Secretive and shy, and now harder to spot
Country sights and sounds
Fallow deer seemed to be all around me, yet when I walked to where they had been calling they fell silent and melted away into darkness beneath the trees, their fear of man a sad consequence of the outright war that has been waged against their kind for the last two years.
Yes, they had become more numerous and, yes, they had been involved in a small number of traffic accidents. In some areas gardens have been vandalised; in others, people have been robbed of October sleep by the persistent nocturnal calling of bucks vying for the attention of females. Dogs bark at them, keeping neighbours awake.
But is there not something romantic about having these animals around? They are wild and free, secretive and shy, choosing to live in lonely places where nobody goes. And no wonder, for there is a price on their head, with carcase values increasing as supply goes down. Two years ago we had a healthy number of deer in the woodland close to home. I think there are none left, or very few.
In practical, agricultural terms fallow deer are only a nuisance, causing damage to planted forests and stripping ground cover in established woodland. To the livestock farmer they are a source of competition for limited resources, and especially so at this time of year when grass supplies are dwindling. More than that, wild deer populations are suspected of acting as a reservoir for a number of diseases, including bovine tuberculosis, tick-borne Lyme disease, blue-tongue and Epizootic haemorrhagic disease, to name but a few.
(Ticks are among the very worst of living creatures, coming from the same evil genius as guinea worm and nasal bot fly. They wait, patiently invisible, day after day, at the tip of a twig or long blade of grass, forelegs outstretched and ready to grasp at the merest of movements. They are many.
At home after one deer-stalking expedition I found 27, every one of them with its head drilled into my skin and its fat, grey, leathery body, the size of a small pea, filled with blood.)
Determined to find the deer I risked ticks and TB and followed the river as far as the low fields, where a carpet of wild mint fills the air with a wonderful spicy fragrance, where willow and alder grow well in the wet ground and wading birds abound. When the floods come this area will be under water; until then deer come to feed, and the bucks congregate to bark at each other and, occasionally, to do battle.
Last week I sat six feet up in the fork of a willow and waited, determined to stay until the animals forgot all about me and came out to play. Dusk fell quickly as a low mist swept off the lake to chill the air. Cold crept into my boots. I thought of the hat I had left in the car, of the warm drive home and of the stove hissing in the kitchen, but stuck it out for a good hour, until the thought struck me that as some troubled souls might lock themselves in the coal cellar, so others might sit in a tree in the middle of nowhere, pretending to look for deer.
It took an age to retrace my steps in the darkness. All along the way unseen creatures drew back from my footfall. There! A huff, almost human, followed by an unnatural silence, then a short crashing run as one of the local badgers lost its small courage. Fifty slow paces later a number of pigeons clapped wings on their way out of the hazel where they roost. How could they see at all? I was almost having to feel my way, although a thin light coming off the lake to my left was enough to keep me going.
Where a clearing ran down to the lake birds flew overhead; lapwing scratching at the sky with pied wings. I could just make them out in what was left of the evening, the lustre of white underwings flapping and blinking as shadowed forms passed back and forth. What birds!
I tried hard not to sneeze. ‘Yaa-Tchoo!’ It must have sounded as a gunshot through the trees, for where before there was no discernible noise there was now an abject silence as every living thing was suddenly aware of humankind afoot.
That sneeze signalled the onset of my first winter cold. Even now I sit hunched by the wood-burner, morose and close to death, stringing words together two days past my deadline. If I survive, which I hopefully will, I will be back to the deer at the first opportunity.