Signs of deer for the hunter

Most hunters spot a rubbed tree and dismiss its meaning simply as having been done by a stag or buck rubbing the remnants of itchy velvet off his antlers. But actually rubs can mean a great deal more than that. Sure, every deer hunter knows what a rub is. But few realize how much of a role rubs play in a deer’s life. First it is necessary to understand how important the deer’s home range is to him. It’s actually the deer’s backyard, the place where he  spends most of its time and is most familiar with. And naturally the animal knows every nook and cranny of his personal living space.

Home ranges vary in size depending on several factors: the deer’s sex, age, the population of an area and the carrying capacity of the terrain. A buck’s home range is generally larger than that of a doe – often twice as large. The bucks that range the farthest are most often youngsters. Older bucks are more sedentary and loath to travel; their home ranges are smaller.

The actual area covered runs from 20 hectares to 160 hectares and the greater the deer population, the smaller each individual home range.  A deer will generally patrol its entire home range once every 24 hours, not hurrying, meandering slowly along favourite paths and trails.

Don’t confuse the deer’s home range with territory. A buck won’t defend his entire home range. He couldn’t. He’d wear himself out because it is far too large. In fact, several bucks may share the same home range because their boundaries overlap. This is best described as being several long flattened ovals meeting at a common centre.
Within each buck’s home range, however, there are certain places where he will not allow other bucks to enter. The buck rubs trees bare with his antlers  to form visible boundary posts for these places. Rubs, therefore, act as warnings for other bucks to stay away. A rival buck may be allowed to  this area, but only  if he assumes a subordinate posture. This means he must keep his head and tail down and avoid looking the dominant buck directly in the eye. If the interloper fails to conform, a fight for dominance usually results.

Rubs are generally made on small aromatic trees with relatively smooth bark. Wattle, gum, ti-tree, pine and  wild cherry, are all favourites. Rub trees vary in size from pencil thin to about 15cm in diameter. Rubbing begins one month prior to the onset of the rut, then declines significantly before breeding actually starts.

Rubs are signposts in two senses of the word. The exposed wood of the a rub acts as a visible indicator to other bucks, while a glandular secretion from between the deer’s antlers adds an agreeable fragrance to the signpost. This tissue contributes a personal touch by adding the buck’s individual scent to the rub thus increasing the effectiveness of the tree as a signpost. If you check carefully every rubbed tree you see, you’ll find that 75 percent of them have hair as well as antler velvet sticking to them.

Over six decades of deer hunting I’ve found that there’s no relationship between the size of the buck and the size of the rub. But whenever I find a big tree with the undersides of the lower branches rubbed, I can’t help but get excited. However, I’ve seen very small bucks standing on their hind legs to rub big trees and monster bucks rub small trees. There’s no way to be sure if the rubs you find were made by an old trophy bearer or an immature buck.
Rubs are usually concentrated in a small area and they crop up in the same general vicinity year after year. But bucks rarely rub the same tree year after year. Rubs indicate to other bucks: “This is my rutting ground,  stay out or I’ll chase you off.”

Scrapes, carry a different message. They are a buck’s way of communicating with does, kind of like lover letters scribed in the soil.

Scraping parallels breeding activity and usually starts a month after rubbing begins. Scraping and rutting peak at the same time, then drops off fairly rapidly. All breeding activity is triggered by the release of a hormone from the pituitary gland. Scrape locations are predictable. Look along the edges of bush, along established deer trails on the banks of a creek or along the bottom of a gully.

Grouping of scrapes, like rubs is common. About 90 percent of all the scrapes I’ve discovered were beneath low-hanging tree branches. The next time you find a scrape, search out the lowest branch and examine it closely for damage. Why? A buck walks through the bush with his head up. When his antlers strike a branch it elicits a scraping response from the buck, which will then take the branch in his mouth and chew – but not eat – the bark off. This branch is now marked with his scent. Nearly all of the scrapes I’ve investigated showed this kind of damage to low- hanging branches.

Next the buck will paw the ground with his front hooves and clear a bare spot. Then he’ll squat over the scrape and urinate, often allowing the urine to flow over the tarsal glands located on the inside of his hind legs.  Standing upright again, he will dig his antlers in the scrape and horn the branch that initiated this response as well, marking the branch once more.        
A buck will defend his scrape against intruding rivals, although often several bucks will be seen patrolling the same line of scrapes. When a doe finds a scrape she’ll urinate in it and leave. The buck will check his scrapes periodically and, if he senses that the doe is in heat, he will follow her with his nose to the ground sometimes grunting, snuffling and even squealing with barely suppressed excitement.

Most deer hunters know that bucks make scrapes and during the rut they’ll return to check them out. But there are some variables that may help ensure the success of scrape hunting. Don’t think that a line of scrapes will lead you through the bush to others. Scrapes exist mainly in clumps. While strings of scrapes will occur occasionally for a short distance, there may sometimes be several hundred metres separating two of the same buck’s scrapes with no additional ones in between.

Say a buck makes 30 scrapes, but only five attract does, it only makes sense that they are the ones he will be checking out most often. He won’t waste his time visiting scrapes that don’t attract does.

How much human activity does it take to frighten a buck off. Walking through the bush too many times in an area not generally visited by man may be enough to scare an old buck into fleeing to another part of his range. If you invade their rutting grounds you’ll spread your scent all over the bush. Once you have located a scrape, that shows both buck and doe tracks, use the utmost caution. To avoid spooking the deer, I use a masking scent or deer lure, and take care not to approach scrapes too closely. Find a vantage spot, then sit down in cover and wait for the buck to come along. Use your binocular to observe from a distance. He’ll show up sooner or later. This is where a lot of patience will pay off.

In an area where the deer population is out of balance (as many are) the buck to doe ratio will be high. Social structures break down and while bucks will continue to rub and scrape, the rut loses much of its potency. The does want to breed and come in on their own. The bucks saddled with more ladies than they can comfortably handle, don’t bother to go roaming around looking for more. The lust for procreation overwhelms much of the deer’s natural cunning and adaptability, but once spooked, his incredible senses are reasserted and he’ll quickly make himself scarce. Out of the rut, he’s an even more elusive quarry that is well worth the vast amount of effort required to bring him to grass.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, December 2011




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.


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