Yorkshire's deer hunter puts the case for culling

"WHEN you see a roe deer you have to look beyond the cuteness of Walt Disney's Bambi." John Robson is driving his large pick-up along the edge of a field high in the Yorkshire Wolds.

"I know that's hard for some folk. Roe deer are really beautiful animals. It's easy to get sentimental. But if nothing's done to stabilise their numbers, then the population can spiral out of control. Which is pretty bad for the deer as well as bad for the countryside."

We had rendezvoused in early morning darkness.

Now the first grey glimmers are spreading over the undulating Wolds from the North Sea. John is wearing camouflaged non-rustle clothing and a baseball cap. No tweed deer stalker with

its big neck brim and ear flaps for him.

"I get enough funny looks and comments as it is, about looking like the SAS when I go for a bacon sandwich at the end of a stalk."

One of the few men in Yorkshire qualified to teach deer stalking, John has been doing it for half of his 43 years. In 2008 he gave up his job as a gamekeeper to run courses full-time and finds himself out every day training new stalkers.

On this morning he is heading towards thick woods on a large estate to cull a sickly doe and possibly its mother if she looks out of condition.

From the pick-up we see the white behinds of several roe deer scattering across his path in the gloom. John and his assistant, Malcolm Precious, could have pulled out their high-powered rifles and shot them on the spot. But there is no sport in that.

"To the purist, the only way to kill a deer is by stalking it," John says. "Nothing else will do. I suppose it's like the difference between using a fly to catch a trout, with all the sport involved in that, and just putting a worm on a hook."

The skill of a stalker is to pit himself (they are usually men) against the roe deer's acute senses of sight, smell and hearing.

And so we drop Malcolm off at one end of a long belt of woodland where the target doe and its mother are known to spend their time. He will move slowly through the wood with the intention of driving the deer to where our position will eventually be, to the north. As we leave the pick-up at the edge of the trees, John points to some saplings that have been severely damaged by deer. The buds have been eaten and the bark has been scraped off by the antlers of a male deer, a buck.

This so-called "fraying" can devastate woodland, says John. "The deer also eat all the flora off the woodland floor so you end up with barren woods.

"Down south, where I do a lot of stalking and culling, in summer they've got no flowers or ground foliage in some woods. And that impacts on butterflies, moths, bees, birds... everything that lives in wood is affected by there being too many deer."

Roe are the most widespread species of deer in Yorkshire. They were native to Britain, their bones and antlers are found at archaeological sites dating back to the Mesolithic period (8,000BC until around 4,000BC). But the destruction of medieval forests and over-hunting left them extinct in England by around 1800.

Reintroduced in Victorian times, they remained absent from Yorkshire until 50 years ago and their gradual increase is attributed to large-scale planting of trees since World War Two. They spread rapidly south from County Durham, with the Yorkshire Wolds and areas like Thorn and Hatfield Moors in South Yorkshire becoming particular strongholds. John's mobile vibrates with a text from Malcolm. He's at the far end of the wood and is moving towards us. Deer are in his path but not the sickly doe or mother.

We walk carefully through the trees and into the wind. If we were upwind of the deer, it would catch our scent and move the other way. John's feet barely make a noise. I whisper an apology for cracking a twig.

Progress is slow. Every so often he stops to check the faintest suggestion of movement among the trees, but finds only grey squirrels or pheasants.

Finally, we stop when his three-year-old German short-haired pointer, Breeze, starts to quiver with excitement. Deer are somewhere ahead and Breeze has picked up the scent. We take up position beside the rotten stump of an elm tree.

John forces into the ground two crossed metal "sticks" he uses to steady his Finnish-made Sako rifle and loads the 7mm Remington magnum bullets.

And we wait.

After what seems like an hour there is some movement among the branches about 50 or 60 yards ahead. Breeze quivers with even greater anticipation, but has been trained to utter no sounds.

John looks through his Zeiss telescopic sight. The movement has stopped. He whispers something to himself. The deer has gone.

He turns and says in a low voice, "Deer can completely frustrate you. One second you see it, and then it goes behind a tree. You are convinced it must still be there, but when you get to the tree you realise it's used the direct line behind the tree to escape.

"You don't hear them moving, they are so silent. And you're left feeling puzzled, as if someone's waved a magic wand and it's disappeared.

"That's why they have the nickname, 'Fairy of the woods'. Now you see them, now you don't."

I confess I'm relieved I didn't have to witness the death of a deer. He replies, to my amazement, that he has a lot of respect for my feelings.

"I don't go out on a blood lust. I go out to shoot deer because they need to be controlled. It has to be done properly and humanely, rather than by poachers who send dogs after them.

"And, of course, I like the sport. For me, it's usually an anticlimax when I pull that trigger. As soon as the deer hits the woodland floor that's it. Game over."

n John Robson is recognised by the British Deer Society, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and Natural England as an "accredited witness" qualified to issue deer stalking certificates.

For a stalking session or a management cull of deer, contact him at www.yorkshiredeerstalking.com