Signs of Ageing

As I start this piece I am put in mind of the TV advert 'Combat the seven signs of Ageing' and could probably write some lines about how we ourselves age with observations along the lines of: tendency to groan whenever sinking into an arm chair, likelihood of having hair sprouting from your nose, inclination to wear your trousers up to your arm pits or in general just looking plain battered. However these are not the signs of ageing to which I am refering but instead the aim of this blog is to give a few indicators that will help us to age not our fellow Stalker but how to age deer.  

I feel a little daunted as I start writing because this is a vast subject and one which could easily form the basis of a Ph'd yet alone 1000 word blog! So why bother? Well it is clearly of interest as it is one of the most commonly posed questions that I am asked by guests when out deer stalking.  

At any rate I'll give it a go and try and summarise some of the universal indicators that can help determine the approximate age of deer.

So firstly why is it important to be able to judge the age of your animal? Well there are two very good reasons, the first and most important factor concerns proper deer management. Typically most Deer Managers will aim to cull deer in the following proportions 60% yearlings, 20% Middle Age and 20% Old animals. This is simply because it is this ratio that most closely reflects the role which would have been adopted by the Deer's native predators such as the Wolf and Lynx. These predators would have predominantly preyed on the younger, weaker and more vulnerable animals. As deer managers we are trying to replicate this natural process as closely as possible.

 The second reason concerns the resulting venison. Whilst most deer stalkers rave about the taste of their favourite deer species I have found that whatever the species the single biggest factor in producing quality tender Venison is in fact age. Like the difference between Mutton and Lamb it is crucial to be able to distinguish the age of your beast in order that one can make an informed decision as to how to cook it!

So that dealt with how's this best achieved? Well each species and sex will have its own tell tale signs. I havn't the space here to discuss each of the six Uk deer species in turn and so without reference to each individual species there are a few universal give away's that can be applied to all deer irrespective of species and sex.

Perhaps I can divide these indicators into two sections, the first deals with the age indicators of your animal prior to the shot and the second post mortem.

So first of all when glassing your beast look first at its size and body condition, the haunches are a good place to start. Angular weak haunches will indicate a younger animal whilst strong rounded haunches an older one. Older deer will generally be heavier in overall build but also thicker around the neck. Next look closely at the stance of the deer, good middle aged animals will possess a strong straight back whilst old animals will sag. This is also true of the manner in which a deer will hold its head. Look at how it is held, is the head carried low or high and alert? The first can indicate an older animal and the second a youthful inquisitive one.

Like humans there are with deer a number of traits that betray age. With experience assessing the age of an animal becomes second nature in the same fashion as we assess the age of an old man at a glance so to with time we become better at assessing the age of deer.   

Granted Deer will not have a bald head and beer belly however there are other points that can betray age such as a silvering or greying of the coat along with a lack of lustre. The face of an older animal will appear grizzled and less alert, older deer will also appear longer in the nose than the youngsters, this is particularly true in Red and Fallow Deer. Remember also that like the elderly older deer will be less inclined to give up their winter coat in the spring and will be the first to put it back on again when it gets cold! All of these observations should give you a good idea of the age of your deer prior to taking the shot.

So moving on, assume we have now grassed our animal, things now become a little easier and we should be able to assess more clearly the age of the deer we have shot and be able to put our

First look again at the overall weight and build of the animal, this will be your first clue and should at least put you in the right 'ball park'.

 

The next indicator is without doubt the single most obvious and important indicator to a deer's age. Anyone who has done their Deer Stalkers Certificate Level 1 (DSC1) will know that provided a deer has not met their end as a result of disease, accident or a high velocity round an animal will if left to grow old expire as a result of starvation brought on by excessive tooth wear. With constant grazing and chewing of the Cud deer's teeth wear down at quite a pace.

 

To assess this make a cut from the mouth and up the cheek, this will allow you to take a closer look at the animal's dentistry! Without redress to the more specialised knowledge of number and positioning of the teeth it is possible for the beginner to ascertain approximate age simply by observing the wear of the molars. In young animals the molars will be high and sharp and in old animals will be flattened, blunt and in some cases nearly flush with the gum.

 

Personally the last indication I get as to age is actually during the Gralloch it is during this process that you get a further idea of your deer's age. Put simply you will soon know if your animal is a tough old beast or a young one from the difficulty with which you are able to make your cuts. This however comes with experience, if you cull just a handful of deer a year you will struggle to compare the differences however if your cull numbers are high you will very quickly be able to judge an old beast from a young one.  

 

Ageing deer is a very inexact science and like humans some wear their age better than others. However unlike humans guessing an animal's age will always be a guesstimate. That said every effort should be made to develop sufficient experience and knowledge that will enable us to at the very least distinguish between yearlings and mature animals. With a little further effort we may then go on to categories our animals into young, middle aged and old it is only then that we are able to properly manage our population of deer and apply our cull plan in age specific groups.    

Rigby

 
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