A Lifetime of Roe – (Darcy Looks Back in Time)

So there we were, the four of us scratching our heads. All along the old disused railway lines we’d hunted but the lurcher hadn’t had a run. It was as if the deer population had packed their bags and left. This was a long time ago when a couple of keen young beaters helped out with knocking through the cover. Today they’re grown men with dogs of their own and probably have their own ‘apprentices’ at heel; the cycle continues. But anyway, the covers were run to death with deep wet slots, fresh deer seats were obvious under the old conifer trees and yet we’d not had a single view of a big blonde booty. The roe here weren’t dummies, they were well versed in the ways of running dogs, there was no dilly dallying as they broke cover as, generally, the ones that hesitated found their next resting place to be alongside the fish fingers and chicken nuggets in the deep freeze. The dog I had that day was Scooby and he was fairly clued up on deer, roe especially, and while our little group stood and scratched our heads he got his nose down and started off up the cinder track like a long-legged bloodhound. Now, knowing the dog like I knew the dog I was fairly certain that he was on the recent scent of bambi.

“Look at him” I said to the lads and I stopped him with a call, walked further along the track to where there was literally half a dozen trees and a thick hedge right behind a row of council houses.

“They can’t be there” said one of the young ’uns reading my thoughts.

“Oh yes they can!” was the reply.

I hunkered down in the long grass and waited. I was expecting a roe to break but when that galloping apparition finally exploded from the hedge it still took me by surprise. My dog would have his work cut out this time as the fat, healthy doe was no slouch, she headed for the fence at full speed ahead and I actually doubted that the lurcher would be fast enough to get up close and personal. Luckily, I’d underestimated my boy and when we breathlessly found him he was performing the last rites.

I honestly think that many people never gave roe deer the credit they deserve for being cunning and swift. Too many have judged the roe when under artificial light, when they often lose their heads, make silly mistakes and bounce off taut fences. However, in the daytime, only the very best dogs stand a chance when running against the very best roe.

The deer that live in the north often saw a fair amount of dog lads, and come Christmas the survivors are either very smart or very speedy. Or both. The local roe population to me used to take a fair walloping each year, but don’t get me wrong, I missed my fair share too! There was one population that lived on a patch of rough land that was half wood and half field, they probably recognised me I hunted them that often. One afternoon I snuck up to the edge of a small, wet wood that the roe loved to frequent, hoping to surprise them with my sub-standard dog that I owned at the time. As often with my little plans the deer were not where they ‘always’ were, instead they were down the field some fifty yards. My dog was away and, for some crazy reason actually ran past one deer to chase the other that was further away. There was no chance of the lurcher making a catch unless the roe tripped over so I watched the other one instead. She was a fat doe, obviously born with plenty of little grey cells in her cranium too. As casual as you like she hopped over a sagging wire fence and walked, ears alert, into a patch of long, yellow grass the size of your living room, then she lay down. It was a great experience just to watch how an animal adapts itself to survival and, really, I wasn’t surprised as I’d seen roe do a few tricks like that before. You’ve got to admire those cunning ones.

For over thirty years I’ve been obsessed with roe. In fact, obsessed is an understatement. In fact, an understatement is an understatement. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why, but there’s just something about roe that really gets my pulse rate on the rise. Roe can make a man contradict himself and, in the daytime, are often a good barometer of a running dog’s qualities. More than one occasion a man’s had his mind changed when his dog got onto the white arse of capreolus, myself included. I remember one young dog that I owned, he was a fast and deadly deer assassin, a proper tool for filling the game dealer’s chiller. My confidence in him was overflowing and I remember boasting to a mate on how he’s just too fast for any deer to escape, and my mate just smiled. Yep, the very next roe that we stumbled upon dragged my dog from one side of the land to the other and he never even looked like putting his mouth to use. I sure had my tail tucked well and truly between my legs that day. I obviously needed bringing down a peg or two and that roe did a good job of that.

I was enjoying a day’s coursing with two pals over on the flat arable fields of Lincolnshire. Hares weren’t exactly what you’d call abundant but all the dogs got their runs and the craic was good. Earlier on in the day when we’d been chatting the subject of deer cropped up and I was told that roe were ‘easy’. Fair enough, we’ve all got our own opinions, but I said that if they thought roe were easy then they hadn’t run enough of them. As we were getting ready to leave the field later on as dusk started to creep in we noticed a pair of roe had left a strip wood and were standing out on the crop, maybe eighty yards away.

