by Ben Myers
Summer in Yorkshire arrived for four days last Easter and then disappeared behind a curtain of rain. All my plans for being outdoors were jettisoned in favour of staying at my desk writing a new book, punctuated only by daily trudges through mud and mulch. I treat these walks as one-man marches conducted to an internal military beat. Sometimes they last for three miles, sometimes six. But I walk everyday. It is the best preparation for writing. It staves off anxiety. Keeps you trim. Makes you engage with the non-digital world. Once a week or so I fall over and in the last twelve months I’ve torn through two pairs of (over-priced / over-rated, brand name) wellies and a new pair of Dr Martens.
But come last June when the evenings were long and even the clouds had wandered elsewhere I accidentally stumbled across a new pursuit: deer spotting. There is no doubt an art to deer-stalking, in which the hunter pursues his quarry over entire days and many miles. But I prefer to deer spot, which is far easier. All you need to know is approximately where deer dwell and once in their vicinity, how to stay downwind. And how to move quietly. The rest is down to luck.
Deer are charismatic, enigmatic. They are the great secret of the British woodlands. Their Sphinx-like faces and ability to disappear at the snap of a twig makes them particularly beguiling. A look from a deer can make you feel privileged, as if you’re privy to a shared moments of recognition that locks you in to something Primordial. When a deer stares you down it is letting you know that you are just a visitor. When it turns a haughty tail it is to remind that you that you are slow , clumsy, heavy-footed, unsubtle, stupid, odourous, obvious, greedy and never to be trusted.
We were lucky. Last June, a fortnight either side of the solstice, when the nights were still and dry and the deer were feeling relaxed enough to come down from the densely wooded valley flanks, me and my girlfriend would head out to the same select areas each night. An open, treeless pasture of farmland where the deer liked to graze without fear of ambush was the best starting point, followed by a higher field not yet mown for its first harvest and above that, the lower reaches of the woods where we knew the deer ascended in the winter months, and where they slept in the summer. The crepuscular post-9pm hour is the best time to track deer, when the fading light plays tricks and all the nocturnal creatures are tentatively peeking from their holes and dens, sets, nests and eyries. Here the edges of earth are softened. Senses are heightened. You think you are doing the watching but really is you that is being watched.
We saw the deer most nights. Three of them. Roe. One was a short-horned buck, another a doe, and with them a strong-looking fawn. They were creatures of habit, and so were we. We learned to turn ourselves into statues whenever they raised a head from the grass. We spotted footprints and tunnel-like hollows disappearing into bracken and bushes. We learned when to keep our distance and just observe.
Sometimes, three or four times a year, the crack of gunshot echoes down the valley. The word is a farmer has a license to shoot deer on his land. He hires someone in from Bradford to do it. It is the worst sound in the world. Other people have spoken of poachers appearing in the dead of night to kill deer and sell their meat on into the food chain. At markets or to restaurants. Venison remains a high-end product.
But despite these threats, some deer still survive. We’ve moved since last summer – only a mile down the road, but it has forced me to shift woodland allegiances. I now wander an even less inhabited place, an overgrown ex quarry that is now fenced off and shut out to the world. Rumours and half-truths about the place abound. The locals do not go there. Signs warn of danger. There is evidence of landslides and antique fly-tipping.
And deer. Three of them. They are healthy, haughty and strong. They rule these woods and are surprised to see a human appear in the depth of winter to scramble up rock falls and surf mud banks when the foot-deep carpet of decaying leaves shift to send him sliding down thirty foot banks.
Here, in this new terrain, there are no open spaces, only hemmed in trees, hollows of old dynamite-blasted earth, steep rock faces and rusted twists of fallen wire fences. At best I get a glimpse of that familiar white rump disappearing as if a magician has just waved a wand. All that’s missing is the puff of smoke. To see them here in January, when the dawns are frosty, the days short and the day-light sent from a pink sun is tightly rationed, feels extra special. A brief glimpse – a suggestion of deer – is enough. Just to know they are out they, wandering the slopes somewhere up the hill behind my house, flourishing despite of rather than because of man, makes me respect them all the more.