The Rutting Season

10:00 I’m in Dinefwr Park again, but this is an extra day. I’ve no volunteering jobs to do and can devote the whole day to getting the shot I promised myself. The shot? This goes right back to the reason I got in touch with the UK National Trust a year ago: I wanted to study the wildlife of the 100-acre deer park, and especially to photograph the rutting season. In my mind I saw stags bellowing and clashing antlers. Last week I nailed the bellowing buck. (these are Fallow deer so it’s “bucks” and “does”) This could be my last chance to catch them fighting.

10:45 The sound: that eerie spine-tingling, croaking, bellowing grunt, quickly repeated. It’s close, but where is it coming from? This is where my one-sided hearing puts me at a big disadvantage – I can’t tell. It changes as I move round and it’s very close now. Is it behind me? I turn and see movement below.  There he is! He’s mid-brown and alone, walking as he calls, trying to get any does in season to come to him. I freeze and watch as he moves uphill and out of sight.

I creep forwards to where I can get a view of the next open area, and I see movement to my right. A small group of does is slowly grazing their way to where I expect the buck to re-appear, and bang on cue, here he is again – still bellowing. Disappointingly the does show no interest in him, nor he in them. They all move away, and he stops calling. Slowly I climb up the central ridge.  As I near the top I hear the sound again. It’s all round me, but the deer are hidden.

11:50 Damn! I’ve been seen. A whole mob of does and a few immature bucks streams past me and down the hill.  What now? If the main herd is down in the open area where they are fed in the winter, I could be in with a real chance of catching fighting bucks. At present though all is peaceful and its lunch time. I decide to go to the Badger Hide, find somewhere to sit where I can see the field below, and have the hide as partial cover.  Lunch is a doorstep sandwich of cheese, tomato and chutney with coffee from a flask.

I’m well down on the second half of the sandwich when I hear the sound again. Sandwich abandoned, I quickly move to a position where I can see what’s going on.

This could be it! I know this fellow. It’s Mr Half and Half – dark above and cream below and I’m pretty sure he’s the alpha male. He’s definitely in rutting mode and it’s good to see some tenderness as well as all the testosterone.  Camera is in high speed burst mode, autofocus in AI servo and set at 8 metres to infinity; shutter speed 100th, aperture f9 ISO 100, click click click click. I take a quick look at the results on the camera screen. Looks good – nice and clear plenty of detail . . .Oh Hell! Too much detail!  This is embarrassing. Here is one of the less explicit ones:

Suddenly the testosterone fuelled tension is ramped up. A second big buck has appeared. Is he going to challenge Mr Half-and-Half? He’s bellowing as well and is now right in amongst the does and head to head with H/H. They eye each other.

Surely the boss man will chase off this intruder? To my astonishment it’s the other way round. The intruder chases off Mr H&H and proceeds to pay elaborate attentions to the same doe. He nudges her, moves round and nibbles her neck.

 She chases off a rival doe; more nuzzling. It’s clear who’s the babe magnet here:

After more nudging and nuzzling, he eventually mounts her – passing on those impressive genes.  I keep my post for another 20 minutes to see if a challenger will appear. The boss man does a lot of running around and grunting.

He’s quite aggressive towards the immature bucks, but simply ignores Mr H&H.  It’s 1:15 and everything is calming down. The does are mostly sitting down: it’s siesta time. The newly identified Mr Big has stopped grunting and eventually joins them. Peace descends.

Real life has defied convention. I have learnt something extraordinary from close observation: they are not going to fight. These bucks tolerate each other. Each one seems to know his place, and it seems likely that several of the mature bucks will be able to breed. This raises a host of questions, and some of the answers will be in books, but no second-hand knowledge can beat this.  


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A Good Day’s Rutting!

“Oh the rising of the sun and the running of the deer”. This was the tune running through my head yesterday as I began my pre-dawn attempt to observe and photograph the rut. (As an aside, this ancient carol “The Holly and The Ivy” gives a fascinating insight into how common words used to be pronounced, but that will have to be another post.)

