Thursday, 27 August 2009

Red Deer

In June 1882 Jefferies visited Exmoor, a vast expanse of high moorland intersected by deep wooded coombes covering part of West Somerset and North Devon. The resulting book, Red Deer, is a natural history of the moorland red deer and a detailed account of the methods of hunting them, for which Jefferies owed much to the first-hand information given to him by Arthur Heal, huntsman to the Devon and Somerset staghounds.

The book concentrates on the Somerset sector of Exmoor which includes the heartland of deer hunting - the dramatic landscape around Dunkery Beacon and Horner which falls away to the Bristol Channel at Porlock. Deer were known on occasions to swim out to sea in a last effort to escape the pursuing hounds. A lively and expertly-researched book, Red Deer also includes much information on the topography and climate of Exmoor and the customs and outlook of its inhabitants. I have chosen the excerpts below to provide some background to the deer hunting and have not included any of the vivid, and sometimes harrowing, descriptions of the chase. Stags and hinds were hunted separately and at different times of the year.



From chapter 3

In June the deer spend the whole of the day in the covers out of the heat. At this time they are more shy than at any other, both stags and hinds retiring out of sight. The stags' antlers are as yet only partially grown, and while these weapons are soft and tender they conceal themselves. The hinds have their calves only recently dropped, or are about to calve, and consequently keep in the thickest woods.

One might walk across the entire width of the North Forest, and not see a single deer, and yet be in the midst of them; and so it is common for fishermen to whip for trout day after day for weeks together along streams which wind through favourite covers without obtaining a glimpse of deer. Wild and shy, they are lost in the foliage of their woods, and are only to be found with much labour and in certain particular places...

There are none visible to-day on this side of the Ball, so I walk round the mount, passing a very large mountain-ash in flower; a branch has been broken from it, but it is still a fine tree.* The mountain-ash grows freely on the hillsides wherever a tree can take root. A sound which I thought I heard just now rises and becomes distinctly audible; it is the rush of swift water, and comes up through the oaks from the hollow of the giant fosse. The name of the stream is Horner Water, flowing by Horner wood along the bottom of the deep trench. A wind draws across the summit of the Ball, bending the brake stems and stirring the mountain-ash. It is pleasant in the shade to feel the cool air and listen to the water far below...

Suddenly, as I looked once more, I caught sight of a red mark in the midst of an acre of brake surrounded by oak. I was sure it was a stag instantly by the bright colour, by the position, and yet if questioned I could not have positively asserted that I had any reason for my opinion at all. Certainty does not always depend upon proofs that can be explained. A secret judgement exists in the mind and acts on perceptions too delicate to be registered. I was certain it was a stag, and the glass at once confirmed my eyes.

He was standing in the fern beside a bush, with his head down as if feeding. The great oak woods were about him, above and below, and the sunlight fell on the golden red of his coat. A whistle - the sound was a moment or two reaching him - made him lift his head, and the upright carriage of the neck proved again that it was a stag and not a hind. His antlers had not yet risen as high as his ears...

He moved easily along the steep slope where even hounds sometimes find a difficulty in following.

*Cloutsham Ball is a hill below Dunkery Beacon.


From chapter 4

There is no more beautiful creature than a stag in his pride of antler, his coat of ruddy gold, his grace of form and motion. He seems the natural owner of the ferny coombes, the oak woods, the broad slopes of heather. They belong to him, and he steps upon the sward in lordly mastership. The land is his, and the hills, the sweet streams and rocky glens. He is infinitely more natural than the cattle and sheep that have strayed into his domains. For some inexplicable reason, although they too are in reality natural, when he is present they look as if they had been put there and were kept there by artificial means. They do not, as painters say, shade in with the colours and shape of the landscape. He is as natural as an oak, or a fern, or a rock itself. He is earth-born - autochthon - and holds possession by descent. Utterly scorning control, the walls and hedges are nothing to him - he roams where he chooses, as fancy leads, and gathers the food that pleases him.

Pillaging the crops and claiming his dues from the orchards and gardens, he exercises his ancient feudal rights, indifferent to the laws of house-people. Disturb him in his wild stronghold of oak wood or heather, and, as he yields to force, still he stops and looks back proudly. He is slain, but never conquered. He will not cross with the tame park deer; proud as a Spanish noble, he disdains the fallow deer, and breeds only with his own race. But it is chiefly because of his singular adaptation and fitness to the places where he is found that he obtains our sympathy.

The branching antlers accord so well with the deep shadowy boughs and the broad fronds of the brake; the golden red of his coat fits to the foxglove, the purple heather, and later on to the orange and red of the beech; his easy bounding motion springs from the elastic sward; his limbs climb the steep hill as if it were level; his speed covers the distances, and he goes from place to place as the wind. He not only lives in the wild, wild woods and moors - he grows out of them, as the oak grows from the ground. The noble stag in his pride of antler is lord and monarch of all the creatures left to us in English forests and on English hills.