Early Summer Roe Deer Project - 2022

I've been visiting a nature reserve on the Sussex/Surrey border since 2011, and it's an ideal place to photograph Roe deer, especially in early summer, when the grass isn't too tall and food sources are plentiful. Human visitors to the reserve are almost always polite and considerate to me. The fact that roe deer can be observed from close quarters in plain sight is testament to how much local people care about the animals and birds living here. Although a few photographers know about the reserve, I prefer not to share the location, as photographers would be at cross-purposes, with one person having to structure their activity around the others'.

The mature buck (see below) is chasing a younger, smaller buck away from his territory, following one of many incursions. The unfortunate victim of chasing had a rotten day. More on this later. Visitors to this site will be delighted to recognise the same mature buck from 2021. It's a pity that I wasn't able to spot any baby deer. The does were as always very cautious and any kids will be kept well hidden.

 

Roe buck chase 

 Roe Buck in meadow 

 Roe Buck in meadow 

 Roe buck walking through meadow 

The mature buck, if a little nervous at first, settled down to feeding and allowed me to observe him as he made his way from flower to flower. I could see and hear a group of teenage males approaching from the north. The buck stopped feeding and observed the group. I worried that the buck would learn to distrust me through 'guilt by association' — that simply being nearby a source of disturbance would be enough to put the deer off me. The young lads, which belong to a demographic that suffers universal negative stereotyping, actually turned out to be far more kind and considerate than anything I've seen in Brighton, where I live. The group quietly stood nearby, whispering about the deer and my camera, before taking an alternative and more inconvenient route through the woods. This is not a one-off example. As I cycled through town, a car passenger flagged me down to warn that my bag was open (the small rear compartment zips are broken). Soon afterwards, a group of children leaving the reserve kindly asked me to take care on the muddy path ahead. Take the nice man walking his dog, who pointed me in the direction of a young buck feeding on buttercups, and who met me on the other side of the field to give further directions. Further afield, several people around Balcombe have invited me onto their land. One couple in the village even offered to drive me down to Haywards Heath station, after a long conversation, which they feared would cause me to miss my train. 

It's such a pity that an ostensibly liberal and progressive city like Brighton and Hove is not as welcoming to me as more small-c conservative districts in other parts of Sussex. I considered writing about the issues I've faced in my home city, but this holiday project is meant to focus on a place where I can wander freely and be myself. I won't allow the harrassers of Brighton to become a distraction from this overwhelmingly positive roe deer project.

 Roe buck in buttercup meadow 

 Roe buck grazing on buttercups 

 Roe buck eating buttercups 

 Roe buck grazing on buttercup flowers 

A surprise encounter spooked the mature buck into retreating back towards the woods, but ultimately it set in motion a chain of events, which lead to him sitting in a buttercup meadow, before getting up and feeding. I spent a wonderful 30 minutes very close to sunset, photographing him in low light conditions. I was concerned about the need to finish my visit and return to the station without disturbing the buck. Fortunately, with his back turned, I ducked under the fence and returned to the hiding place, where I chained my electric bike. To my surprise, a black and white cat was marking the aluminium frame — the cat must have a big territory to wander this far. 


Partially blind roe deer in meadow 

This partially blind doe raised a baby last year, which hopefully survived the winter and could very well be one of the young bucks seen nearby. The doe quietly grazes in the public fields, carefully watching any person entering her territory. Since only her left eye functions, the doe gazes at an angle. She does not appear to have a kid this year. Her disability would have made protecting her baby and courtship with a buck a little too much. The one-eyed buck from 2021, which had occupied the same field for several years now appears to be gone.


Young roe deer eating buttercups 

  Young roe buck in buttercup meadow 

 Young roe deer eating buttercups 

 Young Roe Deer in Buttercup Meadow 

  Young roe buck in buttercup field 

The poor young buck, which had been chased twice in 10 minutes by an aggressive dog and several times around the fields by the mature buck, finally had the meadow to himself on Saturday 4th June. I spent half an hour on the field margin, observing him from a distance of about 40 metres. He'd worked up an appetite, after spending a good 10 minutes locking his antlers with a fallen tree branch. In a few years time, he will be chasing younger deer away from territory occupied by does and fighting mature bucks. I bumped into him at 8pm in a neighbouring field, as he digested his meal, and not wishing to scare him off, I immediately turned straight back. The buck sat back down within minutes another win-win for animal welfare and recognition from the buck that he could tolerate my presence without fear. 

I was expecting the trains to be busy, so I relied on local buses for getting back to the station, but not before treating myself to takeaway chips under an oak tree in the rain, reflecting on a great day in the meadow. I felt proud that a wild animal, which evolved to outwit the Eurasian Lynx, felt comfortable enough to discount me as a potential threat and carry on with its activity. There is no point in trying to outwit their excellent hearing and sense of smell by attempting to hide. Through years of experience, I've found that demonstration of trustworthiness through non-threatening plain sight presentation yields consistent results.

