Fallow and Chestnuts.
Such still, quiet weather; the sky is an oatmeal-grey. Two muntjac are having a bark-off at either end of the wood. Rhythmic barks at different pitches, each delivered six seconds apart, on a count of three after the last one, in a game of aural tennis. But here, exiting the middle of the wood, are the fresh, neat prints of a muntjac doe, and beside her, the diminutive, 1.5cm prints of her fawn.
I’m hoping to find fallow deer. It is the rut, but these deer are highly mobile: elusive, for an animal so big, hyper-alert, constantly moving. In the stalls created by the boughs of a fallen tree, are flattened areas where their bodies have lain, overlaid with grey, black and russet hairs. Nearby, piles of shiny, acorn-shaped ‘fewmets’.
I settle against the tall barley twist of a sweet chestnut. Midges are biting and it is hard to stay still. Pheasants move over dry, fallen leaves, making the sound of rain. Squirrels working among conkers, acorns and chestnuts scold like querulous, wheezy jays. The only other sound is the smack and patter of chestnut leaves – that fall in great orange licks – and the clonk and clatter of chestnuts pinballing through the branches. The spiky green hedgehogs spring open to reveal glossy, heart-shaped nuts. Once sprung, the nuts are presented like jewels, cushioned on cream velvet. Although small, they make good eating. And the deer love them.
Off in the wood somewhere, the lid of a pheasant feed hopper bangs. A deer is lifting the tin with its muzzle, to lick corn. I try another tactic, skirting the wood from the outside.
Near the feed station, I duck to peer into the dark cave of the wood. In a skewed, half-hexagon of light from a gap in the canopy, I catch the turn of a palmate antler. As if against a window, there is the thorny silhouette of a brow tine, recurved against the broad, flat, moose-like wing of the blade. A big buck in his prime! I could fit my spread hand along the blade, my fingers reaching down the pointed ‘spellers’ of the antler.
I find them sometimes, fallow deer antlers; cast off and stained brown with earth, or bleached by sun and winters. Sometimes it is possible to trace the dry channels left by the veins branching down the palm, that fed the living velvet covering the antlers as they grew.
I crawl closer. In the semi-dark, there is the long, swan curve of a neck, a straight foreleg among saplings and coppice poles, the angle of a hock. And then a sudden bolt and leap: the heavy thudding of four hooves hitting the ground at the same time, ‘pronking’ and propelling this big buck away so powerfully, I am sure I can feel it through my chest and feet. He leaves a warm, wet swirl of strong, animal scent in his wake: of urine, pawed earth, musty ammonia and frayed bark.
The mist comes down and falls like sieved rain. The cacophony of the pheasant roost starts then and increases, until the racket is overwhelming, coming in waves, ricocheting off the combes and hills. As it will again and again later, the pheasants pre-empting the pop of fireworks, like they do the thunder of the guns on Salisbury Plain, their alarm given seconds ahead of the bang.