What I knew about the mating rituals of deer came mostly from videos: the dominant males set up “rutting stands” where they big themselves up by roaring and stamping and thrashing nearby trees with their antlers. There is one dominant male in the herd and he gets to mate with most of the females. The other males must challenge him to have any sort of sex life, and this leads to much clashing of antlers with attendant bellowing and stamping. I had the idea that this happened mostly in the early morning and late evening. I knew from online searches that Fallow Deer were different, but didn’t really understand how their rituals differ, so I began the day not knowing what to expect. On Monday I had made a similar early morning attempt, and had spent a long time in the park stalking and watching the deer, but saw only very relaxed looking groups of bucks and does. I found several obvious rutting stands, one of which was near a public track, and since I can’t get into the park until 10:00 I decided to station myself there at daybreak – 7:00.

By 7:15 I was back in the van. Not only was there no sight or sound of deer, but a couple in high-vis clothing had just walked their dog past the spot! I drove back to Home Farm and then up to the big house – Newton House – where I had identified another stand quite near the house. Again, no sign of any unusual activity. As was the case on Monday there were a few does wandering around on the opposite side of the valley. I spent the next hour in the Castle Woods bird hide trying to count the numbers of ducks of each species, all in deep shade and high contrast with the silver of the water – very difficult, even with a telescope. I estimated a total of 120, but that included Coots, and there are usually around 20 of those. I knew 8 were Gadwall, 4 were Tufted Duck, 3 were Goosanders, but I could only make a rough guess of 20 for Wigeon. The rest would be Mallards. I also, for the second time, watched a heron chasing a Great White Egret, presumably seeing this recent immigrant as a threat to its food supply.Blog post: Immigrants versus Natives

Ten O’clock came and the deer park gates were unlocked. I began my daylight quest, heading steeply up-hill from the gate to the Capability Brown Path. This is the only public path which passes close to the sanctuary area, and I must stress that anyone ignoring the notices and wandering into the sanctuary area without permission is not only abusing the National Trust but risking a serious disturbance to the social life of the deer. I have, as a volunteer,  been patrolling the boundary to the sanctuary area for a year, always putting the comfort of the deer first, and now I am fairly sure they accept my presence.

 Here, as on Monday, I was able to get very close to a small group of does apparently eating fallen chestnuts, with a mature buck watching. My object was first to get to the Badger Hide where I was to put out some peanuts for the badgers. They are fed once a week during the winter to keep them near the hide for the summer evening badger watches. To get there I had to encourage this group to move away. The wind did the job for me: the heads came up and they all trotted away. Having got to the Badger hide and found I had left the key behind, I then had to work out what to do about the wind. I needed to move along the ridge to the high ground where I hoped to find the main rutting stands, but if I moved in a straight line, my scent would alert them. I decided to do a wide loop to the south-east so that I would have the wind in my face. All this time I had been aware of a strange moaning sound which, distorted by my hearing aid, could have been machinery, a flock of jackdaws, or even deer. The deer were close now, and I was thrilled to see, for the first time,  what could only be rutting behaviour. This had to be the boss man, Mr half-and-half, Mr upside-down Capuchino,  with a clear line along his side dividing cream underbelly from even brown back and flanks. He was running up and down and I could clearly see him vocalising, but couldn’t hear the sound. Moving the camera  very slowly I focussed on his antlers to get a clear record of their shape –  a distinctive pattern which I had seen on Monday near the water tanks: only 5 distinct points and a long wavy edge to the blade. Looks like hard work the rutting.I even got a few shots of him mounting some of the does, but the autofocus tactfully blurred them. As I stood there scarcely moving I noticed two more mature bucks to my left. Were they challengers? They passed very close to me and then ran up the slope towards the rut stand.After some milling around the strange noise stopped and they all moved away from the ridge. I again made a loop to get to the south of them, very carefully placing myself where I could see the main group without alarming them. After watching for a while I noticed a paler mature buck on my left and very close. He began moving up and down in the bracken.There were two does shadowing him. He raised his head and grunted. That was the sound! It’s a roaring, barking grunt with an edge of moan. This was it! Right here beside me was a rutting buck, marching up and down, thrashing the bracken, and eventually mounting both the does; all this within a short distance of the boss man with his 30 odd does. They did not need to fight!

