Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Deer drama

Half past five on a Sunday morning. It is cold and dark and quiet. There is no moon. I climb into the car and drive. A badger dashes across the road and a roe deer’s eyes shine red from the verge. As the sky turns from black to indigo, Exmoor’s hills begin to appear above the mist. I park the car. During the summer, I saw a hind close to this spot and I have returned, on a hunch that it might be a good place to see the red deer rut. As the sun rises, turning the brume pink and the sky forget-me-not blue, I start to walk. 

Seconds after leaving the car, I hear a sound, a strange blend of a lion’s roar and a cow’s moo. I recognise it from dozens of wildlife TV programmes; it is the bellow of a red deer stag. Sensing that it must be just the other side of the hedge, I hurry on. From the gate, with the moor rising up behind me and wooded valleys snaking to the distant grey sea below, I see him. He holds his head forwards on an outstretched neck, mouth open, with white froth at his lips and spectacular, multi-tined antlers. The stag momentarily acknowledges my presence, but then returns his attention to another stag, which is standing a few hundred metres away. There isn’t a breath of wind, but tension ripples the air like static. A hind barks. The first stag starts to trot towards the second, which also breaks into a run. I wonder if there will be a fight, which only happens if the males are so evenly matched that victory cannot be determined by any other way. The contest is a serious one, as only the dominant stag will mate and sire offspring, but a fight is the last resort, as it can lead to injury and even death. The pair close in and it looks as though they will meet head-on, but, instead, they run straight past each other and the second stag gallops away down the hill. Perhaps he has seen enough to know that he can’t win.

Lifting his head to the sky, the victorious stag bellows again and the sound echoes around the moor. He is answered by belling from the opposite side of the valley and I lift my binoculars to spot the calling stag. Another stag roars behind me, higher on the hill. In this natural arena, I am surrounded by some of Exmoor’s 3000 red deer and swept up in their drama, which has been played out here since pre-historic times.

The stag rounds up a few hinds and herds them back towards his own waiting females. Then, the whole group melts into the bracken. Eager to see more, I drop down into the woodland edge and conceal myself amongst some pine trees. In a clearing, a hind twitches her huge, grey, furry ears, listening. A stag, bleeding from the mouth, joins her. I wonder if it is the stag that fled earlier, or if it is a different animal. A fox snuffles past, but the deer are more interested in whatever is thrashing around, unseen, in the undergrowth. They scurry away, to hide in the wood and I trek back up the hill, as the sun turns everything to gold and Exmoor becomes quiet once more.

Now you do it

Scotland is the obvious place to head if you would like to watch the red deer rut, but there are smaller populations throughout the UK, including Exmoor and the Quantocks, New Forest, as well as various deer parks. Countryfile provides a list of places to see rutting red (and fallow) deer and the Forestry Commission lists places that red deer can be found.  

You can join rangers and safari tours to see red deer, but I think that there is something special about going it alone. There is such a sense of achievement in using your field skills to first find the right place to watch and secondly creeping close without disturbing the deer. At this time of year, red deer are conspicuous at dawn and dusk. For information on how to identify red deer and their field signs, check out the New Forest Gateway and the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly websites.

The rut lasts from October to November, so get out there straight away if you want to catch it this year!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

House martins at home

I fear that the house martin flock has slipped away, unseen, whilst my attention was elsewhere. I haven’t seen them for days and now, as I anxiously scan the skies for them, there is only a gaping hole in the ether, where hundreds of birds once were. With their departure, I feel as though a chapter of my life has come to an end. When I moved to my new house, a few months ago, lines of house martins screamed a welcome from the telephone wires and over the past few months I have grown to know and become fond of my new, feathered neighbours. I have never shared my home with house martins before, but this particular Devon village seems to support a huge number of them. I decide that perhaps it is down to the mud. Here, rivers and streams, shouldered by clayey banks the colour of burnt ochre, shred the landscape, providing nesting material to these resourceful builders. 
The birds and I co-existed peacefully throughout the summer. As I hung clothes out to dry, they attended their nests amongst the gutters.  Whilst I worked at my desk, they entertained me by performing aerial acrobatics, like a squadron of red arrows outside my window. I paused in my gardening to watch the young poke their heads from the nest and beg for food. I marvelled as they clung to vertical walls, finding footholds amongst the render. I worried for them when it was cold and wet, wondering whether they would catch enough insects to feed their chicks. I tried in vain, again and again, to capture their image on my camera, but they were always too quick, too far away, too small. And when there was a rare day of sunshine, I lay on the crunchy lawn and squinted into the sun, hypnotised by their wheeling and diving, as they towered for insects, high above. 

And now, I feel, inexplicably, that I have let them down, by not being there to see them off on their long-haul flight to Africa. I wonder how they will find the way? Probably by a mixture of visual and olfactory cues, as well as sun, magnetic and star compasses, although that answer hardly explains the phenomenon adequately. There is still so much that we don’t know about these most familiar of birds. Almost incredibly, we still know hardly anything about where they overwinter in Africa and what they do when they get there. Of 250 000 house martins ringed in Britain and Ireland, only 1, singular bird has ever been recovered from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Over the past eight years, I have moved house eight times, but at last I feel settled. Perhaps rather ironically, as house martins are the ultimate nomads, I will forever associate the presence of these birds with the feeling of being at home. Next spring, I will have my fingers crossed for good weather and keep my eye on the sky, hoping for the house martins’ safe return.

Now you do it

The BTO runs a house martin survey. Find out more and join in here

There are a few simple things that can be done to encourage house martins to nest near you: 

Never disturb house martin nests. If you leave them where they have been built, they are likely to be reused the following year, or attract house martins to build their own nests nearby.

Create a pond with muddy banks, or simply a muddy puddle, so that they have something to build their nests from. 

There is some evidence that putting up artificial nests helps to attract house martins. They can be bought in several different places, for example from the RSPB shop

Conservation Status

In the British Isles, house martins have declined by 38% since 1970. They are listed on the Amber list of medium conservation concern.

All nesting birds are legally protected, so it is illegal to damage or destroy the eggs or young, or destroy or damage a nest whilst it is being used.