While there are state forests and other designated deer hunting areas that can be accessed under certain conditions and guidelines, including private properties given permission, the planning to actually implement the hunt can prove daunting and often frustrating.
Then when you or other like-minded deer hunters finally decide to explore a secluded or unworked area with your gear and GPS, you roll up only to find another party of stalkers or a group with hounds ahead of you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it’s not the scenario you envisaged. So you either take your chances in the same vicinity or start again in another location.
It was just a few years ago I hunted my first red deer in the Brisbane Ranges with a creditable guide and even though it took some 40 years to eventuate, the experience was worth the wait and the dollars spent. However, from the start my goal has always been to hunt the high country for the impressive sambar stag.
Then I met fellow hunter, Derek, in a gunshop and started talking about deer hunting in Victoria. I expressed some frustration at my inability to gain entry to sambar habitat areas through privately owned land, a personal preference as opposed to parking my vehicle on a dirt track in a state forest where it could be broken into.
He was empathetic with my plight and hinted there might be an opportunity but couldn’t elaborate at the time, saying he’d get back to me. True to his word Derek made contact, explaining that a private concern was being established which would allow hunters like myself to hunt deer in a safe, ethical and sustainable way which would also benefit landowners whose property we’d be accessing.
The idea to form a deer guiding operation was fostered by Robert Cavedon, born and raised in the farming community of Eurobin, Victoria. In 1938 his father worked on a family related dairy farm before buying his own property in 1952. As long-established residents, farmers, neighbours and good friends to the surrounding and more distant property owners, they’re well placed to pursue the venture.
While it’s Robert’s concept it can be likened to buffalo or wild boar-hunting safaris in the Northern Territory where the aboriginal elders or landholders are compensated for the privilege to hunt on their land as well as for the game hunted. Robert sees this as a way of bringing together in a safe, controlled, supervised environment, landowners and responsible hunters. Importantly it provides farmers and landowners some financial benefit, as touched on, to enable them to buy feed or meet other monetary obligations.
Also at a time when most small businesses are struggling, it helps Robert’s family concern, the Red Stag Restaurant Farm in Eurobin. Recently, the restaurant has employed several local young men and women with the required skills and abilities to act as guides for the deer operation.
As a farmer, Robert understands the plight and hardship endured during catastrophic weather events like drought and the frustration ethical hunters experience trying to access deer country. At present, crops, vineyards, orchards, pastures and stock feed, even botanic gardens are being raided by a greater than previous deer population. The situation has become so desperate in places that culling by spotlighting is proving the most effective method, a more recent and legally approved option applicable to private landowners under stipulated conditions.
The landowners’ willingness to share their territory has come about through a trusted relationship with Robert’s family built over the years. I don’t mind paying a few dollars to hunt in a place where someone’s aware of my deer hunting movements, just in case of emergency, and it helps the landowner. Property admittance is strictly controlled through the operator to ensure the landowners’ requirements are fully respected. So it’s crucial we as shooters act ethically and appropriately if we’re to gain the farmer’s or landowner’s respect and for this type of hunting activity to prosper. In most cases they’re way too busy attending to their farming activities to chase deer on an ongoing basis.
Ironically it comes at a time when Parks Victoria is trialling aerial culling of sambar and other deer species in such places as Mount Buffalo National Park. Sure, there’s good reason for the culling but is it going to be effective and at what cost and waste? Sambar deer are stubborn critters, hard to push out of thick forested areas. And where are they felled, how many are badly wounded or crippled only to wander about in pain before expiring? And there’s the waste of good venison and a trophy stag most deer hunters strive for.
When the invitation was extended to experience the situation for myself, I drove through the picturesque high country to Robert’s Red Stag Restaurant where I met my guide. For the exercise of sighting deer the plan was to drive out late at night to various privately owned properties, with respective owners’ awareness and permission, using a night-vision hand-held scope. In just a couple of hours driving we counted about 80 deer, most feeding on the fringe or just inside forested areas.
The next day, decked in camo gear and full of anticipation I ventured out at 5am with Brad, my guide, to spot sambar deer in their natural habitat. We made our way up a rising hill bordered to our left by a blackberry choked gully and dotted with stunning overhanging ferns. Under the canopy of the towering gums and an overcast sky, visibility in dim light was poor. As drizzle started to fall a murky black shape emerged from the scrub on the narrow path in front of us - a sambar stag which paused before scampering up the hill through the dense growth, followed by three or four hinds.
My first sighting had the adrenalin pumping as we stalked through the bracken-covered gullies and up the slopes, aided by the light rain that softened the twigs and dry bark underfoot. An hour passed with no further sightings as if our presence had been telegraphed. On our return we noticed fresh dog scat, possibly a dingo hunting the area and a reason for the absence of deer.
But nearing the pick-up point we sighted a young buck and were further honked by two mature stags above us. The previous night’s sightings and those that morning were proof enough to confirm their presence in numbers. Due to other commitments my stay was restricted to that morning but I’ll be back for an organised hunt.
Talking to Robert, the guiding is diverse in its approach and can be tailored to the client’s preference, from free-range hunting to night hunting under strictly controlled conditions. There are photographic excursions at night where wombats, possums and other wildlife are common. Importantly the project also caters to physically disadvantaged people who, for example, may require the aid of a wheelchair. Presently, and to ethically fast-track the reduction in deer population, spotlight hunting is probably one of the most effective methods for farmers to be rid of problem deer.
In the US, feral animals such as hogs or wild pigs, out of control in Texas, coyotes, deer, foxes, cats and other predatory animals are being successfully harvested or eradicated using spotlighting or night-vision equipment. It’s a workable idea and should also be applicable in Australia.
Robert’s idea is to make the experience a pleasurable and memorable one, hence the title 5 Star Deer Guide Company, a status name he firmly believes in for its longer term viability. The Red Stag Restaurant that sponsors the operation is nestled in picturesque Ovens Valley, Eurobin between Myrtleford and Bright.
Hunts, including vehicle transport, are conducted by experienced guides who are trained in first aid. Apart from field outings and camping arrangements, more comfortable accommodation and ready meals, including varying game dishes, are offered through the restaurant, particularly where youngsters and family members are involved. Deer are field dressed and the venison, cape and antlers, or all, can be retrieved to take home. For interstate travellers pick-up from Albury airport can be arranged.
The exercise certainly confirmed the abundance of deer and the dilemma facing property owners. However, out of an often hopeless or unsolvable situation, it goes to show how an idea from simple beginnings can sometimes prove effective and beneficial for the collective. It’s certainly worth pursuing. For anyone contemplating a deer hunt or outing, Robert or Grace can be contacted at [email protected] or visit 5stardeerguide.com.au