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The beast quest

Outdoor Living

HARSH LESSONS  Fallow deer have been shot and snared, legitimately and otherwise, and learned the inclination of humankind towards unkindness when it comes to protecting its own interests.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

It’s been so long since I went out stalking deer, I thought I’d have lost my woodcraft. And I was right.
It was a friend who reminded me it was time for the Fallow rut. The same friend told me of one ‘Great Beast of a Buck’, an outstanding individual, a wild and elusive animal that melted away into the scrubby woodland at the least sign of human approach, but was evidently and most vocally pugnacious in defence of its territory against would-be competitors. Its gruff voice could be heard emanating through the trees while the calls of rival animals were kept a respectful distance away.
I went to see for myself. I knew the spot described, where the beast had set up camp. I knew well the ancient willows at the edge of the flood plain, beneath which he had scraped shallow depressions into the ground, and the adjacent limestone pavement with its thick growth of hazel and thorn into which he would retreat in the face of danger. It is the same place that the strongest bucks have used for generations.
The wild Fallow herd have been under pressure for several years. A while back their increasing numbers were a cause of consternation among the farming community. And the accusations levelled against them were mostly true. They did eat grass intended for livestock. They did cause damage to fences and walls. They raided gardens, damaged trees, destroyed the ground flora of woodland in which they lived. They carried ticks and dropped them everywhere they went, thus leaving a debilitating trail of Lyme disease and other infectious pathogens that afflict humans and other animals.
Yes, they did these things, and they still do. As a consequence they have been shot and snared, legitimately and otherwise, and have learned the inclination of humankind to unkindness when it comes to protecting its own interests.
To me, the greatest threat posed by a healthy population of naturalised Fallow is their propensity to rely on camouflage for protection. Thus, an individual wanting to cross a road has a natural tendency to wait and watch with care before stepping out into the open. Along comes a speeding vehicle, and a moment of panic ensues. The animal takes flight, sometimes away from the road and occasionally, unfortunately, into it. Fallow deer aren’t big, but they’d certainly put a dent in the bonnet of any car, and collisions with them have been known to cause fatalities. The answer, of course, is to drive a little more slowly and take time to enjoy the journey.
A secondary danger is that posed by those dreadful parasites that are ticks, but more on them another day.
Wanting to see the ‘Great Beast’ for myself, I took an evening drive and found myself caught up in commuter traffic and roadworks, so that there was little light left by the time I arrived at my destination. With a mile to walk from the car (which meant a mile back, most of it in darkness) I wasted no more time than it took to listen.
Several bucks were calling, their peculiar, guttural grunting creating a primeval atmosphere that brought my senses to life.
The first half mile was easy, along a well-used forest track. There came a point, though, where I had to step off the path and make my way through the trees. While the light was good and the cover sparse I was confident. I could hear at least two bucks just a few hundred yards away. One sounded like so many others that I’ve heard and stalked over the years. The other was different. His voice was far deeper and resonated heavily, sending vibrations through the woodland air.
The wind was favourable, coming in my direction and bringing momentary fragments of the strong goat-like smell produced by a mature Fallow male. There was a problem, though. As I drew closer it was evident that the lesser animal was situated between myself and my target.
I had discovered, too, that another year of easy living meant fallen sticks that previously bent beneath my weight now had a tendency to break with resounding cracks, sounds that startled my deer as effectively as any gunshot.
Yes, they fell silent, and though I tried to slip unseen through the trees they knew something was afoot and took themselves away. We have until the end of October to make their acquaintance.