A sudden crash of branches made me quickly turn my head to see what had made such a racket. But before my eye’s had chance to focus I knew exactly what critter had broke cover for a quieter sanctuary elsewhere; A fallow buck. My lurcher was away, eating up the yards but Mr Fallow ain’t no slouch, a pair of mighty, muscled hindquarters propel him forward with serious power. He’s going to take some catching up, and then the fun really begins. A spray of dark mud and green wheat seedlings scatter in the air from both canine pad and cervine hoof. Atop this male’s head was a set of head gear you could hang plenty of hats on, his thick solid neck and general masculinity making him one hell of a formidable opponent. More than enough for many dogs, mine included as it happens. For some reason the lurcher got within five yards of the rippling rump but that was it, the beast he was chasing proved simply too much for the dog, mentally beaten without even trying. After a long run across the huge southern field the buck vanished into woodland and that was the end of that. Minutes later my cowardly cur came trotting back like he was the best thing since sliced bread, looking as if he’d had a great time chasing but doing little else. That was one of a series of fallow encountered that concluded with a tired dog but no venison on the ground, an experience which is more common than many lead us to believe.
My dear friends, God bless ’em, absolutely love ripping the proverbial out of me. Especially where an article is concerned. They berate me for my love of lamping rabbits and try to take the rise out of articles on that subject. But, as I told them, I really do love lamping rabbits. But then again, I thought I might as well knock a handful of prose out on one of my favourite quarry of all time… the Fallow.
The Romans might have given us the sewage system, straight roads, impressive architecture and the calender but what we hunters need to really thank them for is the fallow deer (and the rabbits but I’m not allowed to mention them in this month’s article!). Like all deer the fallow looks much bigger when it’s alive and trotting about the fields. When they’re deceased they don’t look nearly as big, but they’re still a hefty lump to move. You try and drag a big doe over two fields on your own and you’ll be having palpitations, or try and manhandle a proper buck into the back of the motor, wide palmated antlers making things difficult and a true dead weight that is a two man job to say the least. When you’ve humped a few of these fallow about you suddenly gain plenty of respect for any running dog that can (or could pre-ban blah, blah) stop these spotted behemoths.
Back in the days before I’d had the pleasure of being acquainted with Dama dama I was lead to believe that this species of deer were easy. The usual tall tales were bandied about; how they’re just like cows stood around in the field chewing the cud oblivious to man or his canine, they’re innocently slow and not very difficult to catch. Just who makes these stories up I have no idea but when I first ran fallow my illusions were well and truly shattered. Suddenly, here was a quarry much more difficult from the average common or garden roe that I was normally used to and I was instantly hooked.
I have seen good, experienced roe dogs completely bamboozled when faced with a deer three times their size. Suddenly, things aren’t plain sailing and it’s a dangerous game trying to put the halt on such a fast, heavy and stable deer. The thing with roe is that they’re the ideal size for most running dogs. Most of them go down pretty darn quick, their neck is just about perfect for a dogs jaw and a good dog makes short work of your average roe. Of course, there are the odd exception. One lurcher I saw was something of a maestro where roe deer were concerned. But we slipped him on a fallow lying down one evening and suddenly he didn’t shine so brightly. As one the herd took off for a distant willow plantation, the closer, seated fallow didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to stand and the lurcher was on him double-quick. However, you could see the shock on the dog’s face when the fallow stood to full height and started off down the field. The closer the dog got, the bigger the deer became. That dog gave the deer a token run before coming back, he was in no way going to make much of an impression on such big creatures despite being a roe-slayer par excellence. The amount of time I’ve seen a lurcher simply running alongside the thundering fallow, almost as if they are scared of them!
All the best dogs for this size of deer have been fast and with a mouth like a crocodile, they’re not afraid to knuckle down and take a chance. I would say that there is a far greater chance of having an “arse hanger’’ when running fallow than with any of the other deer (reds aside), simply because they were often so hard to actually get off their feet. In fact, just bringing the deer to a grinding halt takes a lot out of a dog, transferring to a lethal hold can be nigh-on impossible for the canine as swapping ends is easier said than done. Everything is far harder with the bigger deer than the smaller, for both men and dogs alike. The runs too can often be longer and we’ve lost our dogs for a good while on many occasions.
When the old dog Chava was alive he got his first slip on a fallow going across a smallish wheat field over Suffolk way. The doe was already going at full pelt, but Chava was a bit of a speed merchant and while not being what I’d call ‘good’ he had a half tidy mouth on him. The brindle bullet ate the yardage up and a catch looked a certainty but the doe just bounced into the wood in front of him. So we did what we always do, we waited and listened but nothing could be heard. Two minutes turned to five and five turned to ten before we decided we’d better try and find the dog. Often a deer’s spoor can be readily tracked in wintertime when the ground’s soft. The deep splayed hoof prints are quite easy to follow, but there were so many fallow here the ground underfoot was a mosaic of spoor and we lost the track of ‘our’ deer and dog after only a short while. In the bottom was a dry stream bed and I chose to walk this while my cousin headed forty yards up onto a plateau where some old fencing ran parallel to the stream. I have often found that a dog makes a catch in a stream or a ditch, the deer mis-foots itself, stumbles or makes a mistake. But today the fallow wasn’t in the dry stream, it was next to the man-made obstacle that’s claimed the life of many a deer; the fence. A shout brought me running uphill to find a tired and rather wobbly Chava and the newly deceased. It sure was good to find the dog again but I wasn’t looking forward to dragging the carcase back all that way!
