Nature’s Almanac – the Red deer Rut

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For the first part of my new wildlife photography project, following British nature spectaculars through the year I focused on the Red deer rut.

The Red deer rut is one of the British Isles most visceral and primeval wildlife spectacles. The Red deer stag is Britain’s largest and most majestic land mammal. To watch red deer rutting is a powerful experience that dates back to Neolithic times.

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Earlier this year I moved to Richmond, very close to Richmond Park National Nature Reserve. Photographically there is no better place in my opinion to watch the rut unfold. I feel I am well placed to say that having worked pretty much exclusively with wild deer for the last five years. It’s also a great place to take my little one who is four now and was very excited to see the ‘King’ deer roaring!

Fights can vary in length, from a few seconds to five minutes, as the rival stags try to push through each other’s guard, by twisting and turning as they push. It takes a very powerful and determined challenger to unseat a dominant stag. With the winner getting the opportunity to mate with fifteen or so hinds the stakes could not be higher. The risk of injury is also high with some fights being to the death. I found one dead stag this rut sadly.

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The images in this blog were taken over a period of a few weeks. I was very selective about when I went out, watching the weather forecast carefully for the misty, atmospheric conditions I favour. The images featured here are my own personal highlights of the rut.

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red deer blog 10red deer blog 1Once at the rut, the large competing males spend a lot of time roaring at other stags as they try to assert their dominance, gauging the fitness and virility of rival males. Their powerful, deep, guttural bellowing calls can be heard for up to 20 minutes at a time. The noisiest stag is usually the most dominant. Incumbent stags with harems always roar more frequently than their hind-less challengers.

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Red deer stags also thrash around in the undergrowth with their antlers during the rut, as part of their show to their rivals, to such an extent that they end up wearing a ragged crown of dangling bracken.

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Red deer stags put on a lot of muscle during the rut. Their necks are thicker, so they hold their heads high. Mature stags can have up to sixteen points on their antlers, ready to do battle. Their coats are often darker also as they roll around in mud and their own urine.

red deer blog 30red deer blog 31red deer blog 32red deer blog 33I am now working with the British Deer Society and Royal Parks to establish a Code of Conduct for Deer Photography. I feel it is something well overdue with so many people now enjoying getting out there to photograph the annual red deer rut, truly one of nature’s autumn highlights.

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Purple haze – Roe deer in summer

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This summer I returned to the lowland heaths of the south of England, bringing my year photographing Roe deer full circle. Here the heather bloom coincides with the peak of the annual Roe rut.

I thought I would share with you a selection of my favourite images from my time amongst the deer of the heather lands. I hope you enjoy the series.

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The last year has been devoted to following Roe deer through the seasons. It’s been an amazing adventure. The time feels right now though, after putting so much hard work  into the project, to step back for a bit and look towards identifying some fresh, new photographic subjects that inspire me. We have such a rich tapestry of wildlife here in the British Isles and the North I want to celebrate with my work. I am already putting forward plans for some amazing new adventures in wildlife photography. I look forward to sharing them with you.

Jules Cox

24th August 2018

 

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Yellow – Roe deer in Spring and Early Summer

 

_K7R0328After, the work I put in to get images of Roe deer in snow, I decided to give myself a bit of a break over the early  part of the Spring. It proved a wise decision and I returned to lead a workshop at one of my local permissions feeling refreshed and looking forward to catching up with the deer I had come to know so well.

I was struck by how much had changed in such  a short space of time. The stark white beauty of natures palatte had changed to vibrant yellow, with the meadows filled with a sea of buttercups.

The bucks were now out of velvet and sporting freshly cleaned, smart new antlers.

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Roe deer change coat in summer too, with the thick insulating slate grey pelage of winter turning to the beautiful, russet red of summer.

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Spring had also brought with it new life and it lifted my soul to see the does with their new born kids.

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Late spring is a fascinating time in the natural history of roe also with bucks marking their territories ready for the rut.

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The traditional English meadow habitat the Roe call home was also alive with wild flowers starting to emerge, including Orchids and Foxgloves.

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Last year’s kids had been pushed out by their mothers and were starting to make their own way in life.

This image and the series that follow were all taken on a workshop with a client.

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I came across this young buck in a buttercup filled meadow where he had set up his territory. He was very relaxed in our presence. All of these images are full frame or not far off, which I hope help to illustrate it is possible to get nice, relaxed images of deer without disrupting their behaviour. Roe spend a lot of time browsing and they made the most of the bountiful, delicate butter cup flowers and new shoots.

