HEART POUNDING Getting up close to a herd of deer on a rut season is not for the faint hearted. Pic: istock
Country Sights and Sounds
Rain blew in on the wind, cold and slanting, wetting my face and running inside my tightly wrapped collar. I was ankle deep in the bog, with saturated moorland grass and bog myrtle wetting my jeans. All around were trees, poorly grown Sitka spruce covered in thick lichen which glowed pale in the growing dark.
Small groups of stars came and went as broken cloud skimmed the treetops. As darkness made itself complete I began to wonder why I was here, even closing my eyes to imagine the warmth of a flame-filled hearth, a glass of red wine and a good book.
Wings passed overhead. Thrushes, I thought, but surely not fieldfare, not yet. It is hard to accept the relentless passing of time – days become weeks and weeks years; seasons come and seasons go while friends become grizzled, their faces fretted and features more pronounced. Only I remain the same – inside, at least.
The path back to the road had been clear in the daylight. Even through the darkening, the wet reflected what light there had been; it looked just a few steps away. Now night had it hidden, and I thought how easy it would be to walk in the wrong direction and get lost on this hypothermic wasteland. Perhaps I should go. Five more minutes.
There came a bellowing roar from deep within the woods. It hung in the air for just a moment, then cleared. I felt my skin crawl. This was what I had been waiting for – the red deer stags at the peak of the rut.
Most autumns we get to see the dominant males during the day as they guard their personal harems.
Now relentless hunting has driven them deep into cover. Every year the pressure seems greater. Few love the deer. Farmers resent them eating hard-won grass and other crops, for harbouring lungworm and liver fluke, for breaking down fences and hedges. Foresters endure damage to young trees, especially valuable hardwoods. These are flayed by the stags through the weeks leading up to the rut, and stripped of bark by hungry hinds through the bitter cold of winter.
Gardeners in deer country wake to find their autumn flowers either broken or eaten, their lawns pock-marked and droppings on their driveway. Motorists must watch out for animals on the move, especially during the rut.
Legitimate hunters and poaching men alike make inroads into the population, shooting animals in their prime, either for valuable meat or trophy heads. Only I, it seems, value these creatures for what they truly are. They are wild, not of our cultured world. During the rut they are primeval. They make these barren, barren hills alive, fill the void these have been too long, give depth and meaning to this last remaining wilderness.
Another stag gave a bellowing answer. I thought him some distance away, on the slope beyond Lough Dahybaun. The first responded quickly with a series of gruff barks that terminated in a long, hollow moan. The second called back, rather closer, I thought.
And so it went on, with the two beasts calling each other out or warning each other off, while I stood amid resonating echoes in this cold, wet, October night.
When they fell quiet I thought the game was up and was ready to turn for home. A distant splashing reached my ears. Something was on the move. It came closer. I heard the sticky, sucking sound of feet being pulled from the bog. I heard branches bending, antlers scraping on wood, grasses pushed aside by length of stride.
A hundred yards became fifty, then thirty. Then came the silence. I could imagine the stag standing there, his head up, ears straining to catch my sound, nostrils flaring for scent, eyes near-blind in the dark. I could hear my own breath, feel my heart pounding. The cold of another sharp downpour went unheeded. It might have been five or fifteen minutes that we stood so close, there was no way of knowing.
I heard movement, then a barely audible ‘Puh, puh, puh’ so near I was suddenly afraid to move. How did that stag get almost within touching distance? Yet I could see nothing. When he put his head back and roared I could smell him, a rough, deep, goat-filled stench. His battle cry rattled my bones. There was I, in his world and very much alone.
When the second stag called once more my beast strode off toward him, perhaps to do battle. I don’t know the outcome. It had been an extraordinary experience.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.