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.