While the surface may be interpreted as Victorian in character, Charlecote Park is a layered landscape, belonging to all of history, and to every visitor that has ever been and has yet to visit.
Landscape, rooted as much in the desire of what is to come as what has already been, is transient and ever changing.
– Eduard Krakhmalnikov: More than a Park: A Landscape History of Charlecote Park
A month or so ago, I wandered around my beloved West Park (which I had to myself) at Charlecote: and even then I could sense the change.
Ahead of the annual rut – which is now underway – the more senior fallow bucks were beginning to claim advantageous (and traditional) corners of the parkland for themselves.
The breeding herd was also a lot more skittish than normal: running and pronking away in series – often at the behest of one of those larger ‘master’ bucks – when, during the rest of the year, they would mostly ignore you, and treat your clicking shutter with utter disdain.
“Call me Beyoncé! I’ve been photographed more times than the Queen, you know. Yawn. Here we go again, Gladys.”
On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be part of a small party observing the deer at daybreak – arriving at Charlecote before 06:30 (for first light at 07:12, and sun-up at 07:47).
However, a couple of hours later, we were rewarded with strong coffee (here served by volunteer – and supreme – photographer, Jana Eastwood) and bacon baguettes: so there was more than enough compensation for the early rising!
And, although – as Adam Maher, ranger (and genial educational genius) explained – it was really too warm (a balmy 10°C, as I parked the Bardmobile) for us to witness the rut in full swing. In fact, there was only one real brief-but-memorable moment of antler-on-antler action.
Nevertheless, throughout the stroll, we were so well-entrenched in the natural world (my boots still smell of deer) – “It may be fenced, but this is truly wild…” – that only a professional churl could have been in any way let-down.
The echoizing call and return of tawny owls accompanied our dark walk to the parkland; and, as the crack of dawn widened (and our pupils similarly adapted), it became obvious that, whilst we meandered between the serried lime-trees, we were being silently policed by a sparse cloud of bats, gracefully skimming the air just above our heads (another indication of a mild dawn, we were told).
Throughout, a sporadic, confrontational soundtrack of groaning, deep-belching bucks – a noise also redolent to my failing ears of a wooden ruler being repeatedly vibrated against an old school-desk: establishing and reinforcing hierarchy, as well as having a go at (but not always succeeding in) impressing the ladies, of course – scatter-gunned across the park.
One of the many fascinating facts of Adam’s that I will never forget is that the trees’ canopy in the park is a uniform and signature 1.7 metres from the ground – a true mark of the herd’s ability to gobble up tree-shoots and flail the bark; and cause major damage, if not carefully managed.
This is not helped at this time of year, firstly, by the incessant antler-rubbing – removing any remaining velvet before the rut; as well as then gathering ‘decorations’ of leaves or grass – and finally the scent-marking of branches, using glands above the bucks’ eyes.
However, if your palmate antlers aren’t symmetrical – like this poor guy I stumbled upon, pretending he wasn’t there, hiding in the grass – you may find that all this is for naught: as the does are less attracted to you. It seems that it’s not just human beings that are fussy about these things!
West Park had undergone a transformation since I was last there. Huge, dark stands stained the ground (which, in turn, besmears the bucks: who cover themselves in their own urine in the way we might use aftershave…) – strategically placed and constructed “to attract sufficient does to herd them into a harem” – although the leks (“a gathering of males engaging in competitive display to attract potential mates”) morphed lazily, this morning, as the younger bucks somewhat lethargically challenged and withdrew.
Occasionally, a doe would make a treacherous bid for freedom: and only then would the energy of the deer become apparent: as the master bucks dashed away to corral the errant female.
“You can see why the bucks can lose 40% of their body-weight during the rut,” commented Adam (who does a mean doe imitation call: a sort of whistled, feline mew, or squeak). And I thought to myself how much hard work it must be… (without drawing any parallels whatsoever, this time – please note – between creature and human…).
So – following a sleepless night; and a deep frost – I decided Sunday’s dawning might bring forth a little more “action”. In one way, it did: the sunrise was glorious. However, the majority of the deer – apart from one lone master buck: groaning and corralling his increasing harem – were extremely somnolent.
This ‘time-out’ allowed the other bucks to grab a bite to eat; preen; practice their stances and belches – half-heartedly, it has to be said – and then ruminate on their stands. “Nothing to see here.”
So, after well over two hours of well-layered and gloved perseverance – silent standing, mixed in with a little slow-motion strolling along the public footpath in West Park (the only access at this time of year); as the mist crept in hesitantly from the River Dene – I left the deer to it. No doubt, as soon as I left, they all went berserk – finally stuck in a rut….
Although my galleries are in desperate need of an update, my earlier deer photos can be found here – as part of my larger Charlecote collection: which also includes the many wonderful trees of West Park.