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.