Fallow deer are naturally herd animals, this is especially so in the cold winter months where groups can measure well over fifty beasts, which makes for a sight to get any dog man’s pulse racing. Depending on the standard of the dog this herding instinct can either make the fallow easy or hard, it’s all down to the canine at heel. All the best fallow dogs have reaped the benefit when running at a herd, this species of deer really like to follow their leader, and when they are trying to get out of a field by a bottleneck, say a gap in a fence or a well-trod path through a thick hedgerow, a good dog can pick one off with relative ease. As the deer queue they are afflicted with extreme tunnel vision and a fast and effective four-legged-friend coming up the rear can sometimes make his mark, barely having to run. However, a tyro lurcher will often be bamboozled by the amount of hoofs and dappled hides to know what to do. All the very best deer dogs I have seen never run ‘the herd’ they pick a target and stick to it. One useless dog that I had the misfortune of owning never got into the habit of picking a target no matter how many deer I ran him on. I remember we’d once driven for over three hours for a morning’s sport. Fallow were everywhere on this particular country estate, we actually had permission to use the lurchers and we were driving around in kubota buggys like we owned the bloody gaff! There was one particularly big herd of deer that were in a small field surrounded on three sides with wire. My lurcher was away and what an embarrassing sight it was. For some reason the dog chased one deer, then swapped onto another, then another, then another until the only creature that remained in that field was a dog with a tongue a yard long. That was one prime example of a dog losing its head due to the amount of deer running past. Mind you, as it turns out, that lurcher never made much impression on many deer, the only catches that seemed to happen were with deer that were already injured or had ran themselves into fences.
A while ago I had a natter with a man who ran fallow regularly and he was of the opinion that dogs that take deer would always take sheep. I personally think that’s an old wives tale and in my lifetime of owning lurchers I have never, ever had a sheep killer. In fact, past the puppy stage I have yet to own a dog that even looked twice at a sheep and that’s despite running my fair share of the antlered kind, except one occasion when I was hunting the hills up in Scotland and an old ewe jumped up right in front of the dog, half hidden in the long rushes. I think he ran for five or ten yards before the penny dropped and he came back to heel once more. The only reason that any dog chases sheep is down to their owner, that’s my belief, and I have yet to see any evidence that disproves this. I am of the opinion that a dog has at least as good eyesight as we humans do. I’m not referring to colour vision, but actual movement and shape definition. The way I look at it is that if we can tell the difference between a deer and a sheep at a hundred yards then so can the dog. That said, whenever a young lurcher had caught his first deer I would ensure that within a day or two I would have him through the sheep again, just to double check, but there’s never been any reaction that I can recall.
Fallow deer are great nomads, true gypsies of the cervidae, one minute they can be gracefully grazing a field of crop and the next they’re ten miles away on some other land. What I saw when I started watching these deer was that when they were feeding out in the fields they were never stationary, always moving onward heading for the next field or copse or patch of rough. This is the reason why it’s extremely difficult to estimate fallow populations like you can the smaller roe, muntjac and Chinese. The fallow seems to only be concerned about his territory during the first two or three weeks in October when the temperature suddenly drops and that twinge in his loins signifies that it’s once again time to try and pass his genes on.
The sound of a mature buck coughing really is something else, it’s one of the most amazing noises that is to be offered on our small island. When I first heard a buck coughing out his bubbling roar of a challenge to other males the hairs on my neck stood on end. It’s a rare and exciting sound that is unique, if you don’t have access to fallow have a look at the videos on youtube as that will give you some idea, though nothing can come close to actually being out there in the flesh watching the bucks chase and court their fair maidens.
As I stated earlier, I know that some chaps are of the opinion that fallow are slow plodders but I’ve found the reverse to be true. A slow dog won’t come close to a fallow. Sure on the lamp, against a fence then the big, heavy dogs will catch a few, but take that dog out in the daytime and see what happens. In the daytime, when the deer isn’t disorientated or confused, then only speed is going to get a dog within striking distance. I’ve always said that a good big’un will always beat a good little ’un, and I do stick with that, but I do know of smaller lurchers that have taken some big bucks in their time, so maybe a lot depends on the dog’s ‘minerals’ rather than its poundage. Who’s to say. I’m still learning and my opinions change with new experiences.
So, there we have it, a change away from my rabbiting pieces; a few thoughts on that most amazing of quarry’s from days gone by… Ol’ dappley – the Fallow.