The latest issue of Practical Photography features an exclusive six-page article about my project documenting the personal lives of Roe deer – one of only two species of deer native to Britain.
As part of my on going long-term project to document the natural history of this most beautiful and beguiling of species I wanted to photograph them in an urban setting. Roe deer are highly adaptable. The explosion of the deer population due to the all but disappearance of natural predators, combined with habitat loss have combined to make deer an increasingly frequent sight in our towns and cities.
I’d heard about an old Victorian cemetery in the centre of Glasgow where a family of Roe deer had made their home. Sadly though they had disappeared by the time I started the project. It was a case therefore of keeping an eye out for a similar opportunity. This took a lot longer than I first anticipated.
In August 2014 though I received a tip-off from a deer stalker friend of mine about a potential location a lot closer to home in East Sussex. I went to scout the site early one morning. Please click on each image to see at intended res.
As I drove through the cemetery gates I was amazed to come across an adult female Roe doe resting with her kid next to a tomb. Roe tend to live in small family groups rather than herds like other deer species. Up to this point though all the Roe deer I have worked with had been nervous which is characteristic of the species. They are pretty much engineered by nature to flee at the slightest hint of disturbance. This is what makes them such a challenge to photograph and photograph well.
These deer though we’re very confiding and perfectly relaxed. As I drove further into the cemetery I was even more surprised to find another adult doe and two kids. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Roe deer are most active at dawn and dust. Leaving the deer to rest in peace during the day I returned in the evening I came across a magnificent Roe buck.
A mature adult Roe deer stands at up to 76 cm at the shoulder and weigh as much as 29 kg. an adult doe can be up to 6kg lighter.
From the elaborate pearling of his antlers I aged him at around five to six years old so approaching his prime.
Sometimes you’ve just got to scratch that itch…
It was at this point I think that I realised this was a very special site offering a unique opportunity to follow a family of Roe deer through the seasons and get to know their habits and behaviour intimately. I wanted to make sure to make the most of it.
I always try to work on a project basis. It stands to reason that the more time and effort you put in, the better your images.
Although living in an urban environment, the deer were far from tame. A close approach on foot was not desirable, only causing unnecessary disturbance. From working with Roe I know they can quickly change their behaviour and become very skittish. And they are very skittish in the first place. To minimise disturbance, I used my car as a (very expensive) mobile hide, placing my camera and lens on a beanbag for stability. As an additional precaution I also put some scrim across the car window to stop the deer seeing any movement within the vehicle.
Working very slowly and carefully at all times I was able to get some intimate images of the kids as they grew up.
As I spent more time in the cemetery, I was also able to start to work out the light and able to achieve some some backlit images.
There are some parts of the cemetery where the background is quite dark. Underexposing a couple of stops in camera enabled me to get some portraits of the deer without any distracting backgrounds.
In summer a Roe deer’s coat is a striking chestnut red colour. At this time of year Roe appear at their most delicate and slender.
Grooming was an aspect of Roe deer behaviour I was hoping to capture during the project and the deer duly obliged.
Feeding was another aspect of behaviour I wanted to capture. Roe deer are a browsing species. Their diet include saplings, herbs, grasses, fungi and ivy.
They can cause a lot of damage to the vegetation and this often brings them into conflict with man.
Their love of cultivated roses in particular did not endear them to some visitors to the cemetery.
The deer do divide opinion. Some visitors love them whilst others are not so keen. One family has even put an electric fence around the grave of a loved one to protect the flowers. The council have looked at various different options to try to find a workable solution to the problem, including erecting a taller fence and even culling the deer. After a public outcry though they have decided to let them live there in peace.
One afternoon I watched as a very nice lady spent some time tendering a grave, making a beautiful floral display. I wasn’t the only one watching though. As soon as she went back to her car, a couple of happy slapping ringtone hoodie Roe teenagers emerged from the shadows and started eating the roses. Despite the poor lady’s best attempts to shoo them away, they were having none of it. I spoke to her afterwards and she was remake ably gracious about the whole thing. I couldn’t help feeling very sorry for her though.
One of the kids was a little buck. He was one of my favourites to photograph and his natural curiosity helped me get some really nice images.