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Getting images of does with kids proved a lot more of a challenge, with the protective mothers waiting until the light was low to lead their babies out. To achieve the images required a lot of careful observation, planning and a fair amount of fieldcraft away from a workshop environment. It wasn’t easy but the hard work paid off with a series of nice images.

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This next intimate behavioural shot of a kid suckling from its mother is one that I had envisioned for a long time but I never thought I’d get. It’s full frame.

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I really like this next shot of the doe leading the kids away. Increasingly with my photography I am drawn to images that connect.

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My change in method of working also really helped in enabling me to document the territorial behaviour of the bucks as they scent mark their territory. Portraits are nice but I feel that these images tell a far more interesting story.

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The vibrant yellows of the buttercup field also really leant themselves to shooting images small in the frame, showing the deer in their natural environment.

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Time spent photographing the Roe also resulted in an unexpected bonus. I observed this beautiful, mature vixen walking the same route in the morning and evening at the site. She is a proper country fox and therefore not easy to get close to. I didn’t want to start trying to bait her as the roe have such sensitive noses. Instead I learnt her route and with a favourable wind set up in a nice area where I could get some confiding shots without risking disturbing her or the deer.

She is a beautiful animal in immaculate condition with a wide lower jaw and thick brush indicating she is an older animal with a good hunting instinct. Foxes will take roe kids when they are still new born, so the deer do need to be wary, as do the foxes as a mature doe is perfectly capable of taking out a fox with its powerful legs and sharp hooves

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Her mate, the dog fox was very wily and gave me the run around, but I eventually caught up with him, bringing food back to the den.

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It was nice to get some images of the doe from my previous shots browsing in the buttercup field, her kids safely tucked away.

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The deer share the field with horses. As a rule, roe deer and domestic livestock don’t mix, so it was nice to get a few images of them together.

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I find a lot of peace and solice spending time with the Roe. The next series of images were taken against the fading light of a beautiful early summer’s evening.

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The younger buck continued to scent mark and thrash around in the vegetation, warning off rivals.

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I particularly like this shot with all the vegetation flying.

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The next two images represent a fleeting moment when the buck stepped into a patch of last light, picking out the buck’s summer pelage in the after glow of red.

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Next to the buttercup field is a traditional English hay meadow where the master (dominant) buck, an older animal, resided.

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Not content with its home territory though, it also had designs on the buttercup field. I was lucky enough to witness a full on fight between the pair. The light was very low, but I still managed a few shot.

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This next shot helps illustrate the difference between the two animals. The older animal is on the left of the shot. If you look carefully, you will see that he isn’t able to get down as low.

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The younger buck is able to get lower and force the older animal back. With roe though it’s not which buck wins the battle, but the war. The older animal will wait until the younger has gone through a series of skirmishes with other bucks (there are at least four mature bucks in the area – so lots of challenges to meet) and is physically exhausted before joining battle again and muscling the younger buck out. Who wins the war depends on guile, cunning, dexterity, strength, size and weight.

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Undeterred by losing out the previous evening, I found the wily, older buck in the buttercup field feeding seemingly unperturbed the following morning.

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At the first sight of his rival though he was off again. Deciding perhaps that discretion was the better part of valour.

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By the time the younger buck had got to the scene of the crime he was gone.

_K7R1852It was a fascinating game of cat and mouse and gave me a privileged insight into the lives of these beguiling and complex animals. I would have liked to have spent more time seeing how things played out. However, nature’s schedule had other ideas and meant I had to turn my attentions elsewhere for the following few weeks….

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Footprints in the snow

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The first three months of the year are amongst the coldest, and the time when, traditionally, we are most likely to see snow.

As a result of climate change though we have seen less and less of the white stuff in recent years. The last time I photographed in snow in the uK was in 2011, and that was in the North of England. Here in the south, snow is an even rarer occurence.

Chill winds coming in from both Siberia the east as well as the Mediterranean to the south in the last few weeks created an extreme weather vortex and a rare opportunity to photograph in my favourite conditions. I knew the conditions wouldn’t last long so it was a question of synchronising forecasts at my various Roe sites in the southern counties and making some tough decisions.

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I didn’t have to go far for my first site, which is located just ten minutes from my doorstep on the South downs.

One of the advantages of snow is the tracks and signs it leaves.  I followed footprints in the snow created overnight to an area of the woods I knew the deer might come out.

