It was pre-dawn when I pulled up at the remote forest lay-by. As I approached I switched off the headlights so as to not broadcast my arrival. There was another car there in the darkness. By the soft light of a crescent moon I could make out three occupants. We got out and exchanged grunted welcomes. My new companions were tracking and nature awareness experts. We were to spend the day immersed in a large block of woodland rich in fauna.
We hitched our kit and in the twilight we stole silently down the fire-trail and into the forest. A couple of hundred yards in we spread out in a clearing and hunkered down for twenty minutes at our sit-spots to silence our internal ‘noise’, bring down our tempo towards nature’s baseline and ‘drop into our zone’. Ready for tracking and stalking. It was also perfect timing for dawn with its chorus of waking birds.
In the dark a parent-free fawn wandered up to me, saw almost too late what I was, and crashed back into the undergrowth. Leaving the rich smell of deer behind.
Light crept into the canopy. The dull, waxy light that comes before sun crests the horizon. Things started to gain colour and depth. The clearing was large and seemingly empty as the three others were either prone in the long grass or blending into the stumps they squatted against.
After a time we rose, stretched our cold, stiff joints and began our tip-toeing descent from the valley ridge and down into the valley’s mirky depths where night still embraced its deepest crevice.
We trod softly. Past old Devon banks lined with ancient beech. An echo of the past when this was modest farmland. Down past a salt-lick and an old broken high seat that once stood over it like an executioners post. We paused in another clearing, looking at rabbit sign and its playful bunnies lolloping off into the heavily-browsed hawthorn. We descended further, passed an old birch, whose woodpecker peppered trunk stood hollow, the tar-rich bark preserved whilsts its innards had crumbled away in decay. The drum of the wood-pecker made us squint into the canopy and we gathered for a moment around the plucked feathers of a mistlethrush and briefly pondered its fate.
Deer sign was everywhere. These woods suffer a dramatic overpopulation. Here the forest is slowly dying from their over-browsing. There is little new growth for the future canopy. Topsoil erosion is present because of the steep aspect of the slope and the lack of binding roots. Fallen trees are frequent. This is not a place to track – it is like a twelve-lane highway – the ground heavily marked by hundreds of passing deer. The forest floor is visually noisy, like the static from a poor tv signal – clarity has broken down with hundreds of overlaying print. However it is an amazing place to marvel at how hundreds of thousands of different sized deer slots can look, from different angles, at different speeds and on different substrates.
In the gloom herds of deer move all around you. For, if stalking and observing deer behaviour is your thing, this is the place to be: a few hours in this woodland can give you a whole month’s worth of hard-won experience elsewhere.
We paused at the opening in an old Devon bank – a transition point between deciduous and conifer woodland. There was a fox hole tucked away down in a culvert. Fox scat was nearby as were shallow holes probably made by badger snouts and paws as they dug for bulbous and wormy things, their robust snufflings had moved branches previously embedded in the mud – now unseated from their moulds.
A small herd of deer was sighted in the thicket. In that moment they spotted us too. They paused as we surveyed each other then one-by-one made noisy escape. We forget how hard hooved they are and how noisy they can be. We made for the spot last seen to look for their most recent sign. As soon as we reached this spot, we triggered yet another herd to amend its position, staying down-wind of us and moving just beyond our vision.
But across the valley, bathed in the morning sun were a dozen more deer, grazing in a clearing on the forest floor. We dropped our sacks and crawled to a forward position, some of us glued to the lenses of our scopes. We had the wind in our favour and the deer were relaxed and ignorant of our proximity. Young and old stood in harmony, feeding, grooming and flicking their ears and tails.
Up above us on the ridge of the opposite valley wall was a high pasture. Often frequented by many deer. I split off from the main group to hook up around the back of this pasture. Meanwhile the others stalked up the opposite way to confront the deer that would have been driven on by my beating. Timing was of the essence. Unfortunately I breached the back edge of the pasture too early in my enthusiasm for this cunning plan and the deer dashed past the very spot where my friends should have been lying in wait. Had I been less hasty then it would have worked perfectly – gifting the audience a close-up and personal vew of the deer as they ran within touching distance of the trees they were to hide behind. It did not help that Jays were vocally following the team up the green lane with their alarmed, croaky enquiry. Never mind. The principle works.
We stood for a while in the dazzling sun of the high pasture, its whole four acres closely cropped, just by deer, like a golfing green. Then we dropped back down into the valley to aim for the spot some of us had seen a big cat over two years ago. Maybe we would strike it lucky again?
[continued here a deer day from dawn: part two]