 Roe buck newcomer  

By Tuesday 7th June, I was beginning to feel that the young buck was a little put upon. An older buck entered the meadow and caught my attention straight away. The mildly inconsiderate behaviour of a dog walker began a chain of events that led to an hour-long encounter with two bucks over a territorial dispute. Although I felt annoyed at the man for walking straight towards the older buck, the incident caused the deer to move in the direction of our young, put upon yearling buck. After eying each other, the young buck started trying to make himself look bigger in a comical attempt to intimidate his older adversary. He ran around in circles, leaping into the air, locking antlers with plants, at one point trying to charge the older buck, only to realise he was outmatched in size and experience. Since both deer were determined to stand their ground and not concede any territory, this presented an ideal opportunity to photograph the pair in plain sight and at close distances. At one point, I stood within 10 metres of both deer and on another, the younger buck even felt comfortable enough to approach me for a closer look.  

The older buck tailed his young rival around the meadow. Both would pause for several minutes to eat buttercups, before the older buck suddenly gave chase. The young buck is certainly a plucky deer. Although no match in stature and strength, he refused to concede no matter how many times he got chased, the yearling calmly resumed grazing at each stopover. The dispute spilled over into a very large neighbouring buttercup field and eventually a muddy farmyard half-a-mile away from the first point of contact. The following evening, very late on, the pair could be seen again in the same field, but without confrontation. I wondered if the older buck had simply wasted a lot of energy trying to drive off a young rival, without landing a 'knockout' blow.

 Roe buck territory dispute 

 Young roe buck trying to intimidate older buck 

 Young roe buck trying to intimidate older buck 

 Young roe buck trying to intimidate older buck 

 Young roe buck eating buttercups 

 Older buck following younger buck 

 Young roe buck walking across path 

 Young roe buck standing his ground in meadow 

 Young roe buck in sunny buttercup meadow 

 Young roe deer feeding on buttercups 

 Young roe buck in sunny buttercup meadow 

 Young roe buck in buttercups 

 Older roe buck in sunny buttercup meadow 

 Roe deer scenting out rival buck 

I returned to the meadow on Wednesday 8th June, hoping to witness more fascinating deer behaviour, but life isn't like that! Only two does, which probably had babies to protect, were a visible presence in daytime. The territorial dispute on Tuesday evening could easily have taken place when I was not there — I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to see it unfold, and even luckier that a very considerate woman took her dog on a diversion to avoid disturbing my shoot. Events, such the male dog walker pushing the older buck towards a new rival might not have happened either. If I could monitor the reserve 24 hours a day, I would not be surprised if, following a major dispute, the deer population disperses widely, leaving any photographer like myself, wondering where everybody has gone. Roe deer normally avoid grazing in areas used by horses or cattle, but plentiful rainfall this June cleansed away any contaminants left by domesticated animals on the buttercups. My mother's birthday is in early June, and she has endured many rain-soaked celebrations over the years. Over a glass of Chablis, we enjoyed talking about the deer and viewing the many beautiful photos I've taken of this fascinating animal.

A delay repay rail voucher and temperatures of 30°C tempted me back to visit my friends on Friday 17th June. Roe deer tend to rest in hot weather and may not emerge in daytime at all when temperatures reach the mid-30s. I predicted correctly that the roe would emerge in late evening, as the air cooled down, aided by a strong breeze. The partially blind doe sat down in a secluded meadow near the river path, but any hope of photographing her was dashed, when a child's squeaky toy, resembling the call of a kid, caused her to jump up and run towards the path, where the child walked with her father. Later on, there was another doe sitting in the long grass less than 10 metres away, but rather than upset her, I left the doe alone. She could see me and the click of my camera caused her to flinch slightly. It's just not worth causing them alarm for the sake of a photo. The two older bucks were out and about and browsed freely with me nearby. The buck, which had expended much time and energy chasing his put-upon rival on 7th June ate bramble leaves as the sun went down. As expected, the plucky young buck wasn't deterred from entering the meadow. Finally, I've been visitng the nature reserve since 2011, but I've never shown my work to local people, so I placed a couple of posters on fences, inviting people to view my photos online.

If you've enjoyed my photo essay and want to say hello or find out more about roe deer, please leave a comment below. 

 

Roe buck grooming 

 Roe buck in late evening 

 Roe buck eating brambles

Comments

Mark Nicolaides said…
As usual, really enjoyed reading your latest roe deer project. I liked your photographs showing the males' behaviour - it's not easy to make those sort images, eh?
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you so much, Mark! The young buck's attempts to make himself look bigger were naive and comical. Very much reminded me of small human children trying to make sense of the big, noisy and scary world above them. For such a young deer, he is very brave taking on two much larger bucks, and I look forward to seeing him mature and gain experience.
Helen Russell said…
Wonderful photos, Alan, & interesting blog. It’s so heartening to see the roe deer in their natural environment & be relaxed in your company. Well done. Helen Russell
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you, Helen. I will be returning to the meadow in late July/early August for the mating season. Let's hope I can spend more time with preoccupied roe deer as they go about reproducing themselves!

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