The Ins and Outs of Ruts

The roof work continues, as our windows are not yet finished.  This is not entirely true.  One window has arrived and was installed, but was not what we ordered.  Two of the three main roof windows have been installed, but one now needs to be replaced.  In the recent storms, a ladder left on the roof by one of the workers, flew onto the newly fitted window leaving a huge scratch.  The third roof window is still being manufactured.  I should point out, we gave the go ahead to this project on 14 July.  Bastille Day.  These most recent delays and subsequent leaks have us feeling like staging our own uprising!

While I was in the States, Roger had to contend with two major leaks.  As the entire southwest of the country was enduring gales and heavy downpours, we, without the new windows and slate tiles in place, suffered substantial water ingress to certain parts of the house. Roger described the leaks as something straight out of a horror film where the blood seeps from the walls and ceilings.  When I saw the problems I said to myself, “Oh brother.”  Small insight I admit, but at the time, it was the best I could do.  Suffice to say, Roger and I are looking forward to seeing the end of this particular project.

We are weary and in a bit of a rut with this project, speaking of which, there is something fascinating happening around this time of year to distract our attention.  It’s autumn and the red deer stags start engaging in their elaborate displays of dominance.  They roar, walk in parallel lines, fight, rub their antlers on trees or shrubs, and wallow in mud or dust.  Those stags are busy showing off their enormous antlers and deer bravado in an attempt to impress and attract the ladies.  The bellowing sounds of rutting in the woodlands and forests in and around the moor is nothing less than primeval.  Or, so I’ve read.   I’m still waiting to encounter it.

Red Deer (found on the internet)

Lately, I’ve been on walks at dusk when I was certain I heard an eerie, long, low-pitched sound coming from the woods on the other side of the river.   I’m not certain if it was indeed a rutting deer or some other unrelated eerie moan.   Either way, I prefer the quiet of the very early morning walk, and see it as my best chance to hear the sounds of the violent love life of our largest land mammal in the UK.   To minimize obsessing about the roof repairs, I’m planning to set out earlier than usual with Sam in hopes of catching those noisy bad boys in the forest.

I’ve seen plenty of deer in my life.  They eat the azaleas in my Dad’s garden.  One time I watched a herd of about 50 lope past while walking in Hatfield Forest in Hertfordshire with Roger and, our then dog, Al.  I’ve felt their eyes watching me from behind trees when I’ve been camping.  And, I’ve watched Fenton chase them in Richmond Park on the viral YouTube clip.  A few years ago, Roger and I were driving through Exmoor at dusk and up on the hillside stood a large buck with antlers that seemed to span across the horizon.  He was huge and majestic and, in the instant we slowed the car for a closer look, turned and bolted over the hill.  After Thanksgiving this year, my sister and I saw more than one dead deer, hit by cars at dusk, lying along side the road as we drove from Connecticut to New Jersey on our way to catch flights home.

A year or so ago on a damp and windy Sunday morning in Sussex, I was out walking with my friend June.  We had started undertaking these regular walks as a way to catch up on the week’s events.  Typically, we’d walk for about an hour, talking non-stop, and enjoying the changing light across the South Downs.

Walking with June is always an adventure.  She tells a great story and has a capacity for remembering every detail of a story told to her.  She would make an excellent detective in any thriller/crime/mystery, never missing the essential clue that eluded all others from Scotland Yard.  Lost in our conversation of summer holidays and recent books read, we casually ambled along and missed our option of the early turn, committing ourselves to the longer walk.   Sam stopped to sniff the ground, so we stopped too.  Suddenly, and without a single sound to warn us of its presence, a large golden brown creature leapt out of the hedge.   The deer’s underside revealed as it soared over our heads, landing some three feet beyond and then running full tilt across the field.

Uncharacteristically, June and I were left speechless.  Our legs grew wobbly-soft from the adrenaline rush and the realization that an adult deer had just leapt clean over us.  It was a magnificent sight and we were cognizant of the fact that one mistimed step by any of us, including that deer, could have made for a tragic tale.  Instead, we had encountered a rare wildlife moment, the kind you might read about in an issue of Country Life:  Deer Soars Over the Heads of Two Middle-Aged Women on a Wet and Windy Sunday Morning on the South Downs.