In the afternoon I got the key and put out the badger food, watching for a while as two Jays made repeated trips to carry off as many nuts as they could.  Moving up to the high ground again I saw another clear instance of mature bucks tolerating each other, although this walking and head turning in parallel might be aggressive. The further one seems to be Mr Bracken Basher from this morning.

It seems that Fallow Deer have a less winner-takes-all approach to mate selection. To what extent is this influenced by the artificially high numbers in the total herd? The answer to that will have to wait until I can find a suitable book on this species. So far I have been getting enormous satisfaction from learning in the field, from observation, just as Gilbert White and the early pioneers of animal behaviour used to.

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Immigrants versus Natives

For the first time yesterday, my volunteer day at Dinefwr deer park, Llandeilo, I was able to spend some time in the newly rebuilt Castle Woods Hide at the southern end of the park. The resident mallards and coots had been joined by the advance guard of the winter population of wigeon, still in eclipse plumage with little sign of the distinctive yellow stripe on the head of the males. I was pleased to see the most recent immigrant to this area: a single Great White Egret, probably the same bird who was here most of last winter. Twenty years later than  the Little Egret, the GWE nested for the first time in Britain in 2012, and is now well established at estuaries in southern England and Wales. We now regularly see Spoonbills and expect to see Cattle Egrets very soon. In my lifetime Britain has been naturally colonised by Fulmars, Collared Doves, and these four members of the heron family. As with human colonisation, it’s all to do with resources – food and secure breeding sites, and no doubt climate change is playing its part in redistributing these. 

He or she was stalking the shallow water at the far end of the first lake. Then I saw a heron flying towards it. There was a brief flurry and the much larger egret moved back. The heron landed and for the next twenty minutes the egret seemed to be following the heron.

This could easily be a co-incidence, but I felt that the native heron knew this feeding ground better than the immigrant egret:  first being aggressive towards it, then more tolerant. Anthropomorphic? Probably, but interesting behaviour anyway. The same theme occurred to me later in my slow walk round the boundary. Moving very carefully I was able to spend a good 10 minutes observing and photographing this splendid very pale coloured buck; clearly a Dinefwr native.
Moving slowly along the southern fence I suddenly saw the fence being violently pulled to and fro. The aggressor was a large medium brown buck who was clashing antlers with another buck glimpsed between the trees on the other side of the fence. Both were beyond a slight rise so I had to move to get pictures. I had a few seconds before they took fright – just enough time to catch the “native”,

but I could not achieve focus on the intruder – one of the feral population of Fallow deer from the Cawdor estate, drawn to the park by the  surplus of females. Autofocus works by selecting contrasting edges, and here, in deep shade, there was no contrast. The intruder was all black!

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Genoa: the noise, the dirt and the splendour

We arrived by train on Sunday, and it took a long time to find a toilet, which then charged us I euro each. How I miss the old French style pissoire: a simple shelter, a modicum of privacy, zero-carbon and free! We then had to find the underground rail line. My guess was the red letter M, but there was no other indication, so eventually we asked someone, who pointed to the red letter M. The ticket machine had an English version, but since the barriers were all open, and nobody seemed to bother with tickets, what we were supposed to do with them remained a mystery.

