Deer at Dinefwr 2 – Bully Bucks

It was one ten in the afternoon when, carrying my camera, big lens and tripod in a backpack, I crept cautiously along the southern boundary of the deer park. After days of gloom it was sunny. My early morning deer-watch had been a little disappointing but now I was yet again excited to be getting close to these beautiful animals. A group of does moved up the rough grassy slope and over a small rise. Slowly, I moved further along the fence in stages until I was in a good vantage place.  Suddenly a big buck appeared bellowing, searching restlessly for that distinctive smell which meant one of the does was receptive. When two does ran across to join the group he ran across to check them out. Was that a hint of tenderness?

There I stayed, standing, watching, waiting until there were none in sight. Then I moved again until I could see, above the long grass, a tail twitching or an ear, or a back moving. They were in a dip beyond the grass ridge in front of me, and all movement had ceased. Clearly it was time for the siesta and all I could do was wait. I knew at least one of them was there because I could see a patch of black fur. Half an hour later she moved, and twenty minutes after that another appeared.

Then things happened fast. The whole group got up and started grazing.  There was rapid movement to my left and suddenly there were three buck rushing towards me. The one in front was young and black . He paused, turned and ran straight towards me. Within seconds he was just a few metres from me at the edge of the bracken, panting, desperate. The other two, great haughty magnificent battle scarred beasts, held back for a moment, disconcerted. Then another great buck appeared, higher up. He was clearly the boss and much too dignified to chase off a youngster. (see top picture) The fugitive stayed looking at me for a minute or so and then, still panting, walked into the woodland behind me. The other two followed, but further down, away from me. 

When I look closely at the pictures I can just see my camera lens reflected in his eye! Did I save him from a thrashing or am I thinking like a human rather than a deer? It could have been co-incidence, but I am convinced that he saw me as the lesser threat and moved towards me deliberately. If you are being bullied it makes sense to seek protection from a more dominant bully – humankind.

A few days later I try again for that illusive image of fighting bucks, but all is peaceful. The hide has been moved to a prime location, partially concealed under a tree. I manage to creep in soon after dawn without being seen. All around me are paths used regularly by all the deer, and I’m looking directly across at one of the most popular sites for rutting behaviour – a place I’ve seen fights before. I imagine two bucks rushing down the hill behind me and out into the field where, just in front of the hide, they clash antlers!

Or perhaps not.

An hour later some does appear – two single mums with their teenage offspring grazing slowly and peacefully across the grass in front of me. A Raven calls and the trees make noises behind me. I examine the three spiders that have taken up residence inside the hide, and I count down the minutes to 10:00 when I can allow myself some coffee from the flask and a snack. Two more does appear.  My stool is uncomfortable and in moving around I cause it to collapse, broken beyond repair. I’m not hurt but it’s 11:30 and I can’t kneel any longer so I admit defeat.

I’ve learnt many things this last two weeks, but there is still so much to learn and I love the process. It’s hard – physically demanding and by turns horribly frustrating, deadly boring and intensely exciting. At my lowest, the place restores me – the great trees, the steep valleys, the lakes and the river. I also feel privileged to be supported and encouraged by the inspiring Ranger team here in a great enterprise – to restore the bits of its ecology that have been lost so that it can heal us all.  

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Deer at Dinefwr – the mating game.

It’s 07:45, dawn, clear sky, the sun just a hint of copper to the East and it’s so still and quiet my footsteps crash and hiss. I’m in my little pop-up hide amongst a stand of ancient beech trees on high ground. On the Wiltshire downs when I was young, we would have called it a Beech Hanger – a sure sign that a Georgian landscape designer had been at work, and indeed this landscape, Dinefwr Park, was influenced by the best of them: Capability Brown. There’s a path named after him the other side of the valley. The Fallow Deer – so decorative and suitably aristocratic with their dainty spotty coats and bladed antlers – were part of the plan. Their descendants are still here, and now, in late October it’s the rut: the beginning of the annual cycle of life, and the only time in the year when Fallow Deer get to have sex.

In small areas around the park the mature bucks have selected suitable areas to make a fuss: scrape the ground, thrash the bushes and stomp around grunting and showing off. Occasionally there are fights and it is to get some decent pictures of the iconic clash of antlers that I am here. There’s a film crew here with the same objective. I helped them find suitable sites, but now I have to take care not to disturb them, so I’ve come to this place well away from where they have set up their two hides.

8am There’s a buck grunting quite close; somewhere below. I’m poised for him to appear between the trees, but the noise dies down and nothing happens. These lovely old trees have bark like elephant hide – one of them even looks like an elephant.(picture taken in May)

8:30 A brief shower of rain and a squirrel makes an appearance. There are hundreds in the park. It’s an ideal habitat – lots of tree seed and nuts, no tree-climbing predators and lots of places to build their drays.

