Harvest time, that begins with hay-cutting, is not only a busy time for farmers, but the time when some gloomy things may be happening. Does of various deer species, such as roe deer in Europe and white-tailed deer in the USA and Canada, leave their fawns hidden in the grass fields and meadows. The fawns stay absolutely immobile, and don’t try to escape, relying on their protective coloring and almost total absence of smell. This works against their natural predators, but not against mowers, and farmers during hay-cutting season, against their will, kill dozens of fawns.
Nobody likes the idea that a helpless animal is needlessly and cruelly killed. Modern farming equipment comes with special protective devices that prevent wildlife deaths, but those are not 100% efficient, especially when it comes to fawns, that wouldn’t run away. Can we do more to save the Bambis? The answer is yes. For example, German farmers and hunters have long practiced a thing called “Kitzrettung” (“Save-a-Fawn”), something that can probably be applied in other locations, too.
Success of Kitzrettung operations depends on cooperation between farmers and hunters, but this in Germany is a matter of course. Owning arable land or a forest grants you the hunting rights over the property, and landowners automatically become members of the local hunting association. These days they have an option to opt out, but most don’t use it. Damage that wildlife, especially wild boar and red deer, can do to fields and woods without lethal control would be too much even for the most animal-loving landowners, and those who don’t hunt themselves delegate their rights to a hunter or club.
Whoever exercises the hunting rights is required by law to keep the numbers of game animals within an established threshold, and both too many and too few animals can lead to punishment. While earlier fawn killings have been viewed in a sort of a “sad, but that’s life” attitude, now things have changed. German courts these days often consider such events, if the farmer failed to make necessary precautions, a conscious slaughter rather than simply negligence, and fines of up to 10,000 Euro are not unheard of. That’s an incentive few people would ignore.
There are two main methods of saving the fawns: deterrence and active search. Deterrence is meant to prevent the does from entering the fields and meadows and leaving their fawns there. For that purpose, the area is surrounded by various more or less scary objects. Alternatively, the farmer and hunter team may search the areas to be mowed before the process, and remove the fawns to a safe location.
Remove the fawns? It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t touch a fawn if you find it in a natural environment, and in most cases, this is the way to go. However, during the Kitzrettung it’s simply not safe for the fawn to be left where they are, although one could mark their location with a pole, so that the tractor driver can leave the patch with a deer untouched. The good news is that if you know what you’re doing, it’s totally OK to move the fawn.
The most important thing is not to touch the little thing with your bare hands. Use gloves and take the fawn through a heap of grass, the same that it’s lying in. Then place the fawn in an appropriately big container and carry to the edge of the field, in the direction of the cover where the doe most probably is. You leave the fawn there, and in most cases the mother can safely recover it.
Currently the most efficient way of saving roe deer fawns is the high-tech: searching the field for the fawns with the help of a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera. The first such devices were home-made, but now you can buy a specially designed thermal-camera drone for such big producers of hunting guns and equipment as Blaser (this German company also owns such famous brands as Mauser, J. P. Sauer und Sohn, and Rigby).
An experienced operator under the right conditions can locate 100% of fawns in the field, and save up to 100 of them in the season, but finding the Bambi with a drone is not as easy as it sounds. For best effect, the land should be as cold as possible, that’s why the fawn rescue team must begin the search as soon as the dawn breaks. Near summer solstice, it means 3 a.m. Before flying the camera-equipped drone for the first time, experts recommend to practice on a fawn-sized mammal, such as a small dog, tied in the grass, to get a general idea what you should be looking for. Pack plenty of batteries and a means to charge them, as the average energy consumption is one battery per one located fawn.
A low-tech alternative to drones is by walking through meadows and fields in a line, with or without dogs. This is a labor-intensive process that requires a lot of people and is not particularly effective. About half of the fawns remain undetected if people walk in the line without dogs, slightly more with four-pawed assistance. However, if you’re low on funds but have unlimited manpower (e.g., convinced the biology teacher of a local school that Save-a-Fawn operation makes an excellent field project), this method can have its place. Just make sure that the dogs need to be excellently trained, and 100% obedient, lest they decide to play wolf and attack the fawns rather than simply indicate their presence.
If you can’t have the fields searched before mowing, you may try to prevent does from entering them. A number of deterrence devices are available on the market. Those are mounted on posts at regular intervals between the field and the forest where the deer may come from, and are programmed to make scary sounds, and in the more expensive models also flash lights, at regular or irregular intervals.
An old-fashioned low-tech alternative are simple blue plastic flower sacks. You put them on poles about 1 to 1 ½ meters high, so that they flap and woggle in the wind. Cheap, simple, and in independent tests equal or exceed the expensive beepers and flashers in efficiency, this is the method we think an American farmer and hunter who would like to try and save a few deer fawns may be best to begin with.
All deterrence devices should follow the natural lay of the land. Put them up inside the field, about 50 meters away from the edge of the cover, and about 50 to 100 meters from each other. You should place them about 24 to 72 hours before the planned mowing. Do it too late, and they won’t have the deterrent effect; place them too far before the date, and the deer will have the time to get used to them.
Like in most things related to nature, moderation is the key. Deterrents should not be so scary that the doe would be too frightened to enter a field and retrieve the fawn she left there before you put them up, but at the same time they should be conspicuous enough to convince the deer they better try another field.
All Save-a-Fawn operations are labor-intensive, but you can recruit eager and enthusiastic help from volunteers. As hinted above, a good place to go are local schools. Incidentally, Kitzrettung is a great opportunity to educate the new generation about the realities of wildlife management, and show that contrary to what they may hear on social media, hunters aren’t the mindless bloodthirsty murderers.
Save-a-Fawn operations are also an excellent basis for research projects. Scientists may measure, tag, and take blood samples from located fawns, and then use this data and ear tag returns to learn more about the species. Tagging fawns during Kitzrettung, for example, helped establish just how territorial the roe deer are – most ear-tag returns (from hunting and roadkill alike) happen within a mile radius from the tagging locations.
Actually, it’s hard to find fault with Kitzrettung. It prevents needless and cruel deaths, it improves the population of deer, it educated everyone involved in it – hunters, farmers, and volunteers alike. It helps strengthen the community bonds, and in general leave everybody with a sense of a job well done. In our opinion, it’s a tradition worth looking into and possibly introducing in your area.
Photo credit: Forstkontor Sommer and Wendsche Kitzrettung