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Following on from the ‘harvest more hinds’ article, I think its appropriate to take the discussion of our sambar herds to the next level and start thinking about management in respect to the males of this superb game species. So far in the history of sambar in Australia, there has never been a single attempt at managing our growing herd of sambar deer. Obviously culling due to over population has commenced, but this is a direct result from a lack of management in the first place. No real effort has ever been made to actually manage the resource we have. Hunters have just gone bush, shot whatever they wanted and headed home with no more thought given then planning their next trip away. Whilst it has been great for Aussie sambar hunters who are riding the curve of growing deer numbers, it doesn’t do much for creating a need to implement any long objectives or plans with our herd.
Just imagine how superb our sambar hunting could be if all hunters started thinking about age classes, reducing hind populations, shooting stags with poor genetics, letting those promising young stags walk, leaving velvet stags alone and educating landowners on what animals are best removed for population control. It wouldn’t take very much at all to change our mindset, have long-term vision and build a higher quality herd of sambar. When you consider it, we easily have the largest population of wild sambar anywhere in the globe that you can hunt, but there is no management, no detailed studies, no plan and no future goals for the herd in any part of their range. In this day and age it is remarkable to believe that. What a wonderful resource we have that could easily erode into a herd with high animal numbers and a low age class of stags.
I wonder how many hunters have sat around a campfire and thought about the percent of mature sambar stags that might be in the immediate area they are hunting. How many give consideration to just how hard it is to locate these types of stags and why is it that hunters often have to look over a large number of deer before they turn up a decent stag. In most areas it wouldn’t be close to double digit, not by a long shot, it would surely be very low single digit percent. As a broad estimate, and it is hard to lump all regions together, I would say there are probably only 1-3 male sambar out of every 100 deer alive that are in the 8.5 years of age or older class. That’s well out of proportion for any region in any country with managed game herds. It certainly needs to be taken notice of. I understand we have no management policies, but the percentage of mature stags in the herd is remarkably low.
So with all these deer around, why aren’t there more older age class stags in the herd. Its simple, there is too much pressure on them. Sure a few get hit by cars, some get culled under permit and wild dogs would pull down a few, but these accumulative numbers would be far less then what gets harvested by hunters. A good example of this is over the last 15 years we have seen deer numbers constantly building through expansion of range and bushfires promoting superb browse and breeding conditions. Birth rates will surely have been high and there was always going to be a lot of younger age class animals coming through with the increase in population. As of this year we should have at least 7-8 years of an increased number of older age stags making it through in the herd, and each year there should be a higher percent of mature stags or stags approaching maturity with our annual population consistently trending upwards.
Unfortunately though this isn’t the case, we simply don’t have the crop of older age stags in our herd that we should have. It’s very simple, a high percentage of them are getting shot. On any weekend you only have to drive up to Mt Howitt, head out the Bluff, cruise along the Dargo High Plains road, walk into the Maroka, drop into the Wonnangatta, camp up at Eildon, put a tinny on lake Dartmouth or glass the Mitchell river and you will see the constant pressure from hunters. Remember 9 out of 10 of these hunters are trying to find a stag. Those stags either need to be incredibly smart, very lucky or live in very challenging terrain for them to survive 10 years to reach maturity with all this pressure they are currently under.
It would be great to get some studies done on the age classes from the harvest of our sambar stags. I would hazard a guess and say that the average age of male sambar taken each year is in the 2.5-5.5 year range and the percentage would greatly reduce as the age increases. Fully mature sambar stags would be very low single digit percent of the male sambar taken each year, probably in the 1-2% of all stags taken annually are in that 8.5-11.5yo age bracket.
What does this estimate mean? Well for one its only a personal overview from a lot of experience in the sambar hills, but secondly, it can tell you pretty quickly that either there isn’t that many mature stags in our herd or they are extremely cunning. I believe it’s a combination of both of these factors. There certainly isn’t a lot of old stags in the hills, but what do make it through to maturity are that notch or two smartness above those middle aged stags.