“Go on then,” I said “give them a slip” at which the lad slipped his good bitch on the roe. The running dog was a fairly swift article with a pile of hares under her belt but she coursed that roe down three big fields and never so much as got the bend in before a lump of thick wood was found and that was the end of that. My argument was that if that deer had been a hare then the bitch would have been bending it all over, and it certainly wouldn’t have straight-lined her for three fields. A good roe is just that: good. We all argue about what we think is the fastest quarry in our lands and it’s a close call, but I think that a good roe is faster than a good anything else.

I was weaned on roe and I guess that they’ve pretty much taught me most of the lessons that I needed; the first being not to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, or venison burgers before the knife’s been used. But we do, that’s what we hunters are; optimists, and for most of the time when we slip we’re expecting success. Where I grew up there wasn’t many deer; you could say that, locally, roe were classed as celebrities. Even having their photos in newspapers such was the shock of them being ‘discovered’. It took me quite a while to apprehend my first deer, I’d ran a fair few with the old, slow lurcher who was so stock broken that he really wasn’t quite sure that roe were fair game. In the end though the penny dropped and a boy’s destiny was changed forever. Now the embers were well and truly stoked, but it took me a hell of a long time to get a dog that I thought was ‘good’ on the roe. That said, nothing has ever come close to the feeling of elation at taking my first deer, it was a very major deal for me and it meant I was up there with the very few lurcher men in our area that had harvested one. It had been a hard won trophy for me, though I’d had many skirmishes with them previously.

I remember one particular roe during one of the many annual fishing trips North of the Border, at Grantown on Spey. The fishing was, as per usual, very poor due to lack of water. Like a stuck record the local bailiff reassured us that we “should have been here last week, salmon were crawling up the rods”. I was eleven going on twelve and suddenly the wilds of Scotland were in front of me and, more to the point, an abundance of deer. From outside the lodgings I managed to spot a roe feeding alongside some very high deer fencing so I hatched a plan to rapidly lower its life expectancy. Out came my old sheath knife and, red-injun-like, I stalked the innocently browsing roe. This was in the days when boys were given knives and guns as presents for being well behaved, a sort of rite of passage to help a boy take that one step further to being a man. How the world has changed! A breeze and copious grass aided a boy to move undetected, but looking back I think that the roe must have been slightly retarded to have allowed such a close clumsy approach. I was probably only twenty yards away now, peeking through the swaying grass like a Japanese sniper. At the time martial arts were all the rage and I had a fleeting thought of throwing the knife at the deer, hoping to skewer its heart. But I decided I would just try and get it against the tall wire instead. Oh the naivety of youth! In a dash that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Zulu I broke cover, the startled bambi decided to heard for quieter pastures, running away down the fence until it reached the corner then came straight back toward me. Now in that second or so of the roe hurtling toward me I suppose a million ways of how to kill a deer went through my mind, but by the time I’d settled on one of them it had already pronked right on by. But I wasn’t going to give in so easily, no way Jose, and back down the fence line I went. What a sight we must have been; one dumb kid chasing one dumb deer and neither one getting anywhere fast! The deer reached the corner, did a 180 and came right on by again. This scenario repeated itself until the deer finally realised that there was a hell of a lot of field and woodland to hide in if it forgot about the fence and just ran straight away, and that’s what it did. So I was still waiting to break my cervidae cherry and yet I’d learnt a valuable lesson about the roe, and most other deer for that matter. When they panic they often can’t think straight, this is the deer’s weakness and it can be exploited if so wished.

Then again, on the flip side, deer exploit our weakness by simply standing still and hoping we humans go noisily walking on by. And we often do. How many times do we spot a deer before it moves? Or our forward-facing eyes pick out the trio of roe sat statue-still on the ground only forty short yards from the footpath? It’s not as if the roe hasn’t got a huge white derrière to act as a beacon and yet if they stand still they seem to blend in as good as a chameleon, no matter what background.

