With just hours to go before we in Wales are stuck at home again, and eight months since the last time my volunteer job with the National Trust allowed me into the steep oak-clad valleys in the bottom corner of the deer park at Dinefwr, I finally have the green light from the staff to mingle with the deer and the glorious colours of autumn. The official return of the National Trust volunteers has been delayed again by the national lockdown, but I have this short window of opportunity, and the hope that soon it will be a regular part of my life again.
My weekly task back in February was to check the patched and botched up fence line of the 100 acre deer park. Back then it was holding, the bucks still had last year’s antlers, had forgotten their differences and formed an all male clique, but the bird hide was flooded and everything looked dismal.
It’s not exactly dry now, but there is a brand new fence right along the southern boundary, and October is the peak season for deer watchers. It’s the rutting season when the males compete for the alpha position and the chance of an outrageously promiscuous sex life for a few short weeks. I first managed to get some images of the activity two years ago. Here a buck is frantically bellowing to gain the attention of any does in oestrus.
Later that month I was astonished to witness two mature bucks sharing the spoils – something which is not supposed to occur in nature. Last October I witnessed another extraordinary event. There are wild fallow deer in small numbers in the Towy valley and most years some of the wild bucks try to get into the deer park where there are so many does. Fights occur through the wire fence, and this year one poor beast got his antlers so entangled in wire, the only course of action seemed to be to call the culling team. Instead of using it, John the hunter propped his rifle against a tree and helped Rhodri the Ranger to cut him free. That animal was close to death and knew it. The expression on his face when he realised he was free is something I will always remember.
The stock iconic image, and the one I became a volunteer to try to capture, is of bucks or stags fighting. I did manage to catch a fight last year but it was between two young bucks, neither of whom would have been permitted to mate, and it was at a distance so lacks that pin-sharp quality of the great photograph.
Today was my last chance for this year. The park was only open for 6 hours and I determined to spend most of them slowly checking the known rutting sites and hoping to get close enough to see some action.
It wasn’t long before I found a buck calling. Although the detail is obscured by vegetation, you can see the prominent larynx and the little hole below the eye known as the suborbital gland wafting some unmentionable stench towards the females. As I set out in the rain I knew that my attitude to wildlife photography had changed since last year. What really matters to me now is the experience. I sat down on a fallen bough to eat my lunch: a carefully chosen spot so that I was partially concealed but could watch an area I thought a group I had seen earlier would revisit. I was right, and was well pleased with some of the pictures. Although again the deer were too far off, there was much to be learnt from them. There is a general air of “can’t be arsed” about the proceedings. One of the bucks is bellowing, but they are tolerating each other and the does seem more interested in something happening to my left. My guess is that none of this group are in oestrus. And I saw a fight. It lasted all of five seconds and I had just decided to use the binoculars so I missed it. A year ago I would have been cursing, but I had been there! I had followed them around, understanding what they were doing and where they were going. I had again been in that special place I thought was lost to me, and it felt wonderful.