All this is no criticism of the Italian rail system, but an indication of how much of their world city dwellers take for granted. If you don’t know that the underground is called Metro, you don’t know what the M means. Eventually two weary rustics with luggage which seemed OK at Bristol airport but which was now far too  heavy, emerged into the harbour area – a mass of heavy traffic, bounded on one side by the massive slab sides of cruise ships and on the other by a steep hill covered in high-rise apartment blocks. It was very noisy and very dirty. We had the name of the street, but did not know which way to turn to find it. There’s a map on a bus stop which shows the street, but it’s facing the wrong way and I was too tired to work out how to reverse it, so we ended up going too far in the wrong direction. A kind man came with us all the way back and showed us the right way – just round the corner and uphill.

More dogged trudging past piles of discarded furniture  until we see a smiling but anxious looking lady beckoning us into an elegant entrance hall.  She is our Air BnB host, and she shows us into a strikingly modern and expensive looking flat with no discernible daylight. The table is crowded with decorations – candles, place settings, baskets, ornaments and best of all, two cake stands with delicious looking cakes.

There is actually an outside space – a little yard bounded by a sheer rock face and a tiny patch of sky five stories up. The yard has chairs and a table; even a parasol, so we worked out that it must get an hour or two of sun in the middle of the day, and in the hot days of summer might be quite pleasant.

When Thelma found the flat online, the idea of being by the harbour conjured up visions of Bristol Harbour, but Avonmouth would have been a better example. There are two major roads between us and the ships – one on stilts on top of the other. Then comes the huge ferry terminal with ferries going to places as remote sounding as Tangiers. Beyond that is the container port, all of which has its own magic in the early morning.

Genoa: noisy and dirty, population 580,000, is an industrial city, in contrast to Florence: noisy and clean, population 382,000. Genoa also claims the largest old city centre in Europe, a maze of little alleys and squares. The centre is only two stops on the Metro, and we step up into the old harbour with its film-set galleon. Heading inland, we soon find ourselves entangled in an area very different from  the equivalent in Florence. Here we are a minority: the alleys are alive with a very urban population speaking, as the TV subtitles insultingly say “own language”, in this case Italian. 

As you go deeper into the maze you come across young ladies with provocative clothing standing on the corners and eyeing the men. Did I instinctively move closer to Thelma? It is at the same time a rough area and a palatial one. Every little square has its palace and the Via Garibaldi is nothing but palaces. It seems the 16th C Genovese merchants vied with each other to build accommodation suitable for inclusion on a sort of Renaissance Trip Advisor, the “Palazzi dei Rolli”: 160 of them, all grand enough to host a state visit. Some of these palaces are now banks, some house city institutions, some are still privately owned. Most have sumptuous courtyards, wonderful frescos, columns, statues, putti, and stucco, but the only way to admire the roof line is to be in the fifth floor of the palace opposite. You can imagine these  obscenely wealthy merchants glowering at each other from across the narrow street.

This is a city where the buskers sing arias and look like this: We spent two glorious sunny days out of the city. First a ride in the longest of the 5 funicular railways which are part of the metropolitan transport system:It takes us to a quiet road which follows the line of the astonishingly extensive outer city walls, up to a hilltop fortress, now ruined.  Here I am overjoyed to catch, after many attempts, a decent picture of a European Hornet: On another day we went to the glorious little resort town of Portofino:

where we had the most expensive lunch imaginable in a perfect setting.

Three of the Rolli Palaces are open to the public and on our last day we spent several exhausting hours examining a series of huge and grandiose paintings. They chart the cultural trends of the late 15th to late 17th centuries, and the “revolutions” in style which marked each phase. In the middle was a strong Flemish influence which brought a greater degree of realism and more detail, but that gave way to Baroque and then Rococco, both styles characterised by the same writhing half-naked bodies, the surfeit of cherubs, the same old biblical and classical themes that we saw in the earlier rooms and saw far too much of in Florence. I give up.

Exhausted, we indulged in coffee and cake therapy and then set off to walk through what turned out to be the African quarter, peopled by tall, elegant  young men looking poor but stylish, and some women in flamboyant African robes. It was a fascinating way to spend our last afternoon in Genoa.
Final verdict: a place of extremes: great beauty and dirty streets, a place where vast wealth rubs shoulders with real poverty in a densely packed living space –  and has done for a good 600 years.