From barely out of the nappy I’ve been keen on reading animal signs, working things out, seeing where the roe have been using the gap in the hedgerow or where they’ve found a fallen rail on a fence and that’s where they hop over into the fields to feed. Just like water, roe follow the path of least resistance, like most wild animals, they do not seek to make things any more difficult for themselves than things already are. Runs are passed on from one generation to the next, often cutting a groove into the ground at the pinch-points. But here’s the funny thing, even if the whole population of roe in a certain patch are wiped out, the next colonisers will use the very same paths and runways. And along those lines I know of certain fields where roe will be found at only a particular time each and every year, even though the previous tenants have been grassed, a new roe will be in situ almost to the day some twelve months later. This is most often in the buttercup fields, so maybe the deer can smell from a distance just when a certain natural crop is ripe for the picking. Roe do love the buttercups and I’ve seen them full to bursting with the chewed yellow flowers. I managed to catch a hell of a lot of local roe by tracking them, even in places that they are very difficult to catch, getting good ambush points close to deer paths, giving the lurcher an advantage.

One such ambush point was on the edge of a small patch of rough grass that the plough could never reach. A grazing field met a huge arable desert and along the fence line that separated the two was a deer run that looked so amazing that it could cure any deer fanatic’s impotence. I mean, it was always completely paddled with fresh slots. It was in that long grass that I would sit with a keen canine waiting for a roe to literally bump into us. We didn’t catch all the time, but who ever expects to? I remember hunkering down like a leveret in wait with my brindle dog, Jack. The beaters had walked the wood, the distant cracking of sticks soon had roe out of their beds. It’s got to be one of the most exciting times in the whole spectrum of fieldsports; waiting for a roe to break, your heart’s thumping in your throat and the pulse rate rises to proportions that would make your life insurance company start to worry. Your eyes are everywhere, waiting for that movement and your ears would swivel if they could, eager for the merest audio clue. Your dog is rigid, shivering with adrenaline and you know how he’s feeling. I don’t know how long I sat but when the roe finally appeared it was as if by magic. I never saw them break out of the wood, only when they were on their path, trotting towards hidden danger. Thirty yards, twenty yards, ten yards and away the brindle dog went. The look on the lead roe was one of shock but it wasn’t flustered for long. Within a matter of a couple of seconds the roe had galvanised itself into gear… top gear, and it headed in a wide arc back to the wood, powered by speed known only by the pursued. These deer weren’t exactly strangers to danger, I’d been exercising them for a decade or more, so they were plenty clued up. Jack was close enough now to make a play, but he tried for a grab in the wrong spot, took a mouthful of quills and then stumbled leaving his quarry to hit the wood, vanishing from sight within a single bound. Roe do make a man realise that you’ve got to wait for the fat lady to sing before you reach for the Oxo cubes. On that occasion the roe lived to run another day but other chases haven’t always ended the same way.

My first proper lurcher was something of a slouch, a four-legged amalgamation of bad breeding, but he sure was clever. But clever don’t catch deer, least not during the daytime. It was another lesson I learnt young; if you want to stand a chance of getting some antlers on the wall then your hound better be fleet because a plodding cur isn’t going to do too much damage to the deer population. If I ever had to choose between brains and performance then it would always be the latter, but thankfully, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive.

One important lesson that I learnt was that it’s not really possible to make a deer go where it doesn’t want to go. Sure you can persuade them and manipulate their direction a bit but if that big buck doesn’t want to run out into no man’s land then it just isn’t happening. At first we made plans to beat woods out in the direction of huge flat fields, but in every instance the deer just didn’t keep their side of the bargain. It took a little bit of thought for my young brain to realise that the way to go about the job was to run them from wood to wood, or cover to cover, then encounters were far more successful. Well, we missed about 90% of the roe we ran because our dogs were about as speedy as a sloth with athlete’s foot. But we learnt and we tried and then one day when we got better dogs everything changed and we were winning more than we were losing. Typically we had some favourite places to hunt, two in particular and, incidentally, both woods were the same shape, like a shoulder of mutton. The shape of a wood might not seem important to some, but a triangular type of wood is far easier to hunt than a square or rectangle. The Modus Operandi being to start beating from the widest point, slowly persuading the roe to move into the narrower point where they would find it harder to break back. With a little thought such woods are often workable with just one keen beater, though two are always preferable. The wood which is closer to me has given us some amazing sport over the years. I think that one time we were going there every Saturday morning and yet, even with all that regular disturbance, the roe were still there. The wood itself is an old deciduous place, situated on a slope with small plateaus all the way up. But it’s only at the very top that the roe like to make their bed for the day. Under some stunted elder bushes the deer scrape the ground with their forefeet, clearing the old sycamore leaves until a nice clear patch is made, then they lay down, much in the manner of a dog in its basket. At the start of the hunting season those roe were much easier, but even then the lurcher had his work cut out. Below the wood was a sloping grass field, only a short distance away was the sanctuary of yet another wood so a dog had to be able to give it legs to get close enough for a catch otherwise the roe was away. The wood that these deer always headed to was surrounded by a wire fence on its perimeter, the sort of concrete post and wire strands that you’d find on a railway banking. The gaps in between the horizontal strands of wire being about eight or ten inches apart. You’d think that this would serve as an obstacle for a roe, especially when going at full speed, but in every single case the deer went straight through those gaps like they were three yard high. Most of the time they managed to perform the feat barely breaking their stride, leaving the running dog to slot his way through, but although more streamlined than the roe, the dog never managed to go through quite as fluidly. It was exciting being sat at the bottom of the field waiting for the roe to break, they would come to the edge of the wood, then nonchalantly hop over an old stone wall into the field. At the start of the season they would often stand listening, not realising that a dog-shaped dose of death was hurtling toward them. However, by the time the New Year had broken, those roe left the wood at full gallop, not slowing or hanging around for nothing or no one. Nope, those survivors had no intention of ending up on the slab, they knew just what they had to do to stay alive for another day. I had some great hunts on that green sloping field and plenty of fantastic memories remain. One of the most embarrassing was when no less than eight roe left the wood and, despite my lurcher running them from one side of the field to the other, not a single one was harmed, they all escaped scot-free leaving me with my ‘lip’ out and having a severe talk with myself over my future partnership with that particularly useless lurcher.

