Calling Muntjac Deer
From an article published in Deer Magazine, Autumn 2006. Gerald Collini
Living in west Cambridgeshire we were quite deer-less here before Muntjac appeared in the 1960’s and 70’s. Fallow deer were established to the North West in Rockingham Forest but the local pattern of farmland and small woods held nothing. The felling after Dutch Elm disease allowed a dense under-story of brambles to grow up so almost every group of trees or thick hedge with some dense bottom has resident or visiting Muntjac. The browse line is obvious along most hedgerows, sitings are common as are road casualties.
About 25 years ago I recognised the population dynamics involved, saw the increasing pressure upon woodland flora, heard the unfavourable comments from landowners, foresters, gamekeepers and gardeners, and bought a centre fire rifle. I read all I could find on the subject of deer stalking and started going up to Scotland to hunt Red and Roe deer. My interest increased rapidly and other’s tactics had obviously rubbed off making my local successes (sitings) increase, but outings were conventional morning and evening. I often wondered about being more proactive during the main part of the day, finding gentle stalking with its bow-wave of disturbance, principally birds, kept success rates low and time use high. Along came David Barnes’ article on calling muntjac, in Stalking magazine. This fired my enthusiasm. A telephone conversation with David helped answer several questions. Another call to that famous stalker’s emporium in Hampshire for a Universal Roe-call and away I went – well nearly. It was several weeks before I had a go.
3rd November 1998 – 8.15 a.m. Returning from an unsuccessful early morning stalk with a Client I had relaxed and clumsily bumped a browsing doe, she was up-wind and ran into dense cover at about 35 metres then started to bark. With nothing to lose I promptly placed the Client in front of some good background, set him up on shooting sticks facing the cover and started sucking the Roe Call. My first squeak was answered by another Muntjac a little further back, then followed an interchange of it/me for perhaps 30 minutes. Finally he, a nice rep buck stepped out of the cover and approached within 20 metres. It worked!
Ten days later – 3.15 p.m. and alone this time. A lovely wood of 67 acres, mainly mature oak and ash with extensive areas of bramble, a large population of Muntjac and owners wanting numbers reduced. I slipped into the middle of the downwind side, which I knew to be a relatively open area, sat at the base of a large tree, extended the long legs of my bi-pod, loaded the rifle and started to call. Within 5 minutes I was rushed by a skinny doe, most likely with a dependant fawn so not within the cull-plan. She came within 10 metres, could not decide what I was and could not get down-wind without leaving the wood, so gradually wandered away. I had stopped calling as she appeared. Restarting the calling a buck appeared within 5 minutes, quite suddenly and at 15 metres. Further calling for 5 minutes produced nothing more, so I decided to move upwind into fresh ground, daylight was fading. I set up on my crossed sticks at the end of a ride with a big bush as background to mask any necessary movements and started calling. Almost immediately in came another buck within 20 metres. Three called in and two shot within half an hour – this needed some thinking about. Sporting or what? After 9 years and many hundreds of called in Muntjac later there is still the same question. Calling usually works, sometimes dramatically, offering another means of getting close to Muntjac for whatever reason and and gives us great power over the fate of a wild animal.
I did not think I could call deer across open spaces until 2004. A doe crossed over 80 metres of open ground to challenge me and since then I have called several of both sexes out of dense cover onto field headlands at dusk, when they probably feel more secure. Setting-up with a territorial scrape nearby is another plan. This calling method usually gives plenty of time to assess and study the animals whatever your objective. I have known deer to be missed at short range, make off, then return for another look within a few minutes! Why come at all? The skinny doe defending a hidden fawn nearby is one obvious answer. The Buttolo caller I now use sounds like a distressed fawn. Maybe the bucks are responding to a perceived threat? Or is it just curiosity, investigating this noise in their territory? Either, both or something else? The four or five month old fawn has no offspring or territory to defend, just probably guileless or displaying territorial loyalty? It doesn’t seem to matter how you call. When you call is more important – but where seems to be the key.
Using several hunters will cut down on the mini-movements that often alarm the deer during their approach, so assuming a safe area of 180 degrees, 2 hunters standing shoulder to shoulder move much less than one, three hunters in the ‘box’ almost shoulder to shoulder again but covering about 60 degrees each is easier with me calling and sometimes filming immediately behind and inside the group. In serious culling situations a line of 2 or 3 rifles, 20 to 30 metres or so apart, possibly up portable high seats and each with a clearly defined safety zone and the calling done from behind the middle of the line can be very effective. As the deer approach and concentrate upon the caller they can be exposed to the rifles.
Reactions to the call – From the dramatic charge – often a skinny doe with a fawn hidden nearby, to a nonchalant “I am not interested in your noise” – but fawns and bucks of all ages usually respond in a very positive manner as well. The new mother shows remarkable bravery and if you continue calling the rest of the family group often appears. Last February, calling in a copse that was the territory of a known old buck and adjoining a farmer’s garden hedge, there was a stampede of ground game and running pheasants all appearing to be driven across our front by the old buck who stood and defied us at 20 yards! It often pays to switch on the camcorder as I start calling, in case of an early charge.
Stalkers who usually operate from high seats often find this system difficult. Unused to shooting at ground level from shooting sticks and very used to having lots of time and a quarry that stands around waiting to be shot. I often call in 20 plus shootable animals per shot. For most people between 8 and 12 with experienced clients especially in groups of 3 hunters the success ratio can be high, providing a very efficient and rapid cull of these most interesting little animals, or some excellent film footage.
When calling for people to view or when filming, I have found the animals to be most obliging, sometimes showing two or more times in the same week. They are very territorial and probably only puzzled/annoyed. In culling situations you have probably broken up the family group, often removing the very pregnant females, so I have found that an interval is often necessary for the group to reform. Fresh woodland is the most dramatically effective, so over-exposure especially from bad sites could make the animals call-shy for a long time and also manage to educate Roe occupying the same territory?
I have been through lean spells when the calling/sightings ratio was very poor. Having eliminated all the obvious reasons, i.e. weather, time of day, method, previous calling attempts, disturbance etc. I am convinced that something else can also be a factor. A relaxed, confident, comfortable approach to calling is usually rewarded whereas the opposite approach seems to act as a deterrent.
An initial response to the article on calling was that it would attract defending does and could cause a lot or orphans and suffering. This was a reasonable response from someone who had never experienced calling muntjac as the call sounds like a distressed fawn. In practice ‘rushes’ from protecting does don’t happen that often, but are quite dramatic and there is plenty of time to identify the doe’s status. As far as a sex/response ratio to calling is concerned, I think it is 2 or 3 bucks responding with a viewing for every doe. This may indicate more of a territorial response than a protective one?
Waiting a while before and after calling can help in many cases; allowing disturbed animals to return before calling and the often unseen starers to move and show themselves when calling stops.