A roe deer in a meadow

The Real Bambi: Roe Deer and Roe Deer Hunting

Disney got it all wrong! These words can’t be repeated often enough. “Bambi”, the classic animated movie, has been heavily criticized by both psychologists and naturalists, as it exploits the children’s deepest fears and presents a highly distorted view of nature. This is a shame indeed, as the original book by Felix Salten, an Austrian naturalist and a passionate hunter, gives a very accurate portrayal of wildlife and wilderness – not to mention that it’s written about a whole different species: the roe deer. You may want to read the book with your kids before they watch the cartoon; but in the meantime, let’s talk about the roebuck. 

Species of roe deer

This little, graceful deer – you’ve got to see one in the wild to fully appreciate its grace – is distributed in the moderate forest belts across Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. There are two species of roe deer: the European, or Western, roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and the Siberian, or Eastern, roe deer (Capreolus pygargus). The range of the European roe deer stretches across all Europe, from Spain, France, Great Britain and Sweden into Russia and Belarus until the Urals. It is the smaller of the species,  and seldom weighs more than 25 kg (55 lb). 

European roe deer
European roe deer: that’s what the real Bambi looked like!

The Siberian roe deer occurs in Asia, from the Urals eastwards. The European and Siberian roe deer may interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but it seldom happens in the wild because of the difference in the rut times. The European roe deer ruts in July-August, and the Siberian roe in August-September. The Siberian roe deer is noticeably larger: a big buck from the western populations may tip the scales at 50kg (110 lb). 

The easternmost subspecies of the roe deer – the Chinese roe deer (Capreolus capreolus bedfordi) is classified as a subspecies of the European roe deer, but genetic studies confirmed it is actually a kind of Siberian roe. It is one of the smallest representatives of the species, smaller even than the European roebuck. The Chinese roe deer range covers the Pacific coast of Asia south of the Amur. 

Life history and habits

The roe deer does give birth in late spring, about May. During the lactation, the fawns do not follow their mother, but are left to hide in thick undergrowth or tall grass, and the mother only visits them once in a while to feed. As soon as the fawns can fend for themselves, the mother drives them off. In the autumn the roebucks shed their antlers and the little deer gather in small herds, especially in the north of their range, where sticking together helps them handle the harsh climate. 

Siberian roe near lake Baikal
A winter herd of Siberian roe in early spring: note that the bucks’ antlers are in velvet.

The roe deer bucks grow their antlers in late winter, and as early as March they are typically out of velvet, to help the bucks in fighting for territory. The bucks seldom fight each other over females, but the territorial rights that they establish in early spring determine how many does they will be able to mate with during the rut. The Siberian roe does are more likely to test the strength and stamina of their potential partner by running away from the buck, in the course of which they may wander far off their original territory and get together with a different male. 

The roe deer are highly territorial, and European researchers who ear-tag European roe report that most tag returns come within a 2-km (1 ¼) mile radius of the original tagging location. These animals are typically diurnal, feeding in the open in the evenings and mornings, and hiding in the forest in the midday and at midnight. However, when pressed by humans, they easily assume a fully nocturnal lifestyle. The roe deer is always living on the edge – the edge of a forest and an open, vegetation-rich space such as a meadow or a field, and it is this movement between forest and field that hunters base their strategies on. 

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the roe deer is their reproduction strategy. After mating, fertilized eggs do not begin to develop at once, but kind of fall into a coma, and remain inactive until mid-winter. Then the foetus begins to form, in time to reach the end of the gestation period by spring. The roe deer usually gives birth to two or three fawns, which carry bright white spots after birth, but lose them by winter. 

A roe deer trophy from Kazakhstan
Everything is bigger in Tian Shan: Siberian roe deer trophies from Kazakhstan can be really impressive

Threats 

All species of roe deer are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. But that doesn’t mean that hunters can just go ahead and gun down every roebuck they see. Roe deer populations are subject to a number of threats, and require a lot of work if hunting is to be sustainable.  

The roe deer is highly fertile, and may reproduce to amazing numbers within just a few years. Unfortunately, it’s highly vulnerable to caprices of the weather and predation, too. Especially deadly for the roe deer is the crust, a layer of ice that forms on the surface of the snow after a sequence of thaw and frost. The crust breaks under the deer weight, making movement a slow and energy-consuming affair, while the wolves glide over, overtake their prey easily, and engage in surplus killing, sometimes exterminating whole herds. 