Fallow buck running

Fallow buck running

Roe are certainly not afraid of water and I learnt that during my teenage years when I used to chase a group of deer about on a strip of rough land that ran between one canal and another. I never did catch a deer on that land but I had plenty of sport trying, though it has to be said, that those roe were experts in the art of staying alive. We’d managed to persuade the deer one afternoon to head into the narrower part of the already narrow strip. The two dogs we had that day were Rocky and Kim and now we were going to show ’em! But, typically, when you think that the quarry is doomed they show you who the loser really is. Both dogs were off hunting the same doe, a big fat old girl she was, no doubt a veteran at escaping the hordes of dog men in the area. And now a young man was going to bring her to task. Except he didn’t. When it looked like a catch was a certainty she gave one almighty jump, landed three quarters of the way across the canal, seemingly bounced out of the water, onto the bank and cantered away like a race horse that had just won the Derby.

Fast forward a decade or so, and we used to hunt a bit of an island that held roe from time to time. Here too the roe entered the water with no hesitation, sometimes with a lurcher close behind, the dogs never did catch one in the water, but we did manage some slight success on the island; though I have no idea how as it was choked with saplings and patches of thick grass.

One of my favourite hunting places used to be a thick willow plantation that I stumbled across on my travels. During the summer months and early autumn not a deer would be seen but once the crops had been harvested then things were a different matter. Suddenly the countryside was bare, hedgerows and trees leafless, winter’s well and truly arrived and there’s only limited places to sit out the short day hours. The jungle-like willow proved ideal for the roe but it made hard work for the canine. Due to Salix being planted in straight rows, a canny hunter can often sneak along the perimeter, peeking up the lines to see if he can see a brown blob sat chewing last night’s cud. Then the fun begins. At first the roe are too smart for the uneducated dog, by the time he’s gotten to where they were laid the deer have simply nipped through a couple of rows whilst the crazy canine has gone hurtling straight down the lines into the distance. Of course, dogs aren’t too daft and after a couple of experiences like this they realise that the roe simply nip through a curtain of willow and escape at a brisk walk, so he knows to slow at the spot where they were bedded and follow through the whippy stems. Roe are hard to apprehend on that patch but it’s not just about the catch, it was the hunt and just being out there. Free from the stresses of the 21st century, rooting about in a partnership that has remained unchanged in centuries, the close bond between man and dog, both hunters, both predators, both with the same mindset.

Looking back, it’s obvious that I’ve a lot to thank the roe for, that antlered bundle of legs, brains and muscle taught me to be a sportsman, to notice the little signs in the woods and fields. I didn’t mind my dog missing a roe, such was the respect in which I held them. I was helping nature, predator and prey, one on one. The good ones survived and the ones that weren’t quite so good didn’t. Those top-class runners got to pass their genes on, in turn producing better young. The cycle continued. Natural selection is what the biologists call it, but I call it hunting.