All of Australia’s six deer species eat grass (graze) and some also eat the foliage of shrubs and trees (browse). All pass similar pellet droppings, but obviously their size will vary depending on how big the animal in question is, with young and female hog deer passing the smallest pellets and mature red deer and sambar stags the largest pellets.
Deer pellets are similar in shape to those of sheep and goats and where deer are feeding on areas frequented by these species it may be difficult to decide what has left the sign – the presence of characteristic ‘sharp’ hoof prints, wallows, scrapes, rub trees or hair on a barbed wire fence might help in making a decision. When on lush feed such as clover, deer and sheep dropping may not be pelleted, but form clumps reminiscent of a ‘hand grenade’, so this needs to be kept in mind too.
If deer are present, their droppings are likely to found in feeding areas, on game trails and in bedding areas.
Obviously, other animals besides deer may be present in an area and rabbits, hares, possums, wallabies, kangaroos and wombats are probably the most likely to confound a new hunter. The key here is that they all leave droppings that are characteristically shaped and quite distinctive compared with deer droppings – rabbit and hare dropping are small, round and slightly flattened, those of possums small, long and cylindrical, wallaby and roo large and ‘roundish’ and wombat droppings very large, and often ‘squarish’. Context can help too as rabbits tend to use dung hills while wombats often deposit their droppings on a fallen branch or some other similar feature.
Once you are certain that the pellets that you are finding have been dropped by a deer the next question is ‘Are they fresh or old?’ Fresh droppings will be moist and likely slimy, dark green in colour, attractive to flies and will have a smell. As pellets age, largely dependant on whether they are exposed to the sun and rain, they will turn black and dry very quickly, before fading over weeks or months to grey and eventually disintegrating and disappearing. Obviously, as they dry they will become less attractive to flies and will lose any odour so picking up a pellet, feeling its texture, crushing it and having a sniff can tell a keyed-in hunter a lot about their prospects.
For many hunters the most important second question is ‘Is this a stag or buck?’ Pellet shape is no indication as it is identical in both male and female deer. The sex of an animal likewise cannot always be told from pellets as younger males will leave similar sized pellets to females, purely based on their similar body size. You can only be certain of an animal’s sex when the pellets are very large – a mature stag or buck is considerably larger than a younger male or a female of the species and will leave big pellets. Part of a hunter’s skill is in being able to identify the pellets of a mature male deer – something gained with experience and from having seen a range of pellets left by different animals.
Being observant and learning about the bush and your quarry is all part of a hunter’s skill, and being familiar with deer droppings is part of that skill-set.
An excellent book that should find a place on any new deer hunter’s library shelf is Tracks, Scats and Other Traces, A Field Guide to Australian Mammals by Barbara Triggs.