In search of a stag
I make no apology for returning once more to the red deer that appear on the north Mayo bog at dusk. When we see them in the failing light we miss their elegance, their graceful balance, their animal nature. It is so much better to find them in daylight.
I went out with the camera, taking advantage of a temporary lull in the rain to follow a score of tracks through an undernourished softwood plantation. The beast I sought was a stag, and a big one too, judging by the length of the slot marks he had left in his wake, and the depth each footstep had sunk in the soft ground.
I tracked him and the group of hinds he was following for half a mile, sure that I would sooner or later find him lying up in a thicket. Several times I lost his path and had to scout about to find it again. But there it would be, marked by those deep footsteps and fresh mud on grass. Only an hour before, the rain had been belting down; it would have washed the grass clean. I wasn’t far behind my quarry.
Eventually the path led me to an area of wet ground that was obviously well used by the deer, where tall marsh grasses mixed with chest-high rushes to form an almost impenetrable forest of undergrowth. If it wasn’t for the deer paths I would have turned back. Instead, I continued to follow as best I could, after first taking careful note of landmark trees. I wouldn’t like to be caught out there with dusk falling.
Only once before did I get truly lost, walking through reeds that reached well over head height to obliterate the surrounding area. Nearly everybody veers either to the right or to the left – one book tells me it has something to do with the difference in length of a person’s right and left legs, and the corresponding difference in the length of their stride – and having nothing to guide me I had veered considerably.
I had been certain enough of my path, but had come across a small pond where I knew no such pond existed. Mildly alarmed at my evident misplacement, I tried to retrace my steps, an endeavour that proved impossible. All I could see was the uniformly grey sky above and a wall of brown reeds all around. Twenty minutes of walking brought me to the far side of the same pond, even though I had meant to walk directly away from it.
Concerned at the prospect of stumbling around out there in the dark until I eventually fell into a bog hole, never to be seen again, I set off in the opposite direction, taking care to walk in a straight line. Within ten minutes I found myself at the junction of two ten-foot-wide, very deep drains. I had lost my sense of direction altogether and didn’t know which way to go. And worse, the sky was rather darker than when I had set out.
I would have found my way out eventually, even if the ducks hadn’t streamed overhead. I knew where they were going to spend the night, in a sheltered bay close to where I had left the car. They flew high, a series of black arrows pointing the way to safety. I followed as best I could, eventually finding my way to a long-disused farm track I had never seen before. I mean to go and explore the same area again one day, but I shall have a compass with me, and a map.
Back on the bog at Bellacorick, I tussled with alternatives. Surely the stag I had been trailing was close at hand now. It wouldn’t take many minutes to walk the length of the scrub woodland where he must be resting. With an hour of daylight left I tossed a mental coin, trying to balance the prospect of disorientation with the near certainty of getting close to the big stag.
Caution won out and I turned back, but not before promising to make a return at the earliest opportunity. As I retraced my steps a small group of tawny-eyed hinds tripped across the heather in front of me. I stood stock still as they eyed me uncertainly, straining eyes, ears and nose to make out exactly what I was.
I could scarcely believe how inquisitive they were. Though I moved toward them they were reluctant to run off, and even when they did move away they came back shortly to see if I was still there. The stag would be nearby. Perhaps he is more familiar with the destructive nature of humans. Anyway, he stayed out of sight. I went home, my mind full of deer-visions, thrilled.