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Florence re-evaluated

I like to record my first impressions of places and people. These are quite literally prejudices – pre-judgements. With more knowledge I can revise my opinions, so here is the way I see Florence after a week as a tourist.
The crowds were not quite so bad in the early evening. We had a pleasant stroll around the Piazza del Signoria, enjoying a beer in one of the pavement cafes where we could watch the Japanese couples having their wedding photographs taken.
Most of the world as represented here is “selfie crazy”, thrusting their phones out on poles so that they can be seen with some famous building in the background – the Ponte Vecchio being the favourite, as can be seen to the left in this picture, where a mass “selfathon” is going on:
I could never adapt to the noise in the centre. It wears me down. The traffic is horrible and I was always afraid of being hit by a bicycle, a scooter or a car. 

So, not much change there from my initial impressions. However, there is much to admire:

I never got tired of gazing up at the Duomo complex – the sheer grandeur of the architecture, the lovely muted colours of the marble. Much of old Florence has been restored, and the quality of restoration is excellent – lime plaster perfectly applied, delicate colours. Even the stairway in our building – one of the early ones on the river – is decorated with trompe-l’oeil mouldings in subtle greys and browns. Frescos are everywhere, and although I got bored with the biblical themes, the colours and shapes are very restful.

There is very little that is cheap in Florence. Everything on sale seems to have been passed by the taste police, who have eliminated the vulgar – with one colossal exception, the thing Florence is most famous for:

the art of the Renaissance.

Here I have to admit that I do not understand the appeal of Renaissance art. The fantastic skill of the artists is evident, as is their joy in their understanding of human anatomy. What I refuse to admire is the way the obscenely wealthy nobility of the 15th Century used that skill. I take as my example the Pitti Palace, one of the Medici palaces. Here no room is fit for use until every available surface is putti encrusted, gilded, stuccoed, frescoed, carved, painted, carpeted, veneered, and adorned with hundreds of human figures, naked but for wisps of drapery, and all with similar poses: the men glorifying, mourning, killing, abducting, or otherwise being heroic; the women beseeching, tantalising, posing, grieving.  All seem based on stories from classical Greece and Rome or the Bible. To me it seems horribly ostentatious.

Despite all this I love the packaging – the buildings. The architecture seems to belong to a different aesthetic, one of order and proportion. Take the wonderful convent of San Marco for example.

Nothing vulgar here:  the cloisters, refectory, library and cells have been beautifully restored, as has this example of a 15th C nun.

Each of the nuns cells has a fresco painted in the 15th century by Fra Angelico. The architecture is simple and delicate, the art restrained by the limited palette available when applied to fresh plaster.

As an atheist I of course found the obsession with the crucifixion in many of the pictures deeply disturbing, but there is a wholeness about this severe, inhumanly  narrow way of life which you have to admire.Why is there an almost total lack of public green space in the old city? I found the lack of non-human life quite eerie. Even in the supremely tranquil Bardini Gardens there was little bird life, though plenty of insects.

The only birds I saw in the city were pigeons and hooded crows with a few mallards on the river, keeping company with the odd heron and little egret. This is partly down to the season, with Florence presumably off the migration routes. But I think the main reason is that when the centre was created the only things that mattered were the glory of Man and the glory of God. Nature was to be conquered and tamed. It would be another three hundred years until the Romantics changed things. 

Do I still think Florence is tourist-unfriendly? To those amongst the crowds in the streets who can be identified as local we are either invisible or barely tolerated. To those servicing this vast industry, these 10 million visitors a year, we are welcome guests to be charmed and helped. When I lived in Bath I probably ignored the tourists. I don’t blame the Florentines, but I do condemn the tourist industry. It has made special places ordinary, and has damaged local communities. It is time to apply the brakes to the juggernaut.

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