Just about every animal that walks this earth leaves a trace of its having passed!
It doesn’t matter whether it is a bull-ant heading off through the short grass on a foraging expedition, a rat moving around its territory of long grass and scrub, a dingo padding through the bush, a brumby contouring a steep hillside, a child wending their way across a grassy paddock on their way to school …. or a deer going about its business of finding food, shelter or a mate – they are all the same in that they all leave evidence of their passing.
Experienced deer hunters, unlike 99.9 per cent of the rest of society, are very familiar with the idea that animals are inevitably loyal to key routes when going about their business and that this leads to the formation of paths. As hunters, we call these often-subtle paths ‘game trails’ and being able to recognise them and take advantage of them is a key skill that a deer hunter needs to acquire.
Non-hunters (for example, biologists straight from academia) in my experience often assume that ‘game trails’ are only made by game animals such as deer which therefore must be bad – they have put two and two together to get five. Like many things pertaining to deer and hunting this blindness and prejudice is very frustrating and leads some hunters to keep quiet about deer outside their hunting circle on the basis that amongst non-hunters, ‘ignorance is bliss’.
When it comes to deer, what exactly do these trails represent, how do we recognise them and then take advantage of them?
Apart from young male deer that are dispersing and wandering after having been rejected by their mothers, it is likely that every deer will have an intimate knowledge of its home range – where the best feed and water sources are at different times of the year, where the best shelter and escape cover is given changing weather patterns and threats from predators and where the key locations relating to sexual activity and breeding are. In short, a deer’s habitat isn’t all that different from a human’s kitchen, lounge and bedroom.
Deer are lazy too, in that they don’t waste energy when moving from their kitchen to the loungeroom and to their bedroom. They conserve energy by invariably taking the easiest routes through their territories and thus form trails linking up components of their habitat.
So, what does a game trail look like? Game trails are beaten paths made through the bush by the long-term tramping of feet. Often, they are obvious but in other cases they will be quite inconspicuous. In areas that harbour deer that means that they should show some evidence of typical cloven hooves. Game trails will usually contour around slopes as that is the easiest way for an animal to move through its country. They will also meander through scrub patches and around obstructions such as fallen trees and will lead to the easiest places to cross a river, get around a cliff or over or through a farm fence.
Following game trails is a great way to for a hunter to get around in difficult country with the added bonus that it will allow him to find the key components of the deer habitat; feeding, watering and bedding areas, travel routes between gullies, creeks and rivers and sites that focus on breeding – wallows, preach trees and rutting scrapes; …. and maybe to bump into a deer.
Often, game trails made by or used by deer will also be used by other similar sized animals, particularly wild dogs, wallabies and kangaroos – after all, they also have similar needs to the deer and likewise need to conserve their energy wherever possible by always taking the line of least resistance.
Victorian houndsmen are perhaps the group of hunters who are most switched on to game trails. When hunting over hounds one of the keys to success is to know where a deer that is being trailed by the hounds is likely to walk or trot through: a hunter standing motionless near a saddle or a river crossing that is key crossing spot takes the advantage away from the moving animal and puts it decidedly in their own favour.
Many years ago, I was introduced to hound hunting by being walked into a deep, dark, damp and heavily forested gully and told that there was a game trail crossing twenty metres from where I was instructed to stand. The hounds were released well away from my position but eventually one started heading in my direction, voicing sporadically as it came closer. Then, with no warning sound at all, a sambar hind materialised from the dense scrub on the gully’s edge at the crossing spot and tentatively poked its way across the narrow gap. Two quick shots from my 7mm BAR put the animal down for keeps – my mentor’s intimate knowledge of his hunting area and its game trails had made it all too easy for a new-chum hunter.