London might not be the most obvious place to see one of the UK’s most spectacular wildlife displays, but early autumn in Richmond Park is hard to beat. Towards the end of September, the 600 Red Deer that call the Royal Park home really start to gear up for the breeding season, and so the annual rut begins.
I first photographed the Red Deer rut at Richmond Park last year, when I spent a couple of nights sleeping out under the stars and hoping no one walked by. My plan was pretty much the same this year, but I’m now lucky enough to have a friend living nearby-ish with a sofa I could crash on, so there was less chance of being trampled by a large stag or being discovered by a dodgy person in the middle of the night. Thanks Eleanor!
Having arrived well after dark the day before, my photographic mission started with a 4.45am wake up call, a tube ride and an hour long walk that would have been much shorter if I hadn’t got lost.
The first deer I found were Fallow Deer, much smaller than the Reds I was looking for but very photogenic nonetheless. It was good to get a shot in the bag before the sun had peeked above the horizon!
Fallow Deer also stage a rut at this time of year (and in the photo above the buck is standing guard over a couple of does), but it’s not nearly as spectacular as the Red Deer rut. Fortunately the real prize is never far away in Richmond and I found two small Red Deer stags a few minutes later, high on a hill overlooking the misty valley. One of the stags chose to strike the exact same pose as the Fallow Deer above.
With the identical poses you can really see the differences in the two species’ antlers: Fallow Deer bucks have palmate antlers (broad, with all the points connected, like the cervine equivalent of webbed toes), while the antlers of Red Deer stags are long, angular and spiky.
With so much mist in the basin below, a clear sky above and sunrise just minutes away, I hurried downhill for what promised to be perfect conditions for photographing the rut. And as it turned out, I was in luck…
This chilly, mist-filled dawn was exactly what I’d been hoping for, and I rattled off shots in the ever-changing light, trying to think of new ideas and compositions as quickly as possible as the deer moved around and the sun climbed higher.
This particular stag offered some great photo opportunities as it strolled in the golden light, pausing occasionally to raise its great head and bellow at any unseen males that might have been nearby, hidden in the haze. But he disappeared all too soon, striding downhill into denser mist that the morning sun had not yet burned away.
As I was trying to decide (with another photographer I’d just met – hi Alex!) whether to follow it , another even bigger male appeared and sauntered across the open ground before us. The sun was rising quickly and the light was now much more yellow than red, filtering down through the tree rather than bursting straight through.
The fact that both stags chose to walk beneath this attractive tree was a huge piece of luck – I’ve never got so many good shots based on a single plant before! I was hoping for a photo with rays of light penetrating through the branches to light up a stag below, but lining it up was trickier than expected. Shifting my body slightly in any direction would put a new piece of tree in the way and ruin the effect of the sunbeams, but it worked out before long. I didn’t have time to check the pictures straight away, so it was a big relief to see it had worked when I looked back later!
This stag showed off his impressive headgear with one final majestic pose, before he too wandered away. The oldest, largest and most biologically attractive deer invariably produce the most magnificent antlers, some of which can weigh as much as 5kg and grow more than 2cm in a day – an incredible rate for bone growth. And antlers don’t come much bigger than these!
With the mist rapidly retreating under the glare of our bright local star, we quickly walked down to Pen Ponds. This pair of lakes form the bottom of a large bowl in the middle of the park, and this combination of moisture and topography makes it the epicentre of mist production, and also where the mist lasts longest.
The remnants of the mist made for an atmosphere that was almost more beautiful than what we’d already enjoyed, especially as the sun began to warm my cold fingers. The small size of the pools in Richmond makes them easy to walk around, so you can have the sun at your back, in your eyes and off to the side, all within a few minutes. Great for producing a good variety of images!
I had to draw the line at taking shots of Moorhens though. Interesting as these birds might be, I didn’t really feel like lying on my stomach photographing a small, common and relatively dull resident of small ponds everywhere was the best use of my time – not when I was surrounded by rutting stags in spectacular light.
Having had our fix of lakes and fields, we moved on to investigate the woods for a change. By this point the mist was more or less completely gone, but there was still time for a little more photography before the light became too harsh.
The whole idea of the rut is that the stags assert their dominance by running around bellowing out a challenge to every other male in the vicinity. When an obvious size difference isn’t enough to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, a pair of stags will sometimes use their well-developed antlers to fight it out. The loser doesn’t usually get hurt too badly, but some pretty uncomfortable-looking injuries certainly do occur.
As the rut progresses, the largest stags manage to round up a harem of female deer and herd them about, fending off rivals and eventually mating with as many hinds as possible. The testosterone spike experienced by male Red Deer at this time makes them much more unpredictable than usual. As these are very large creatures, care needs to be taken around them – you wouldn’t stand much of a chance if one of these guys really went for you.
But this early in the rut, the harems were still small or non-existent, the stags weren’t fighting much and some of them weren’t even bothering to bellow. The rut should reach its remarkable climax in the first couple of weeks of October, so this is the time to go and check it out!
Photographically speaking, I may as well have left by mid-morning, but Richmond Park is a lovely place to spend a day lazing around, and it’s hard to get bored with stags all over the place. A herd of Fallow Deer carefully kept their distance while I ate a baguette-based picnic under the trees, and my only decent shot of the afternoon came as a teenage Fallow buck was silhouetted against the bright clearing beyond.
The next morning involved an even earlier alarm and another long walk to Richmond Park, as all train services from Twickenham had been canceled. I still managed to get to the park not long after 6am (a clue to how sleep-deprived I would be by the time I got home that evening) and the dawn view over to the Shard and the rest of central London was worth the early start.
Sadly there was no mist to speak of anywhere in the park and good photo opportunities seemed few and far between. I know in my last post I said there wouldn’t be any more spider photos for a while, but I’m hoping I can get away with a dew-laden spider’s web that I was happy to be distracted by.
There were literally thousands of these delicate webs strung up among the bracken, shimmering in the morning light and carpeting the ground in sparkling beauty. Someone with the right skills could probably have done something amazing with the scene, but I’m no landscape photographer, and I could not.
The skies cleared as the sun rose, and the sudden drop in temperature meant that a thin layer of mist unexpectedly rose from the pools to envelop the hollow in the centre of Richmond Park in a short-lived embrace. Cue a largely unsuccessful search for anything to photograph before the mist faded away!
This Red Deer hind disappeared almost as quickly as she appeared, as did the stag accompanying her. They slunk off into the woods, where five photographers gathered round on the edge of the trees, waiting for them to come back out into the open misty field. But of course that wasn’t going to happen, as their path was now blocked by a group of photographers endowed with about as much situational awareness as a rock.
Luckily I’d managed to grab a quick shot before the stag strolled beneath the canopy, so I was happy to leave the assembled crowd to enjoy their long wait without me.
The rest of the morning was largely a photographic failure, and I spent a lot of it alternating between deer-watching and trying not to fall asleep on a comfortable log. I’m definitely planning to head back in the next week or two to see a bit more action and hopefully get some good conditions again. The Red Deer rut is a truly epic event and well worth checking out if you get the chance. It really is urban wildlife at its best!