Jumping Deer (found on Internet)

Among the many reasons I love living in the UK is that we don’t have to worry about running into lions, tigers, bears, rattlesnakes, scorpions, or any other number of threatening creatures when out hiking.  The Red Deer is Britain’s largest land mammal with a male weighing up to 190 Kg.   Like the more common Fallow and Roe Deer in Dartmoor, it eats grasses and leaves, shies away from people, and is generally a greater threat to garden plants than it ever will be to me.

If you listen to a YouTube recording of a rutting deer it will instantly shed light on how myths and legends are born.     The rutting vocalization of the male European Red Deer is a distinctive roar-like sound, much like that of an old and tired car engine trying to start.  Close your eyes for one moment and imagine it’s autumn and you are camping in a tent.  While snug and cozy in your sleeping bag, you are suddenly awakened by a deep bellowing emanating from the nearby hillside forest, eerily shrouded in mist. What the blazes? Well, that’s likely the sound of a rutting deer and it is so unlike any other natural sound, or at least it is on the recordings available on the Internet. Listen for yourself:

I know I could always travel to a deer park to see the deer in action and there are a couple of these on Dartmoor.   When I think of a park, a wide-open space available for the public and managed by professionals comes to mind.  Today there are theme parks, wildlife parks, public parks, national parks, and even car parks, but in medieval times, the term park was used to describe an enclosed area, bounded by a ditch, that was used for growing timber or keeping animals for hunting and food.   Over the top of the ditch would be a plank letting deer enter, but preventing them from leaving the park.   And so, let the hunting begin for those medieval wealthy folk such as Norman kings, nobility and senior clergy.  Deer parks flourished after the Norman invasion and continued to grow more popular over the centuries among England’s landed gentry.  Such parks were typically the domain of country mansions and palaces, more lately National Trust estate gardens.  We live in neither a country mansion nor an ancient palace, but we do live in the middle of a national park, so I figure we’re due to see some of these rutting deer.

Redwing (found on Internet and soon to be spotted by me on Dartmoor)

There are two historic deer parks on Dartmoor that guarantee spotting deer.  To me, this is like going to the zoo to spot a badger.  A cool experience, but it doesn’t come close to the thrill I had of spotting one outside the window in the middle of the night, when I got up to use the toilet.   I want to see deer in the wild but now I need to accept that given the recent cold, wind, and the rain, I may have missed the autumn rut.  It feels like winter.  Still, I’ll continue to take my early morning walks in hopes of catching a glimpse, or the sound, of the rutting behaviours of the resident deer.  At the same time, I will keep my eyes open to seeing winter birds.  From what I’ve read, the Dartford Warbler and Great Spotted Woodpecker can still be seen along with our winter visitors such as the Fieldfare, Redwing and Woodcock.   I also need to spend time with our new chickens who are settling in and laying eggs, despite being almost completely bald!


8 comments on “The Ins and Outs of Ruts

  1. Sheila Shepheard says:

    Wow, loved the story of the deer jumping over you. How fantastic. I’m always blown away when after a short drive I can find myself on the Downs, far away from traffic & people, amidst hedgerow rustlings and undergrowth snufflings. I do dread seeing deer however as it inevitably means a long wait whilst Pi, the beagle runs, baying, off to the horizon.

  2. ann dawney says:

    It’s how you tell ’em Catherine! I can feel that deer brushing my clothes as it leaps over me.. What about the little muntjacs that haunt the Hertfordshire lanes, jumping out at us as we drove one summer evening to Perry Green….

  3. June Sheehan says:

    Catherine, I loved being immortalised in your beautiful blog. But it made me miss you and our Sunday walks even more. I’m so looking forward to seeing you next month and I hope there will be lots of progress on the windows and repairs. You are feeding your soul well by walking and writing. And you and Roger will overcome these setbacks I’m certain. Love from Your ‘Deer ‘Friend Junexx

  4. Joanne says:

    Another wonderful entry. Great telling of the deer story. If not for you I would never have listened to the sound of a rutting deer. Beats the sound of our new doorbell which we had installed yesterday after years of frustration with battery operated ones that work intermittently. Of course, nobody has used it yet. I am anxiously awaiting our first chime.

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