Martin French deserves a medal. Not only did he get up in the cold and dark to see me off from his Bark House Hotel at Oakfordbridge, but he put porridge, bacon and eggs on the table at six in the morning. They make them tough down there on Exmoor. Ranger Richard Eales was nursing flu and the effects of a kick from an over-excited Exmoor pony, but he turned up for our dawn rendezvous at Exmoor National Park headquarters in Dulverton in his usual form – humorous, observant, and passionately knowledgeable about red deer.
From West Anstey Common Richard and I surveyed the ground around Lyshwell Farm. The farmer, Raymond Davey, enjoys seeing red deer, so Lyshwell is a likely spot to find a sample of Exmoor’s herd of some 4,000 of these beautiful and impressive creatures. Red deer have been native to Britain since shortly after the last Ice Age. Stags and hinds spend most of the year apart, but in autumn they come together briefly for the rut or mating season. That’s when the wooded combes and farm pastures of Exmoor echo to one of the most thrilling sounds in nature – the roaring of the stags.
As Richard and I watched from the high common, a deep dog-like bark rose from the oakwoods in the combe of Dane’s Brook far below. ‘A hind,’ said Richard. ‘She’s spotted us, and she’ll be warning the others.’ Then came the sound we had been waiting for – a grating, throaty roar from the direction of Lyshwell Farm. ‘Ah, he’s bolving,’ exclaimed Richard with satisfaction. ‘That’s the Exmoor word for the roaring. It’s a threat and a challenge to any other stag: “I’m here, and I’m in charge!” ’
Through binoculars I made out the stag as he stood by the hedge, head back and bolving, a large figure indistinct in the early morning light. In the field above him several hinds and two little calves came into focus. Beside them were a couple of prickets, two-year-old stags with two long dagger-blade horns where their antlers would eventually grow. ‘When a stag’s in his pomp,’ Richard expounded, ‘he’ll have his “rights” – his brow, bay and tray spikes at the base of the antler – and up to three “points” at the top of each antler. That stag we’re looking at, he’s a fine beast – he’s got all his rights and three points on one side, and all his rights and two on the other. Let’s have a closer look at him.’
Down in the Lyshwell fields we crept with bent backs along a hedge to a point where we could see through a screen of twigs. The stag was the size of a racehorse. He stood sideways on about 50 yards away, a magnificent spectacle against the rising sun, his dark form dazzlingly outlined in dewdrops, his heavily-antlered head thrown back as he bolved. The roar, a mixture of circular saw, Harley-Davidson and outraged lion, echoed out across Lyshwell Wood, projected forth on a puff of steamy breath.
‘See how dark his coat is?’ breathed Richard. ‘He’s been wallowing in his soiling pit, peeing in the mud and rolling in it to get a good stinking smell all over. A stag’s cologne, that is.’
Among his harem of a dozen hinds, most faces were turned towards us, but the stag seemed oblivious. He was sizing up one of the hinds, and had nudged her a little apart from the others, scenting her hindquarters and lifting his head between sniffs as if pondering a rare old vintage. Hinds are in season for a matter of hours only, so the stag relies on all sorts of clues to tell him the time is right. ‘He’ll lick up the hind’s urine,’ murmured Richard, ‘and run it along the Jacobson gland in his upper lip to see if she’s ready to be served.’
This hind was ready. It has to be admitted that the red stag is no languorous artiste du chambre. Ten seconds and the embrace was finished. The hind resumed her grazing, the stag his bolving and scenting of other posteriors. But the group of hinds remained uncomfortably aware of us. Soon enough they began to move off. Richard’s nudge was followed by his whisper, ‘We’ll go down in the wood and catch them there.’
Deep in Lyshwell Wood the stag’s soiling pit lay well-trodden, the wet mud exuding a powerful goaty smell. We crept along a sunken path. From the field above came the groans and roars of bolving in several separate voices – not just one stag, but three. Peeping over the top we saw ‘our’ stag trotting and roaring, and another animal making off in disappointment.
‘He’ll be back,’ said Richard as the herd disappeared into the wood and we straightened our stiff backs. ‘There’s a lot of hard work for the stags during the rut, keeping the hinds together, seeing off rivals, not to mention the mating. But they must think it’s worth it – they’ve been doing it for about ten thousand years.’
Red Deer Watching: Ranger-led expeditions: contact Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841) or Exmoor National Park Authority, Exmoor House, Dulverton (01398-323665); www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk. NB Lyshwell Farm is private property, but there are several footpaths across it.
Richard Eales’s deer-watching hints:
Go at dawn or dusk
Take good binoculars
Keep your eyes open, and give them time to adjust to spotting the deer
Be quiet, move slowly and keep downwind of the deer
Keep low to break up your outline
Stop still as soon as you spot a deer
World Bolving Championship: Held each October at Blaydon Rails above the Barle Valley, in aid of Devon Air ambulance. Details: Rock House Inn, Dulverton (01398-323131; www.rockhouseinndulverton.com)
Accommodation: The Bark House, Oakfordbridge, Devon EX16 9HZ (01398-351236; www.thebarkhouse.co.uk) – really charming, welcoming small hotel, happy with very early starts!
Kia – A Study of Red Deer by Ian Alcock (Swan Hill Press); Red Deer by Richard Jefferies (Halsgrove); Exmoor’s Wild Red Deer by N.V. Allen (Exmoor Press)