That being said just imagine what 5 years of reduced harvest on the young to middle aged stags would result in. The whole age structure could be swung back around in our favor and there would be a far greater percentage of mature stags or stags approaching maturity in many areas. Hunters could still obtain venison by taking hinds and poor antlered stags for meat, they could learn to age deer better in the field because they would be seeing more decent stags and not feeling under pressure to shoot the first stag with a bit of length that presents. The overall herd would benefit with less deer putting pressure on the habitat and hunters should be able to find mature type stags more regularly because there would be a far greater percentage of them in the herd.
Identifying ages on stags takes a bit of time to get used to, but it isn’t impossible and with some education you can get pretty close with most animals you see or harvest in the bush. Antler length is an indicator, but it certainly isn’t the measuring stick as to how old that stag is and there are many other clues to add to antler length to help you identify the different age classes.
For many hunters it might be easier to categorize stags into four classes. Young, middle aged, mature and old. When sambar make it past 8.5 years of age, antler growth will slow down and their body dimensions can look very similar in size. So unless you remove teeth, cross section them and count annuli you really are trying to take educated guesses on how old that stag is. The younger deer are pretty easy to assess but the older animals not so. Numerous times I have looked at big old stags with impressive antlers taken by other hunters and when questioned about the age of the animal the replies are very broad ranging from 5.5 to 10.5, our education on aging sambar is lacking considerably.
The following information on antler growth isn’t set in concrete across the range, more so a guideline to what can be expected from a healthy stag as he progresses through life in a typical region in sambar habitat with good feed and a sustainable herd. Hopefully it will help hunters with aging live deer and if it lets a few more young stags live each year then this article has served its purpose.
We can put young stags in the 1.5-5.5 year age bracket, these are the animals that have their first set of antlers and these are typically single pointed spikes. They can be two inch knobs or they can be 12 inch daggers, if you really want to start managing your male deer early on, then definitely consider leaving any young male that has long spikes. Anything from 7 or 8 inches and up has decent spikes so I would be letting these deer live if you can, especially if they are even in length. They will have long manes around their necks and spikers will appear smaller in size when compared to a mature hind. Often these deer are still herded up with their mothers.
2.5 years of age is when the stags will develop brow tines, 8-12 inches of length to their beams and many will even have small inner tines growing. The antlers will be light in weight, often short in tines and sometimes there will be a slight bend or curve in the antlers. All these factors can start giving indicators as to what potential that stag might have with antler growth and style later on in life. He will be a little larger in body size then a spiker, but still just a light framed leggy deer that has a lot of growing to do.
3.5 year old stags start to develop muscle mass and will look chunky and solid when compared to the younger males. His antlers will be around 12-16 inches in length, he should show three tines on each side and the points should be relatively long for his age. If he is missing an inner tine or is shorter on a tine, it is possible, but not certain, that he might continue this trait through his life. Studies have shown some deer take time to fully develop their best antler potential and it is likely that some sambar stags might not show true antler style until they get quite old. At this age if you see a deer with longer then normal tine length to his brows or inners, he should carry this through and it will be a trait of that deer.
4.5 year old deer will have antlers in the 16 to 20 inch range. Their body mass is filling out, shoulder heights are developing, weights are increasing and their skulls are getting larger. The antlers should be growing nicely and deer at this age have made it halfway to maturity. Often when a mature stag is courting a cycling hind this age class of stag is hanging around the perimeter. The old stag knows he is no threat physically and tolerates him so long as he keeps his distance.
Middle aged stags we can group in the 5.5-7.5 year old bracket. These deer should have antlers in the 20 to 28 inch class. At first glance some of these stags will look like shooters, but if you take time to study them you will see they are not quite there yet. Their frames will be filled out, they will look quite large when standing next to a hind or younger stag and their isn’t too much growing to do body wise from the upper end of this age class. Many stags in this age bracket get taken because hunters see plenty of beam length, think it’s a big stag and the deer gets shot. This is unfortunate because they are just a couple of years off reaching full maturity. Because there is a lack of fully mature stags in any area to mate with all the hinds coming in estrus, it is often this age class of stag that is doing the mating and they become visible to the hunter. In places where the country is semi open and glassing can turn up many deer, these types of stags are getting repeatedly shot either because hunters are collecting bone or they cannot judge ages and antler dimensions accurately. Both of these reasons to repeatedly kill these types of future trophies isn’t good enough and no way is it suitable for the long-term future of our herd.
