Level 1 courses and a Forestry Commission ranger of 27 years, to see if he had any theories. Unfortunately, it was the same ideas that Nick had, late fawns, although Peter did back this up by remembering does shot in November with newly dead foetuses inside suggesting the fawn should have been born very late. Interestingly though Peter didn’t disagree with the twin theory but instead added some of his own thoughts, thoughts that quite frankly really made me sit up and think – modern deerstalking practices are changing the behaviour and more worryingly the physiology of our deer. Think about that. I’ve already touched on this earlier with regards pressure on deer populations. With the popularity of deerstalking on a seemingly never-ending increase there is no wonder deer are coming under more pressure, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a bit of land wants a rifle, dreams of becoming a professional stalker and spending day after day on the ground shooting hundreds of deer, until they wake up and realise the bills need paying! My point is this, in the last 18 months I have put in excess of 100 people through the Level 1 course, other providers are doing the same, these candidates may or may not have their own ground at the time of the course but it is what they all strive towards. What will happen when every farm and bit of land has a stalker on it? Deer will adapt to survive, they will change their breeding habits, their feeding habits, its called evolution!
Having spoken to a number of professional stalkers about their own scenarios it would appear that some are finding the same and everyone is blaming the weather, but then, when we discuss the Roe and Fallow ruts which now appear to be happening during the hours of darkness and for shorter periods, fallow disappearing for months, becoming nocturnal in October rather than February as normal, it becomes clear that something deeper may be behind this behaviour. I would like to think that the events of this last year are a one off and that things will return to normal in time but I have a sneaking suspicion that this could be the start of something more permanent, only time will tell.