8:40 Now the sun is intensifying the deep orange of the bracken on the opposite side of the valley and a large group of deer has gathered there, so I abandon the hide and move closer, still keeping partially concealed among the trees. There are about 30  does and three bucks. One of them is thrashing the bushes, but they all seem to get on OK. Please, boys, can’t you stop being friends for a few minutes? The rutting call of Fallow is distinctive but not dignified enough to be called roaring or bellowing. What they are doing is grunting – a long series of single vocalisations about a second apart. This one is typical. He is moving through the does, searching out any which may be coming in oestrus, or “on heat” as we used to call it.

I’ve been here off and on for the last week and seen plenty of this behaviour, but the women just don’t seem interested, and now, at 9:30 they are all moving off down the valley. It seems a good time to retrieve the trail camera I set last night and then to head back for coffee and a warm-up before trying somewhere else.  

The trail camera showed that what I had hoped would be a rutting stand was, at least at night, no more than a corridor. A succession of does moved from South to North in small groups. followed by a mature buck. Why? What are they doing? The more I learn, the more questions there are.

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Walking for Hearing 2

It’s a place of luminous mornings, the low September sun catching the spiders’ webs; of early mornings stalking the deer; a big friendly kitchen full of nice things; huge vegetables from the black crumbly soil; late afternoons spent sitting on the terrace watching the butterflies; picking and storing apples from the orchard, and one magical evening when, at dusk, the deer came stalking us.=

I was here in June and wrote about it: http://phototwynog.co.uk/and-the-voice-of-the-turtle-is-heard-in-our-land

This time it’s both of us here for the second week of our holiday in France. Thelma sits on the terrace reading and wrapping apples for storage while I do my walks. It’s difficult because with no tradition of postal delivery, there are no footpaths joining up the farms. In fact there are no footpaths at all round here. The little roads branch out like trees, each branch ending squarely at a group of buildings: private, secure – you visit or you don’t.  I found this ruin at the end of one branch and then had to walk all the way back along the same route.

On another day I walked into Ambrieres Les Vallees, the town close by. There are big square commercial buildings going up all round and lots of neat new housing. It’s clearly a prosperous and rapidly growing centre, but like all the towns and villages round here, has plenty of handsome old buildings.

On Friday we went out for a meal in Gorron, to the north of Ambrieres, where Sean, Jo and their daughters have set up a pizza restaurant. It functions as a meeting place for the local Brits, complete with facebook group called “Gorron Gossip”. With a little time to kill we had a stroll round the church.

On Saturday we did an outing: a huge car boot sale and a trip round the largest castle in Europe at  Fougere, the capital of the Breton Marches: border country where the Duchy of Brittany fought off incursions from Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Poitou. It seems to be powered by water, overseen by pigeons and maintained by goats, but it still looks very powerful.

Now my month of walking is done. For fun I chose symmetry: I have achieved my exact targets: 150km walked and £300 raised. It feels great, and I’m hugely grateful for all those who supported me.  However, as the RNID pointed out, a charity like this one can never have enough donations, so if you have not yet given, it would make this month even more worthwhile if I could aim for £400. Unfortunately I need to rest my painful right little toe for a while so won’t be adding to my 150km!

Thanks for reading – comments always welcome, and please share if you like what I do.

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Walking for Hearing

This September has been dominated  by my decision to take on the RNID walking challenge. The original goal was 100km in the month, but this seemed a bit feeble so I upped mine to 150km and set a target of £300. So far I’ve done 126km and raised £275, and I’m standing at 19th in the leader-board of 145 participants. Here’s the link, and it would be wonderful if  you felt able to support me: https://rnid.enthuse.com/pf/richard-turner

I’m a regular walker but by this summer I began to realise that I had not done much walking since the last lockdown so this seemed a good way to support a charity which is very important to me and to boost my fitness. Five kilometres is 3 miles: sounds easy enough – until you have to do it every day! For the first two weeks I was at home and it wasn’t much fun trudging round the local circuits which I knew so well, so I stomped up the mountain instead – very familiar but still good for the spirits.

My volunteer sessions at Dinefwr Park also enabled me to clock up some kms and catch a few birds like this juvenile moorhen, just finding its improbable feet!

Things changed dramatically mid month when Thelma and I set off for Portsmouth and the ferry to Ouistreham in Normandy.

With restrictions easing, the crossing was quite relaxing, but the coast road from the ferry to Bayeux was slow and stressful so it was wonderful to find that the flat Thelma had booked right in the centre was as good as the pictures – an architects dream in shades of grey and stone.

