Sunday, 21 October 2012

Richmond Rut

This blog post documents my recent time spent photographing the Red Deer and Fallow Deer that inhabit Richmond National National Reserve or Richmond Park, Surrey. This park is an extremely popular Royal Park on the outskirts of London, it is the largest Royal Park around 2,300 acres and is also a designated site of special scientific interest. The park contains a variety of wildlife such as Little Owl, Green Woodpecker, Jackdaws, Stag Beetles, Badgers, Foxes and Kingfisher and these all live alongside the large number of walkers, runners, cyclists and other people who regularly visit in their thousands to enjoy a really wild place that is so close to a city.

Red and Fallow Deer also inhabit the park in good numbers, around 600 in total. These Deer need to be culled every year (twice a year) to control numbers, being a walled park with no natural predators this is determined a necessity. The Deer are used to people but still wild animals and with the wild setting they reside in this makes them very popular with photographers who annually visit in good numbers to photograph the rut.

The Deer rut is the mating season for these two species, the Red Deer rut tends to begin first with the Fallow Deer rut occurring a few weeks later. During this season the male Deer known as Stags do battle with each other, they bellow, urinate on themselves, adorn their antlers with vegetation and even if it comes to it lock antlers in a adrenalin fuelled fight in order to establish dominance, this can sometimes leave Deer wounded as well as beaten. The Red Deer stags are large animals and extremely powerful, they spend most of this period of the year trying to hold territory and hold dominance over as many female Deer (hinds) as possible, they round them up and keep them close by chasing away rivals at every opportunity and eating very little, this can leave them extremely weak by the end of the rut and sometimes they have nothing to show for it, in other cases the winning males have the mating rights to many hinds.

I started visiting Richmond with a good friend Daniel Trim in September and in total we visited the park 10 times over the course of 5 weeks, this may seem excessive and some people would simply turn up for the peak of the rut but we wanted to get a feel for the park as we had never been before, we wanted to work out where the best photographic opportunities were and get a feel for the rut, including the build up to it, we wanted to not just turn up and take photos but learn about the behaviour and get to know some of the Deer which we did, we even named a few of them!

Our first visits were very interesting, for light we probably received our best amount of warm morning light and mist and all we saw were fawns and hinds, the stags were clearly still grouped together and we could not find them!

After a few visits we soon began to see male Deer, mostly young stags with smaller antlers, many of these began mock rutting, tentatively locking antlers but nothing too serious and certainly these males would not be troubling the larger Stags. One or two larger male Deer began arriving on scene but still the rut was not in full swing. 

Another week passed and large stags were soon all over the park and were in full voice, bellowing could be heard all over and stags were intent on making their presence known, so far it was only bellowing but the males were also licking the females and trying to round up as many as they could, if they had control of a large harem they would be in control. This was good chance to get the Deer roaring with breath, in lovely light and to show them with their urban backdrop.

The stags clearly find this part of their lives an exhausting ordeal, they very rarely eat and spend all day and sometimes during the night roaring, posturing, rounding up females and clashing with rivals. At various times we encountered Stags that were simply too worn out to stand up, one in particular we named "One Eye" has he clearly had a problem with one of his eyes, it was bloodshot and wounded, however One Eye was a real bruiser and consistently stood his ground amongst the other stags. The image below shows One Eye resting on the ground in the middle of some woodland, he stayed here for well over 30 minutes often falling asleep, his stench was unbelievable!

Visting Richmond is a wonderful opportunity to do many things, often it allows close encounters with large mammals and you get to observe their behaviour in a way that is not often afforded. It also allows experimentation with photography, a variety of different weather and light conditions are found over the rutting period and it is the job of the photographer to work with these different conditions rather than simply moaning about them. Richmond might not be to everyone's taste, when myself and Dan first visited early September we did not see another photographer, throughout the month we saw numbers slowly rise and the last weekend we visited the place was full of them, it was often hard to take a photograph without a photographer popping up in the background! However, I really enjoyed visiting, it allowed me to understand and witness new behaviour, see amazing wildlife up close and try new camera techniques, I loved it and have no problem sharing the park with many others all essentially trying to enjoy it, sometimes you just have to work harder to make your images stand out and find a part of the park that you can make your own.

Near the end of the rutting season the colours are amazing and all the green ferns that dominated by images at the beginning turn a lovely autumnal orange and brown giving a new dynamic to the images, you have to make the most of this and do all you can to give a sense of the changing of the season!

The holy grail of any photographic project is to capture different aspects of behaviour, on my final weekend of documenting the rut I was still yet to witness a real battle between two large Stags, myself and Dan had wondered whether the abundance of hinds and the fact that these are not truly wild Deer in a real harsh setting meant that they simply do not need to go through with potentially dangerous battles. However, the weekend was at the ruts peak and there was plenty of testosterone in the air with males looking alot more aggitated than normal. From a wooded area we could hear the clashing of antlers and so alongside another photographer called Tony Moss we ventured into the woods, we found 2 large stags really going at it and over the next few minutes the 3 of us were treated to a real intense clash full of drama and stength which resulted in the dominant Deer forcing the eventual loser into a large pile of branches and then pushing it directly into a large tree with full force!

My heart was racing watching this and was one of the most memorable wildlife encounters I have had in the UK, and all within a stones throw from London! It just goes to show how wild these Deer behave, how photographing them can be a truly enjoyable experience and how these sites can play an important role in getting people interested in wildlife who may not already have an interest. I will leave you with photos of this wonderful clash!