As most photographers will tell you, one of the difficulties of trying to capture any type of exciting natural event, is having to deal with the hundreds of other photographers who also want to get good pictures. Having spent time trying to photograph the rut in Richmond Park two years ago, when it was freezing cold and far too early in the morning, I was so disappointed when I got home to discover I had more pictures of photographers than I had of the stunning deer! So it was really exciting to be invited to Epping Forest, on land inaccessible to the general public, to watch and hopefully capture this year’s rut.
Four of us from our local camera club, set off early last Sunday to meet our guide from the City of London Corporation. In a car park close to where the rut was taking place, we squeezed in the four wheel drive vehicle with all our gear and set off. Our guide, Mick, explained that he would drive us around the herd initially and then drop us off at the two hides where we could stay uninterrupted for two hours. It was stunning scenery as we drove through two gateways and saw for the first time a huge expanse of green and trees. There in a the middle of our view, was a herd of black fallow deer grazing quietly. Used to the sound of the vehicle some looked up expectantly, hoping for carrots, but the rest continued to graze. Paul and I got out at the first hide and I was slightly concerned that it wasn’t like the bird hides I have grown used to. It was high up on stilt like legs and once again there was a ladder to climb. Fortunately Mick helped us get our camera gear up into the hide whilst we clambered up, hoping that from this vantage point, we would get a good view of the deer. Les and John were dropped at a second hide out of our line of view.
Choosing the right lens was the next problem. I could see why so many photographers have two cameras with two different lenses attached. As it is pointless yearning for something you haven’t got, I decided to use my 70-200 with a 1.4 extender rather than my 300 prime lens. My companion Paul, a great creative photographer, who would admit that wildlife photography and the patience required, is not really his thing, was just content to watch the deer and the photographs were of secondary importance. Initially we saw nothing, but in the woods behind us we could hear loud noises, a cacophony of sound generated by antlers crashing together. It was slightly unnerving, it sounded so ferocious.
As we waited and hoped that the bucks would make themselves visible, we chatted about the similarities between animal behaviour and that of the human race. Our tendencies to be tribal, our need to be accepted in the group and our aggression towards newcomers. As we began to put the world to rights, the clashing of antlers got louder and as we turned our heads to follow the sound, we could see three bucks fighting, breaking apart, walking on, and then fighting again. One buck seemed to be watching the other two as their fight for supremacy continued. They often became locked in conflict, pushing with the whole of their body weight and using their antlers like swords. It was ferocious and unrelenting. One of the bucks escaped into the small lake by the side of the hide. The other two disappeared for a while and then the three of them regrouped and came very close before they wandered off together. One of the bucks had a very nasty gash by his eye. Mick told us later, that they often lose their eyes during the rut and some even get killed. It is truly the survival of the fittest. Finally the bucks disappeared from view and the wind got up and blew through the hide. With our hoods up, we watched and waited patiently. Finally having seen nothing else for over an hour, we could see our transport arriving. We were treated to a final drive around the big herd so we could get some more photographs. While we waited for Les and John to do their tour, Paul and I wandered around the small lake and tracked the prints of the deer through the undergrowth.
As we finally climbed back into the vehicle and were just about to leave, a terrifying fight began between two bucks right in front of us. With four cameras on ‘burst ‘ we ducked each other’s lenses trying to keep out of the pictures. The fight was loud, violent and totally unrelenting. After a minute or so our guide drove the vehicle towards the warring couple, in an attempt to break up the seemingly unending confrontation. As we got closer they broke apart and went separate ways. I have to admit I was relieved.
My lasting image of this amazing experience is the terror in the eyes of the bucks, which I hope I have caught in some of the photographs. For me there is a huge contradiction between the beauty of these shy animals and their ugly aggressive behaviour. However, their survival can only be guaranteed if the strongest and healthiest are able to breed.
It is rare in this busy world of ours, to be able to watch a natural spectacle such as this, totally undisturbed. As we enjoyed the famous salt beef sandwiches at the end of the morning, we all agreed that it was a wonderful privilege that the City of London Corporation had afforded us. Long may they survive.