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NATURE Clash of antlers, call of the wild

Outdoor Living

Red deer

Clash of antlers, call  of the wild

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

Forcing oneself to rise at unsociable hours is, according to some authorities, an unhealthy habit, one we would do well to be free of. Tell my boss that. But I like early mornings. Sunrise outperforms sunset by a country mile.
It is now 7am and a long way off light. Outside, the aira is warm, the wind from the south. A torn veil of broken cloud hurries to the north, spitting drizzle along its way. Through the gaps I see streaks of Cirrus, all pink and orange. Birds sing their autumn song as if it were spring again already, and from the wood across the bay comes the strange, hollow, plopping sound of a young fallow buck finding his voice.
I stayed long enough to watch the whimbrel fly from their lake shore roost on their way to  feed for the day. They call over the house, as if to wake us gently. “Go on. I was up before you lot,” I tell them. A crow left off following them to take a closer look at me and gave a bitter laugh before moving on. Yes, there are harder times ahead.
A few days ago and some distance to the north I had spied a trio of red deer stags lying up in a field full of tall rushes. It was their antlers that gave them away. They look like the broken sticks of dead willow and could easily be passed by as such. But I knew what I was looking for.
The annual rut is in full swing. These three were young animals that, while impressive from a human standpoint, have little chance of impressing the ladies for another year or two. Their time will come, if they last that long. The deer population is said to be spiralling, as if they were a plague. At this time of year there seem to be more, but only because they are more visible on the move. In truth, I have not seen fewer red deer for more than a decade.
In some parts of south and east Mayo there are certainly too many fallow, but there are no red deer in those parts. Everywhere that deer can be found they are hunted hard.
When I took James to look for rutting stags at Bellacorrick he was rather reluctant to venture far from the car. The ground was wet and dangerously boggy, he claimed, although it was powder-dry after all our fine weather.
“That long grass must be full of ticks!”
I sprayed his coat with insect repellent.
He eyed the far hills dubiously. “A man could get lost out there.”
I showed him my compass, the needle pointing north and onward.
A stag gave a series of bellowing roars from the next valley and another answered from afar. “Listen to ’em. Like lions! We’d better not go – it’ll be dark in an hour.”
I pointed to my watch. It was a little after midday.
Further protestations included forgetting something his wife had ordered from the shop, with each echoing challenge from the stags acting as a prompt for his memory. Nonetheless, we eventually got moving and followed the lush green course of a small stream, and made our way to the edge of a conifer plantation, where I had in mind to skirt the trees and climb the hill behind in order to get a good view of the surrounding land.
A small group of hinds that had been camped out in the trees took off at our approach and ran up through the woods unseen. There must have been two stags with them, for as these went to follow the females they turned on each other ferociously. We could hear them well, the crashing of antler upon antler, the thrashing of hooves on vegetation, the snort and heaving flank of battle.
I looked at James; there was no way he was going anywhere so I slipped through the trees alone, camera at the ready, eager to view the fray. And then all went quiet.
I stood there in the semi-dark of the spruce wood, suddenly vulnerable. The deer hadn’t left the scene or I’d have heard them. They must have caught my scent and were even now waiting for me to move. A shadow flitted over the edge of vision. A twig snapped behind me. Even big animals can move almost silently.
I turned my head; nothing. I turned back and there was my stag, barely 20 paces away, staring at me through a gap in the trees. When I moved the camera he vanished.
Something moved behind me again. The other stag. The first one reappeared in the same spot, soundless, staring, tongue protruding to taste the air. I tried the camera. It was too dark under the shade of the trees.
When the stag shook his head and took a step forward my heart was bouncing. Then the two of them left together, galloping in the direction of the hind group, probably to resume their contest in an unseen place.
I must be up at dawn to find them once more, probably alone.