UP FIRST Young stags are the first to become active during the annual rut. These two and three year-old animals are fine beasts in their own right, but pale into insignificance when their larger cousins come down from the hills.
Country Sights and Sounds
This vast, almost unbroken vista of north Mayo bog is strangely magnetic. The vegetation appears lifeless; a late autumn, ginger-brown blanket already drained of summer green. A network of deep channels carved by industrious man intersects a multitude of natural waterways, meandering streams that cut through peat, eating into underlying subsoil and exposing bedrock. The bog is old, and grey at the edge. Yet alive, it grows year on year – mere millimeters, perhaps. Slowly determined, it will, in time, overthrow all of our work.
I walk for miles, striding over dry hillocks where the ground is firm underfoot, and picking my way more carefully over low sphagnum that offers admission to miry depths. Such quaking threats are not to be taken lightly – as children we played on the thin, mossy skin of another far-off bog until a measure was made 12 full feet of oozing sludge meant the place was off limits until the drain man had his work complete. The land firmed – improved, they said. It grew grass, and was absorbed into the surrounding patchwork of green fields. In the process a valuable resource was lost and the number of butterflies, moths, and songbirds was further diminished, something I regret to this day.
These thoughts press themselves upon me as I follow the treeline, not of native forest but of introduced spruce and pine. Some of the trees have grown well through their few decades while others have largely failed and hold more lichen than leaves. The bark and lower branches of many are scored and broken by the antlers of deer. The occasional willow is nibbled above the base by moorland hares. Here and there a yellowing birch gives a splash of colour.
At the edge of a lake the remains of an historical forest can be found. Where floodwaters have washed out the peat, full roots of antiquity feed the imagination; what was this place like before the bog began to grow? And what lived here then? Blackcock and grouse, red deer, wild boar and wolf. The shattered stumps spread for miles, here and there peeking through the peat to remind us we live in a changing world.
A question weighs on my mind. What happened, so that many thousands of trees met their end over a short period of time? Where are all the boles; where the branches?
I have no time to wonder, for a blood-stirring sound reaches my ears, a deep, drawn out, bellowing moan followed by a series of short, angry barks. Within the new wood stands a red deer stag, the creature I have come to find. His calls advertise his presence, yet he is only a young pretender. The throne belongs to another.
Young stags are the first to become active during the annual rut. These two and three year-old animals are fine beasts in their own right, but pale into insignificance when their larger cousins come down from the hills. There will be great excitement among them, with lessening daylight and colder nights contributing to a rise in testosterone. With their aggression fueled they first take their anger out on particular trees. Soon enough two will meet. They will chase and do battle, pounding the turf, clashing bone on bone and driving sharply pointed antlers into rib and flank. So ferocious do these battles become that fatalities may occasionally occur.
As these younger animals sort themselves out, the larger, more experienced stags will be waiting in the wings. Only when the hinds are close to breeding condition will they move in, and by then those already joined in battle will be wearing themselves out and will be easily displaced.
Further around the lake I find a wallow, a deep and muddy pit just five yards wide, in which a stag, perhaps the one now calling, has been rolling himself. He emerges as a monster, black and steaming, eyes round and white, just the tips of his antlers gleaming, and is ready to fight.
The same animal lets out another bellowing challenge, this time deeper into the wood. The day is already late. When I look back to where I left the car, I find it out of sight.
The walk back lacks the eagerness of the walk out; my boots find holes; my coat finds briars and a curse of barbed wire. A solitary hind rises from a bed of willow and strides away in the direction of that oft repeated roaring. I want to stay.