Mothers hide their children in the basement. Farmers paint their cows and bird dogs orange. Schools are closed and business abandoned.

When deer season opens, as it did Monday in Virginia, and deer hunters take over the countryside, anything that moves is a potential target. And if past accident reports are any indication, birds, bushes and mankind are in danger as well as deer.

"If you have a goat, you better get him inside a barn or somewhere," advises Kevin C. Clark, one of Virginia's 137 game wardens who are charged with patrolling the state's 40,000 square miles and 400,000 hunters.

Deer hunting season (which opens Nov. 29 in Maryland) is an autumn ritual that rivals any in the rural counties of America. It is a chance to fill freezers with winter meat, as well as escape work and routine worry while stalking some half-remembered residue of an ancient act.

It is also an experience that, while not as hazardous as many nonhunters imagine, is considerably more perilous than some hunters would like the public to believe.

During the last 17 years there have been 1,043 hunting accidents in Virginia, according to a state study. Most were caused by bad judgment or mishandling of firearms. Some hunters tripped on tree roots and shot themselves in the foot. Some fell over fences and shot other hunters in the foot. Most lived to shoot again.

But at least a few hunters and bystanders are killed every year. Fourteen people died in Virginia hunting accidents last year. On opening day this year, a Frederick County hunter was found shot to death. Another hunter was wounded by a shotgun blast in Surry County and is now hospitalized.

"Accidents like that are very common this time of year," says a state police officer.

Officials with the Virgina game and inland fisheries department contend the perils of hunting are greatly exaggerated by sensation-seeking journalists. During the last 17 years, they point out, the accident rate has been only 14 per 100,000 licenses sold. Jaywalkers, they say, live more dangerously.

But the annual migration of armed hunters into the state's fields and forrests does scare people, including some hunters.

"I'm afraid of the people out there hunting the game," says John Gatchell, a 30-year-old small-game hunter from Shenandoah County, who unloads his rifle every year during the two-week deer season for counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "I value my --- (here he pats the seat of his pants) too much."

The deer hunting season wreaks obvious changes in Shenandoah, a mountainous county 75 miles west of Washington. Motels are booked weeks in advance. Stores run out of ammunition. The normally quiet streets are crowded with strangers wearing orange caps and field jackets.

On Monday, the courthouse in Woodstock, the county seat, could have collapsed without loss of life; it was virtually abandoned. Though the three high schools in the county are not closed, as some in Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties, students who brought notes from home were excused for the hunt.

"It's not a declared holiday but it might as well be," said Ronnie Gatchell, 33, who spent the morning in the woods and the afternoon in his family's Woodstock restaurant, Donnie's Place. "Just about all the men go hunting and a lot of them women, too."

There are no estimates of revenue brought into the county by hunters, but if the weekend crowd at Woodstock's Western Auto is an indication, the local merchants enjoy boom times.

"We sold about 1,900 hunting licenses in the last two days," said Sam Koontz, owner of the store, which is a combination auto parts business, firearm emporium and gossip shop. It is also a great place to go if one leg is shorter than the other and needs pulling.

Koontz does not hunt deer, but it's not, he says, because there is anything immoral about the sport. Like his friend John Gatchell across the street, Koontz says he is more concerned about his own hide than the deer's.

From his spot behind a counter laden with guns and ammunition, Koontz is positioned to hear of every misfire in the county. He is also witness to sights that scare him: men, for example, who carry rifles with the power to kill from three miles, but who don't know how to load them.

"Hunters are not the problem," says Koontz, a short, stocky man with light blue eyes and a keen sense of humor. "It's the small percentage of people who don't know what they're doing who leave the beer cans, the dead dogs and the cattle."

Virginia's game wardens are supposed to check that abuse. But with only one warden assigned to most counties, it is an impossible job. And a dangerous one.

A study conducted four years ago by the Wyoming Conservation Department concluded that the nation's approximately 6,000 state and federal game wardens are eight times as likely to be assaulted with guns as other law enforcement agents. During a five-year period, from 1971 to 1976, six game wardens were killed while on duty.

Last year in Fauquier County a state game warden was shot while trying to arrest a man who allegedly was hunting illegally. The suspect was killed in the shootout.

"Sure I'm wary," says Fred W. Hottle, a 65-year-old warden who has been tracking illegal hunters for 32 years. "When you're out there in a field you meet all classes of people and you know they all got guns. They got a high powered rifle and all you got is a revolver."

Hottle, who patrolled parts of Shenandoah and Frederick counties Monday, has had to use his gun only once. That was to hit a feisty hunter across the shins.

Though the hunting season did not begin until half an hour before sunrise, Hottle was in the woods at midnight, looking for hunters illegally using flashlights to attract and effectively freeze deer, who then become easy prey. For the first time in four years, he did not make a preseason arrest.

Most of the hunters he did find were polite and soggy from the freezing rain that kept the deer kill in Shenandoah for the day at 374, 25 fewer than the first day total last year.

"I'm not going out and looking for a deer in this weather," said one hunter as he warmed his hands at one of the 18 official game checking stations across the county. "Let it come in and find me." CAPTION: Picture 1 through 3, Marc Paul DuVal spots deer. He watched a distant thicket 30 minutes until several does emerged.Al and Steve Lamont walk along a mountain path. Denny Boies displays his opening-day 10-pointer. w Photos by Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post