INQUISITIVE YOUTH An eight or ten-week-old red deer calf encounters a human at the Owenwee River. Pic: John Shelley
Country Sights and Sounds
The morning was mild, for a change. After nights of near-frost we had just about given up on summer, then that welcome plume of warm African air drifted over mainland Europe to give comfort and encouragement. I wanted to head into Erris for a bit of wild fishing, and got only as far as the musical bridge at Bellacorrick before other things began to get in the way.
On this occasion it was red deer. It seems so long since I was here looking for them. How many days had we traipsed over these hills or fought to find a way through dense woodland, only to have our quarry slipping out of sight time and again, offering no more than a glimpse of a cream coloured rump. We braved horseflies and deerflies, mosquitoes and midges and endless tracts of broken, quaking bog. The trails we followed were tenuous at best, lined with swamp and marsh of uncertain depth, broad and relatively stable one moment, thin and trembling over sphagnum the next. And always ahead were the deer, just one corner from view.
So there I was, looking over the dark water of the Owenmore river in the hope of seeing a salmon, when a slight movement further up the bank caught my eye. It was one of those moments when you know something is there but you can’t see it. But peat hags and boulders don’t move by themselves, nor do bushes. Certain it was one of the deer, I stayed as motionless as I could.
Animals see movement more than shape, although the sight of a human head against the skyline does seem to be something they recognise immediately as a sign of danger. I stayed for ten minutes with a willow at my back before beginning to discern a richer red colour among the vegetation. After another minute or two I could see the subtle rise and fall of a pale-flecked flank, even at fifty paces.
Where there is one deer there are almost always more, and for all I knew there could be several pairs of eyes and ears on the alert. If that was the case I would be discovered soon enough. I could have just walked slowly forward and would be sure to see the animals run for their lives as soon as they knew I was on their trail. I elected to crawl on hands and knees to see how close I could get.
A two-minute walk is a many minute crawl, especially over rough, uneven ground. At eye level those inconsequential puddles and muddy patches become real obstacles, as do clumps of rushes and even the least bit of bramble, but having decided on my course of action I was determined to give it my best. And I was rewarded for my efforts.
As I peered out through the last thorny barrier I could see where my deer was lying, and as far as I could see it was alone. I could make out the large ears and see them turning this way and that. How unfortunate, to be on edge the whole time and never able to properly relax.
I was preparing for a bit of a wait just making myself comfortable when a meadow pipit lifted from the rough pasture just ahead and fled with a series of warning cries. Those ears immediately stopped moving and the head turned slowly toward me. Yet the wind was in my favour and I’d made very little noise. How could the animal possibly know I was there?
It stood and slowly stretched, revealing itself to be an eight- or ten-week-old red deer calf, its pelage still bearing the soft flecks of youth. What a beautiful creature! I was just getting busy with the camera when Mom suddenly sprang to her feet. She was a fine, big hind and once more I could only puzzle as to how she had been invisible until that moment.
The calf was very inquisitive and had we been alone I think it would have come to see what I was. Mom was having none of that though. She courageously placed herself between her baby and I, and ushered it to the river before leading it across and into the dark woods beyond.
The notion of finding a salmon was erased from my mind. I would look for more deer instead. With the annual rut only a few weeks away there will soon be angry stags on the ground.