Using the light wasn’t easy at this location but I did manage to make some more backlit images of this beautiful doe.
In late autumn Roe develop a much thicker coat of browny grey, their dense pelage making them appear fat and dumpy in appearance. They also display a beautiful white patch on their necks.
Roe bucks shed their antlers at the end of autumn. The antler cycle of the buck, is phased differently from other deer species.
The antler of a mature buck consists of a forward facing brow tine and two rearward points at the top of the beam. Additional points sometimes form if the soil and geology is favourable.
A new pair of antlers grows during the winter covered in velvet. Re growth is complete by the end of March when the velvet of the antler is frayed.
In Spring their shedding of their winter coat makes them look tatty and moth eaten in appearance. Into early summer you can still see the occasional grey fleck amongst some individuals, the last vestiges of their winter pelage.
Roe deer are very in tune with the seasons and I found these marked changes in appearance very interesting to observe.
The project also presented a wonderful opportunity to observe some fascinating behavioural interactions.
Dominant bucks aren’t particularly tolerant of other males, even their own offspring and I watched them lock antlers on at least a couple of occasions, as the adult male made it clear to the young pretender that it might be time to move out of home and establish his own territory.
Cemeteries and churchyards provide a perfect habitat for nature. The deer share this peaceful sanctuary with a variety of other wildlife. I also regularly spotted a resident Sparrow hawk that would prey on the resident Wood pigeons and corvids. As the nights started to draw in during the winter I would also hear the tell- tale ‘Too-wit too-woo’ of a Tawny Owl and even found a few pellet son top of one of the headstones.
Red foxes also make churchyards and cemeteries their home. Whilst they are known to take young Roe kids, they are more likely to be found scavenging through rubbish bins for the things people leave behind.
The shots of the Fox capture during the day time like those of the Jays and Squirrels are all taken in London cemeteries.
I took a bit of a detour last winter and spent some time photographing a family of urban foxes living in an old Victorian garden of rest just a couple of minutes from my house in the centre of Brighton. These foxes are pretty much nocturnal. It was my first attempt at camera trap photography and a bit of a steep learning curve. Fortunately I had masters of camera trap photography Jamie Hall and Terry Whittaker’s numbers on speed dial. I am really helpful for the advice, encouragement and support. Checking camera traps after dark at a location frequented by drug users and other undesirables certainly added a fresh challenge to the experience. Given the location it was inevitable that my gear would go walk about at some point (which it did – or at least the flashes and remote trigger. The camera was attached to an 8metre chain and wasn’t going anywhere). Fortunately the thieves weren’t the brightest and I was re united with my flash units and other gear before the day was out!
Photographing these other species helps to tell a much bigger story of nature quickly adapting to an urban environment.
Returning to the Roe deer, the arrival of winter brought with it a hard frost as can be seen in the following series of images. The next shot received a Highly Commended in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards.
As you can see my little buck was by this stage growing up fast…
This was not something lost on the mature buck (now freshly sans antlers). Even so he remained duly wary of his (presumably) father …
With the arrival of Spring came new life. The arrival of a new addition to the family was lovely to see. Roe mothers are very protective of their young and this tender age and it took me a while to earn their trust to allow me to get these portraits of the new arrival.
The last time I visited this location was in late summer, I hadn’t seen one of the adult female does for a number of months. Speaking to the manager of the cemetery my worse fears were confirmed. She had died in the winter finally succumbing to a nasty foot injury I had noticed when I first photographed her. Sadly also I didn’t see the mature buck at all during the summer. I like to think that he may have moved on. It’s a shame though as I was looking forward to seeing his new set of antlers. It just goes to show though that these sort of opportunities don’t last forever and it’s important to make the most of them whilst they last.
To be honest though I think I have spent enough time photographing in cemeteries for now at least..time to move on to the next challenge.
You can read more about the project in my article ‘Roe Deer: personal lives of Britain’s native species’ in the January 2016 issue of Practical Photography available from all good news agents from 26th November.
I would like to thank Ben Hawkins and his team at Practical Photography for producing such a good looking article and continuing to support my work. Take a bow gentlemen!