Mature stags are 8.5-10.5 year old deer and as each year passes their beams might get a little longer, the tine length more developed, but the weight in the beams that is affiliated with age should show, providing the food sources and genetics are there. It is now generally only an inch or so on each of the tines that they put on sometimes a little more. Some stags at 30 inches and 10.5 years of age that are taken in harsh bush environment will grow a very different set of antlers to a stag taken on the back of farm fringe that has had access to improved clover and pasture since the day it was born. What they put in their mouths affects body condition and also helps contribute towards antler growth.
These are the stags that should be capable of growing beams at least 27-28 inches long and often into the low 30-inch class given the perfect set of conditions. Antlers will have plenty of weight and tine length will be as long as what the deer can push out. Their pedicles are normally short, the skulls will be both long in length and wide across the forehead. Sambar stags in this age class will have large frames that make their legs appear slightly shorter, and their necks will be solid and deep where it meets the chest. They often have a sagging belly that adds to their appearance and if they are growing velvet over summer they will be slab sided and at the peak of their body condition for that year. Some hunters will see these stags and immediately notice their great size and appearance, they are a class above the middle aged deer and certainly the kings of their domain. Often the behavior of these mature stags is very different from other deer. They will typically avoid open country if they can, preferring the thicker habitat that gives them an edge to survive. They will often bed up above other deer to use them as an early warning signal and they will be very cautious about moving around open country in full light, often only entering it or moving through it in low light conditions. Very rarely do you see these types of stags standing around mid morning in vulnerable locations. The ones that have done this are typically dead.
Stags that are 11.5 years of age or more are considered old deer. Stags at this age generally start to regress with antler growth but there is some variance between individuals as to how quickly they loose their growth. Often it is one side the starts getting shorter in tine and beam length, but both will show signs of regression from when they were at their peak. As they continue to live into old age the antlers will decrease in size and form and their shape can get quite non typical. This malform appearance of an old regressive stag cannot be compared to a young stag with poor genetics that is not growing a typical set. That really old stag well into double-digit years of age with funky antlers might have been a magnificent trophy in his day and he still is in his retirement years.
These really old stags sometimes appear to have the coronets slipping off the sides of their skulls and at this age the coronets are normally very low to the skull but pedicle length does vary between individuals and so to will coronet height. These old sambar stags will begin to show signs of poor health with hips and backbones starting to show, even when peak food source is available. Their body mass will decrease as their muscles weaken and reduce in size and they will be no match physically for the younger stronger stags. They will still live in regions where they interact with other deer, but just like an aging old man, they will generally steer well away from trouble and seek comfort and security with what time they have left. These deer often have a pronounced lump or elevated ridge in their bone structure below their eyes to the nose. This is referred to as a roman nose and it should be visible on most stags by now. Tooth wear will be considerable and depending on type of habitat and the forage they consume the molars could be well worn down, even getting close to the gums. Some teeth might be missing or loose and this inability to consume adequate dietary intake to maintain body condition ultimately leads to many stags demise.
Please note that the above antler growths and ages are a guide only, there are always exceptions to the rules at both ends of the scale. Many stags will never be genetically capable of reaching 28-30 inches in antler length on the main beams and some just don’t live in the right environment for them to reach maximum potential. Others will grow longer earlier on in age, but their beams might be light in weight or they might have short inner tines allowing the deer to grow long beam length quicker then normal. One thing is certain though, and I might be repeating myself, but it needs to be driven home, if stags are getting shot before they approach maturity then there is zero chance of them ever reaching their best potential.
Ultimately what we need to be asking ourselves is do we want a heap of sambar to see while hunting and driving up the bush or do we want a stable population sustainable within its environment and better managed with sex ratios and age classes. I would assume if you put this question to most sambar hunters out there and they gave it some thought, the structured herd would likely be the answer. It isn’t hard to start implementing and all hunters can do their part. Collectively change can happen.