Even more deadly are ‘wolves in human appearance’, as poachers are sometimes called in Eastern Europe. Gliding over snow on their tireless snowmobiles, they run down the roe deer one after another, or, in the time between autumn and winter, drive about the fields and kill the animals as they stare helplessly into their headlights or special high-power lanterns. Constant vigilance by wildlife officers and hunting preserve guides is necessary to protect the healthy population of the roebuck. 

A roe deer in a dense wood
Roe deer blend well with their environment – which sometimes may work againts their survival

It is a mistake to assume that if legal hunting is banned, no animals will be killed. Even aside from poaching, many human activities, including ones that are harmless in intent, are deadly for wildlife. For instance, the roe deer calving season coincides with the hay cutting season in many European countries, and hundreds of animals, especially calves, are killed by mowers. 

Every spring, German hunters carry out “Kirzrettung” (“Save-a-Fawn”) operations. They surround the fields with deterring devices (ranging from plastic flour sacks to sophisticated electronic thingies that flash lights and sound alarms at random intervals), to prevent the deer from entering them, and before mowing, they search the fields for fawns, sometimes with the help of drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras. A side effect of this operation is that it improves the hunters’ cooperation with the farmers and the researchers (who use the opportunity to study and ear-mark the fawns), as well as the general public. 

Where to hunt the roe deer

When asked the question “Where’s the best European roe deer hunting?”, a representative of just about every state in Europe will say: “Over here!” This said, roe deer stalking in Great Britain is more of an affordable diversion and an introduction to deer stalking than a serious trophy hunter’s dream. Spainish outfitters are more focused on their famous Monteria and ibex hunts, but the current roe deer world record for European roebuck comes from Spain! Germany has excellent roe deer hunting, but the Germans love their “Rehbock” so much they keep the best opportunities for themselves. Just kidding, kameraden! 

A roe deer trophy and a rifle
This roe deer was harvested in France

Good roe deer offers are to be found in France, and the former Austrian Empire such as the Chech Republic, SlovakiaHungary, Croatia, Serbia and Austria proper. This claim is likely to ignite protests from Eastern Europe, namely Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as Estonia, Latvia, and even Turkey. In fact, adjusted for whether you’re seeking a record book entry or simply a good time hunting, you can find a great roe deer hunt pretty much everywhere in Europe. 

The Mecca for the Siberian roe deer hunters in Russia is the Kurgan Oblast. However, good hunting can be had in any of the Russian regions just east of the Urals. Healthy roe deer populations exist also in such former Soviet republics as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan can be a real “sleeper” state when it comes to roe deer hunting. Some Siberian roe trophies from the country look more like spike maral stags! 

The Chinese roe deer is currently offered by outfitters only in Khabarovsky and Primorsky Krai in Russia. This is usually a combination hunt, with the prime target animal being Manchurian wapiti, Manchurian sika deer, brown or Hymalayan bear. 

Roe deer as a trophy 

Trophy estimation during roe deer hunts is especially important when hunting in Europe. A lot of European outfitters will charge you according to how many points the antlers will score. Whether you insist on harvesting a top, gold-medal record-book class pair of antlers, or will be quite content with a representative species in the bronze-medal class or a bit smaller, killing the wrong kind of deer can be painful and disappointing. You’re likely to be accompanied by a guide who is good at on-the-spot trophy estimation, but it is human to err, and one should always be able to make one’s own decision. 

Roe deer antlers on a scull being weithed
A European roe deer trophy being measured

Typical European roebuck antlers have one strong main beam and two small branches, one looking forward, and one backward. The antlers may be joined at the bases, and/or nearly come close to each other at the tips in a lyre shaped fashion. At the bases, or rosettes, they may be covered by tiny spikes, which makes them hard to measure. In a lot of European countries the roe deer antlers are compared to each other not by length, but by weight, which is measured either with the scull attached, or through displacement (the volume of the antlers is estimated according to how much water they displace, and is converted to weight by known antler density figures). 