We stayed in Bayeux for 4 days and I found plenty of different ways to clock up the kilometres in the morning, do the culture in the afternoons and enjoy a meal in the still warm evenings.

We had both done some research on the tapestry, and spent a long time absorbing all the fascinating details. I don’t know anything to compare with it for a real insight into how people lived and thought in the eleventh century. Every gesture, the body language, the decorative details – they all carry a wealth of meaning which was obvious to contemporary observers but which we have to learn. Lace making and pottery were two more recent specialities of this special little city.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur

The art museum had lots of fabulous pictures, but I have to say I found the Normandy Landings museum depressing. Instead of feelings of triumph of good over evil I just felt an enormous sense of loss – tens of thousands of young men killed and maimed, thousands of priceless buildings destroyed, a terrible waste of precious resources. Was it worth it? I don’t know.

I found consolation in an early walk and a street market just setting up.

 

 

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Best of August

 

I have read of old lags re-offending when they are released in the hope of returning to an environment where decisions are made for them. It felt a bit like this when the Covid restrictions on travel were relaxed. I was happy with life at home when the task was to make the best of it. Now, despite the wild flowers flourishing in the garden (above)  I feel a restless urge to travel. I am pushing against the gathering clouds of old age and a stricken world, and some of my trips this month seemed more driven by this sense of approaching doom than by the on-going search for the perfect living image.

At the beginning of the month I was in Slimbridge. I knew it was the dead season for the wild birds but I was not quite prepared for the extraordinary emptiness of the place. Tack Piece is a huge grassy field which in winter is a feeding ground for thousands of birds. Today it is empty, but in a typical Slimbridge twist the only two living things on the drying-out pond by the hide were both rare: a Spotted Redshank and a Green Sandpiper.

With little to lose I decided to do some exploring of the surrounding countryside and discovered the little village of Purton where a nice farm campsite offered wonderful views across the estuary towards Slimbridge, and gave me easy access to the footpath along the canal south to Sharpness. In the early morning of a dull day I discovered the Hulks – a collection of old barges deliberately beached to strengthen the banks of the estuary.

Sharpness dock is like a dystopian film set. It’s web presence is of a flourishing port, but on this morning it looks deserted and very strange. What is happening to all those warehouses and all that ironwork?

Every Tuesday, when I’m at home, I do my volunteering stint at Dinefwr Park in Llandeilo. The new County Ranger, Stuart, is very much on my wavelength and it has been a pleasure to be part of his mission to restore lost biodiversity to the estate. This month I discovered the Flood Plain – the flat land between the Castle and the river. On a quick buggy tour we found an old wall beside one of the Oxbow lakes, and Stuart was positively encouraging when I asked to set up my pop-up hide there. He later did some research on the wall and found that it was a jetty, built to help British troops train for the Normandy landings – yes, here, on a lake in the middle of Wales! The troops were stationed on the estate at Newton House. 

Here is a selection from my month at Dinefwr. (Kingfisher from the Kingfisher Hide, Goosanders on the Towy and cleft oak fencing.)

Mid month I had a message from one of the other bird enthusiasts in the village to say that the Hobby falcons were here again. Falco Subbuteo (it gave its name to the football board game) is a summer visitor to Southern Britain with around 2000 pairs nesting, mostly in Southern England,  and spending the winter in Africa. We were, last August, very excited to find three of these charismatic birds taking up temporary residence just outside the village. After a few frantic days tracking them round the fields they were gone, and we decided it was probably a family group making a temporary stop on their way south.

And now here they are again, four of them, in the same season and the same area! Clearly they are creatures of habit. I spent several long sessions trying to get a closer shot, but in the end had to settle for this distant interaction between one of the parent birds and a youngster.

I wrote about my trip to the Dyfi last month to see the Ospreys:  http://phototwynog.co.uk/the-fish-eagle

Still feeling  frustrated that I had failed to get the images I hoped for, I decided to try again before they departed for Africa. I didn’t quite get the iconic pictures of them fishing, but I did get some good flight shots, and wrote about it here:http://phototwynog.co.uk/return-to-the-dyfi  

I also wrote about the extension to this trip further south.  Here are a few different pictures. (Thrill riders in the sunset at St. Justinian, A mushroom breaks the surface at Skomer and Rabbits against the sea at Skomer)

The end of the month produced a rarity at Dinefwr – a Wood Sandpiper, and found me in my favourite lunch spot, the Kingfisher Hide. A typical report for an hour spent by this long, narrow oxbow lake at this time of year would be:

2 Mallards, 2 Moorhens and a Kingfisher!

However, at other times I have seen Otter, Great White Egret, Little Egret, Teal, nesting Coots, Redstart, Wren, Jay, Magpie, Greylag Goose, and lots of dragonflies. 

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