_K7R8431 My hunch paid off. Just as I came over the brow of the hill, I spotted a doe coming running out of the woods. I managed to take a few shots as she ran, leaving footprints in the snow.

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The resulting image is one I had thought about a lot, even considering investing in a drone to achieve it. To achieve it on a much higher spec camera without risking spooking the deer though was a dream,

For the next ten minutes I sat and watched as she fed on the game feed left for the pheasants. With food in short supply in these extreme conditions, the feed was a valuable source of energy.

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I continued to stalk in to her, which is something I don’t do with Roe usually for various reasons and which is not particularly easy in snow, Whether it was my movement or she heard the sound of the camera, her curiosity got the better of her and she came to take a closer look, coming closer, so that she was framed between the trees in the snow (tick two for an image I hoped to achieve for the project)

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And closer…and as it did I could feel my heart beat louder and louder.

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As regular followers of my blog (thank you!) know, I always try to shoot my images full frame with minimum cropping. The images above are just that.

One of the other images on my list for my winter photography was a portrait of a Roe showing off their gorget, the white patch on their chest, some display in winter. This doe was in very good condition and had the most beautiful gorget and she allowed me to photograph it from different angles before walking off nonchalantly.

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It was a very special encounter, very much on her own terms and probably one of my best experiences since starting the project. I sat there in the snow afterwards until it got dark just taking in the magic of it all. Its in magical moments like this I feel most alive.

A few days later I found myself driving down to another of my sites in blizzard conditions, A journey that usually takes me a couple of hours took me ten and a half hours. Indeed I doubt I would have completed it had it not been for the 4 x 4 with cars in front of me being abandoned.

The epic journey though was worth certainly worth it I feel, with three foot of snow in places. It’s interesting to think that lot of the deer in the next series of images would not have seen these conditions before.

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Criss crossing the southern counties I visited another of my local sites. Roe tend to head for cover in extreme conditions, so I had to work very hard for my images.

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The snow leaves other tell tell signs of roe behaviour other than tracks. The imprint below is of a ‘couch’ where the deer lie up and rest.

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I also took the opportunity to visit one of the farms that I used to photograph deer with my friend Terry, still sadly missed. Terry’s good friend Sean kindly gave up his time to take me out and get the necessary permission from the landowner. We had great fun off roading in the snow and it was good to talk about Terry. He is never far from the thoughts of the people that knew him.

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_K7R9625 One of my favourite places to watch Roe deer is the cemetery I have photographed in for the last four years and which featured in my article in Practical Photography in 2015.

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I was last at this location last September and could only find a single, solitary doe. I managed to find her again in fresh snow fall, the snow clinging to the trees creating a very beautiful and melancholy scene.

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I was delighted to find that the doe was now accompanied by an attendant buck. And what a buck he is._K7R8207

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Having had a chance to think about it since, I am sure he is the same deer I photographed as a handsome fawn four years previously. Since then his father who was a magnificent buck has disappeared, presumably having passed and it seems the son has inherited his territory.

I spent three days photographing in the cemetery in total. An abandoned car blocking the entrance to the cemetery meant I had to photograph everything on foot rather than using a car as a mobile hide as I had done when I last photographed at this location.  I’ve learnt a lot about fieldcraft when it comes to Roe deer though in the intervening three and a half years which stood me in good stead. The deer got used to my presence quickly making for some very confiding images. I’ve selected a few of my favourites below.

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With very few people able to get around in the snow, I pretty much had the cemetery to myself. No visitors paying their respect to their loved ones meant no flowers and the deer having to scrape through the snow to get to the vegetation below in order to browse. Finding signs like this of roe deer behaviour is really fascinating for me.

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The final series of images below were all taken on my final morning . Whilst elsewhere the snow was fast melting by this time I was pleased to find a good covering in the cemetery. The deer were a lot more active making for some nice images.

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As I write this winter feels like it has finally come to an end and the first signs of spring and new life everywhere, birds are returning from their wintering grounds, blackthorne is in flower, the first butterflies of the year are emerging. I’ve taken the opportunity to take a short break from the photography and re charge after following the deer for nine months. It’s a great chance to review what I’ve done so far and come up with new ideas for images. I am looking forward to resuming again later in the spring suitably refreshed.

I would like to thank Sean and Andrew who helped me with this part of my journey photographing roe through the seasons. This blog is dedicated to the good people of Wiltshire, the heart of roe country.

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