Antlers of Siberian roe deer branch closer to the stems, and may have up to five tips, although three tips are the commonest type. The rosettes at the bottom are much less prominent as well. All in all, if the Siberian roe look like a small maral stag, you’re probably looking at a good sized pair of antlers, while the animal that looks like European roe is probably worth passing on. 

Hunting roe deer 

Many European hunters say that if they had to keep only one hunting season and abandon all the rest, they would keep the spring roebuck season. This season starts in late May or early June, as the bucks’ antlers are out of velvet. The hunters wait for the roebuck on strategically positioned high seats, or still-hunt for them along the forest edges, stalking the bucks as they feed or perform their display ritual. Buck alarm calls may be used to great effect early in the season.

The particular method of the hunt depends on the location. In the more densely populated or hunted areas your guide may insist you take a position on the high seat and stay there. 

A roebuck in the sights of a hunter
A roebuck hunt may begin from waiting on a high seat – and end there.

The more efficient practice, however, is to start the hunt at a place where a big buck is known to feed, and wait for it to come out of the forest, on a high seat or from an improvised cover depending on availability. Then, if the buck fails to appear, you still-hunt along the edge of the forest, moving carefully until you see or hear a deer, and then stalking it. 

The season reaches the peak of intensity as the rut begins, and the bucks begin to follow the does. Use of a doe call can be highly efficient in this time, in combination with other hunting methods or independently. If you see a doe running along during this period, freeze in place and don’t even breathe: as often as not, there’s a buck following her track. Yet, while the bucks are rut-crazed, the does retain their regular level of alertness. 

Alerted, the roe deer give a barking alarm cry. Interestingly enough, if you imitate this cry as the roe is running by, it will typically stop for a moment to look around and try to see what’s going on. Experienced hunters use this trick to get the animal to stop and take a quick shot at a standing roebuck rather than risk shooting on the run. This is effective even during the autumn and winter driven hunts, which are usually any-sex and done for the meat. Cull and management hunts for roe deer may continue up to January and February, but if you are after a trophy buck, you should focus on a stalk or high-seat hunt in June to October.

A hunter with a dog still-hunting for roe deer
Or, hunters may still-hunt the edges of woods and fields or meadows.

The Chinese roe deer is a thing in itself. It is largely the domain of a trophy hunter, and a great chance to enter your name in the record books: there are only a handful of entries of the subspecies there. Hunters who visit the Primorye area of Russia in search of the species tend to have higher success waiting for them over salt licks.

Hunting methods and best seasons for the Siberian roebuck are essentially the same as for its European cousin, adjusted for the later start of the rut. The later in the season, the more challenging the hunt. While the roebucks are actively feeding on winter wheat and rye fields to gather fat for the winter, and can often be seen during the day, without leaves and grass in the way, they can see you very well, too, and are difficult to stalk within shooting distance. 

Muzzleloader, handgun, and bowhunting are not widespread across Europe and Asia, and in most cases a roebuck hunt is a rifle hunt. The roe isn’t very difficult to kill, and any moderate rifle cartridge from the .243 Win upwards will do the trick. Shots tend to be within 100-200 meter range, and the biggest difficulty is that in most cases the roe deer is shot in the twilight, and is partly covered by twigs and branches. A good low-amplification scope with big lenses that gather light well is essential for these conditions. A lot of European hunters use shooting sticks, but you should be ready for a quick off-hand shot.

A hound and a harvested roebuck
Hounds may be used to track wounded animals

Why hunt roe deer? 

The roebuck may not be the first animal that you associate with European hunting. But visit any German hunting lodge or tavern, and you’ll see rows of rows of little roe deer antlers, mounted on the shields in what Americans call “Euro style”. From the vineyards of France to the frozen forest-steppes of Kazakhstan, the delicious venison of the roe deer is a staple food for many European and Asian hunters, in much the same way as the whitetail deer is for Americans. Last but not least, roe deer hunting is more affordable than most other big-game hunts in Eurasia (cull hunts start from $200, a great trophy hunt can be had for $3,000 all said and done, and you must try real hard to push the price of your roe deer hunt into $5,000+ range). In short, this is the ultimate opportunity to experience a classic Old World hunt on a budget!

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