As summer turns to autumn and the temperatures start to drop away with more damp days than sunny, the testosterone starts to flow stronger in our UK deer species which starts their annual rutting cycle where the stags fight for their social position and ownership of the does.
Living in West Sussex I am less than an hour's drive away from the fantastic Fallow Deer herds of the National Trust's Petworth Park estate and try to make 2 or 3 trips there each year with my camera.
As some rainy days arrived this week I thought I'd visit the park and see if any action had started yet, and I was also hoping the cooler and wetter day would keep the numbers of other visitors away so as not to spook the deer so much.
I was pleased to find a fairly empty car park so with my trusty Canon 70-300mm bolted on to my 40D I picked my way slowly and carefully along through the trees to see if I could spot any groups of stags before they spotted me. Easier said than done as deer have acute senses and once one looks your way, all the others in the vicinity then want to know what they are looking at too like the couple of young fallow deer above. These were part of a larger group that I let walk through the wooded area past me as I used a tree for cover and kept super still. As they came out into one of the open walks I took my chance to carefully bring the camera up to get the shot but not before they saw my movement and checked me out.
There were two large groups of deer in the area I walked around and a mix of resting and grazing going on. I do love the spotted coats of fallow deer and there is a huge variety of shades amongst the members of the Petworth herd almost from black through to white.
The larger stags as I had hoped, were largely hanging around together in groups either on their own or just outside the main herd. Coming across one such group hiding under some trees from the intermittent rain squalls passing through, I passed too close to the estate kennels just beyond the boundary wall of the park which set the hounds off big time. That quickly got every stag looking straight at me as I took shelter under a lone oak tree nearby as if to say 'thanks for that' as the howling continued for a good while. But I guess they are used to it as they soon settled down again and it was not long before I heard the sound I was waiting for... the clack, clack of antler on antler.
After sitting watching and taking photographs for a while, it did seem as if it was all the younger stags that were mainly engaging in short tests of their own skills and that of their peers. The larger and much more impressive stags were not taking part as yet which means another visit might be in order in a couple of weeks time maybe. However what was amusing was when one of those real alpha males took a step or two towards the younger stags competing which resulted in them leaping apart like scalded cats, making sure there was no danger of them ending up in an accidental encounter that they had no chance of winning.
If you fancy a bracing walk around a magnificent Capability Brown landscaped park then do yourself a favour and visit Petworth Park. Parking for non-NT members is only a couple of pounds in the park (free for members), or you can go the whole hog and visit the outstanding art collection in Petworth House too and make a day of it.
Full details of how to visit are online at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house/