Grunt call for stags


The use of decoy in stag hunting

The stag is undoubtedly the most imposing animal figure in our forests. From his presence on the murals of Lascaux to his role as the gentle companion of Diana, via his personification of the strange Celtic god Cernunos, art and myths testify to the incredible fascination it exerts on mankind. There is no shortage of wonderful tales, both religious and secular, about this singular animal, confirming his status as king of the forest.

No doubt its aura is due to its respectable dimensions (1m40 at the withers, from 150 to 200 kg for the elder subjects), its aristocratic head crowned with majestic antlers, its strength. And perhaps also, because of its antlers, to its assimilation to the tree, making it a kind of genius of the forest. The traditional pharmacopoeia use its woods, which are said to cure almost all ills. Strength, nobility and magic: deer hunting, as old as mankind, became the privilege of the nobility in the Middle Ages.

The object presented this month is a stag decoy, or grunt call (fig.1). Its role is to help in the imitation of the bellowing deer  in order to bring the animal closer, originally to hunt it. This is known as "bellowing hunting", derived from a very ancient hunting technique: the "caller hunting". The "decoy" is an animal that has been tamed, mutilated or simply tied up, held close to the hunter in ambush, and whose cries attract another animal.

(Fig.1, deer decoy, synthetic resin, Harztor, K. Weissenkirchen for Eurohunt GmbH, 2019. Inv. Mim 2019.0049)

This is shown in the ancient mosaic of Lillebonne (2nd century, Fig. 2). The deer is held on a leash by a man hiding in a bush. Another stag, attracted by these roars, arrives on the left, accompanied by its herd of hinds. He does not see the hunter ambushed and holding out his bow to shoot it. Given the impressive dimensions of the bait, this type of hunting may seem a little surreal today.

(Fig. 2, detail of the Lillebonne mosaic (drawing), 3rd-4th century, Rouen, Musée départemental des Antiquités. From Duval, Mémoire de la société des antiquaires de Normandie, 1871)

It is true that very early on, the "caller" could also be replaced by a real decoy, which considerably lightens the hunter's task. Magdalenian decoys, such as those from Saint-Marcel (Fig. 3), Le Placard or Isturitz, bear witness to this. Made from the shins of waders, they appear, through their engraved decoration, to be stag decoys and would be therefore the direct ancestors of our instrument of the month.

(Fig. 3, Saint-Marcel's decoy, bird bone decorated with engravings representing cervid ears, 13th millennium BCE(Magdalenian), Saint-Marcel, Musée d'Argentomagus © Musées de la région Centre)

The use of decoys for deer hunting is attested in many traditional cultures. For example, some Indian populations in Canada use birch bark decoys. Very old wooden trunks come from Scandinavia and Russia. Antiquity is not to be outdone. For Aristotle (The Life of Animals, Book IX) as for Elien of Preneste (De nat. anim., XII, 46), the attraction of sound on the animal is seen as almost magical: "The hinds let themselves be taken in by the hunt when you play the flute or sing, and they lie down with pleasure. If there are two hunters, one sings or plays his flute in full view, the other stands behind and shoots when the first one signals that it is time. If the doe happens to have straight ears, she hears well, and it is not possible to surprise her; but if she has lowered them, she lets herself be caught." For Elien, calls are magical, because they have the gift of charming animals.

Apart from a few exceptions, hunting with decoys is no longer allowed in Belgium, and certainly not for stag hunting. However, it is still practiced in Central and Eastern Europe. In our country, stag decoys are therefore only used by nature lovers, who use them to bring the animal close to observe or photograph it. There are also competitions for grunt calls (bellowing  imitators). In Belgium, this contest takes place in Saint-Hubert, usually at the beginning of September (see video).

The object in question here cannot quite be described as a decoy. Indeed, it does not emit sound by itself. The sound of the throat is emitted by the imitator. The role of the horn is limited to that of an amplifier. The larynx of a stag is much longer than that of a man, which means that a man's larynx cannot compete in volume with that of the animal. The decoy therefore simply allows him to increase the power. However, the sound could be produced without a grunt call, simply using the hands around the mouth as an amplifier. Others also use a large conch-type shell, pierced at its tip with a 2 cm diameter hole. The cone can be made of wood, metal or plastic. It can be a single tube, or a telescopic one, with one or two parts, as is the case here. By changing the length, the practitioner can render more accurately the different shades of the bell.

The use of a call requires a great deal of knowledge of the animal concerned. Each species has its own calls, which vary according to circumstances and times of the year. Deers are usually rather quiet animals. They only roar during the mating season, when the males build up a herd of does and compete with each other for reproduction. This means that they only spend about 15 to 20 days a year "chatting", more specifically between September 15 and October 15. The cries emitted during this period are known as "troat" or "bell". This period is known as " Bellowing period". The forest then resounds with concerts of these fantastic noises, accompanied by the clash of the woods in battle or against the shrubs. This usually takes place at dusk and at nightfall. The full moon or a starry sky, calm and cold weather are particularly favorable. The bell can be heard from several miles away. This is the ideal time to approach the animal, but be careful not to come face to face with it.

It is important for the decoy user to be familiar with the expressive nuances of the animal. The troat can vary considerably depending on the condition of the stag or its situation. For example, depending on whether it is in search of a doe, meeting a rival, accompanying its herd, winning in combat, etc. The caller should be aware of the animal's expressive nuances. In general, the consonants are generally "AH-WU-ÂH", usually on a descending octave. But the fight is accompanied by a series of very low "UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH" repeated 6 or 7 times, while an "AH-WU-ÂH" followed by four or five rising "UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH-UEH" indicates a deer in his herd. There is therefore a lot to learn before using the call correctly, and only by listening carefully in an area rich in game will it be possible to use it correctly.


- Dr Alain, « Un appeau magdalénien », in Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, année 1950, p.181-192.

- Chaigneau, A., Les genres de chasses, Paris, Payot, 1961.

- Chaigneau, A., Braconnage et contre-braconnage (chasse-pêche), Paris, La maison rustique, [1967], p.16-17.

- Dupérat, M., Le cerf, Paris, Artémis, 2009.

- Vauthey, P., « À propos des représentations antiques de la « chasse au brame », in Revue archéologique du Centre de la France, année 1968, p.335-342.

- Villenaye, G.M. (éd.), La chasse, Paris, Larousse,  [1954], p.139-141.

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