LAST CHANCE SALOON With the annual rut approaching its end younger stags that have been unable to hold their hinds are making a resurgence.
Country Sights and Sounds
Around mid afternoon the rain finally stopped. That heavy bank of cloud swept away to the west leaving blue, a horizon-wide stretch of glorious blue, in its wake. The wind abated and calm descended on the land. The primeval roar of red stags at rut shivered the air, and I was glad for half a day on the bog.
The deer proved elusive. I followed their calls until my way was barred by thick forest, then found the place they hop over the wire into a great swathe of lodgepole pine and spruce. I was once lost on these hills and cared little for the experience. Downhill, the best way to become un-lost, had led to a maze of boggy pools and sphagnum. The dark conifer overhang and fading light added to the challenge until I found a stream. The stream led to the river and the river led to the road. Once was enough. That bellowing challenge would go unanswered.
There were other things to do. The last of our summer mushrooms are popping their heads above ground. Field agaric, blushing wood mushroom, porcini and bay boletus vied for space in my basket. Soon it will be the turn of hedgehog mushroom and winter chanterelle, and if we are fortunate a rich harvest of purple-tinted blewits.
I found my way into a low length of riverside pasture, where a tangle of bracken and briar showed the grassland to be unimproved. It had probably lain near-fallow for a century or more. Amid the low, thin grasses were bright waxcap fungi in a bewildering array of colour: yellow-gold, orange, spring green, buff and brown, and even bright pink.
These waxcaps are among Ireland’s rarest mushroom species. Some of them appear only on ancient pasture. The pink Ballerina waxcap, for instance, will disappear the moment artificial fertiliser or any kind of chemical is applied to the land on which it grows. And once killed off there is little chance it will reappear before many decades of non-disturbance have passed. Some authorities claim a century or more is needed to allow natural processes to make the ground properly hospitable once more.
I took just two ballerinas, one for myself and one for a friend, and filled my basket with a fine variety of other mushrooms before turning back for the car. I hadn’t gone many meters before a young stag strode out of the woodland with his head held high and a distinctively nervous look about him.
His antlers, though thin and straight, were still of impressive length. His back was broad, his chest heavy and his legs long and slender. There could be no doubt he had the makings of a fine animal. For now he was a lesser one.
What had moved him out from cover? Was there another, more mature stag behind him? A lot of male deer are on the move at this time of year. With the annual rut approaching its end younger stags that have been unable to hold their hinds are making a resurgence.
Bigger stags threw these off their own territory while doing battle with animals of similar stature to themselves. Ownership of a harem of hinds might change hands (or hooves) multiple times. Stags tire gradually, until even youngsters such as this edgy fellow in front of me had a chance of getting in on the action.
I waited five minutes, thinking another stag might appear. Five minutes became fifteen, during which time the young animal caught wind of me. He stood stock still, head turned in my direction.
An old hunting trick came to mind. I raised my arms and spread my fingers wide, doing my best impression of a pair of antlers. Deer have an acute sense of smell and also hear pretty well. It is their eyesight that lets them down. And so it was with this young fellow. His nose had already let him know I was near but his eyes saw only one of his kind, and if I, his supposed companion wasn’t alarmed, nor would he be.
Determined to put him to the test, I walked forward while keeping my arms raised. In the end it was too much for the poor thing. He turned and ran back across the water and into the forest from which he had come.
At last light that evening, following the calls of a pair of ravens, I found his remains in the very same place.
The deer population is higher than it has been for many years. Two years of Covid gave them opportunity to reproduce with little disturbance, and recently red deer have been seen just a few miles north of Westport.
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.