In a wooded copse strewn with fallen leaves, the Emperor's harem sit and wait. Once, there were around 60, but the numbers have dwindled over the past weeks. Perhaps those abandoning this idyllic spot have decided there is no point in waiting. Their stag will not be coming back.
On the other side of the stream that runs through the copse live a couple in their forties who were probably the last people to see the Emperor alive – other than through a rifle sight.
The couple, who want to remain anonymous, have witnessed the Emperor facing down all rivals during the past three autumn ruts. Sitting in the garden of their house near Rackenford, they have been privileged observers of the roared challenges, the posing and the violent clashes as the stags test each other's strength and fight for the right to mate.
"He used to come back every two weeks," the couple told me. "Now he's not been back for weeks and his harem are still here."
Who was it who tracked down the Emperor, pulled the trigger and then, presumably, carried off Britain's most magnificent beast as a trophy? The couple living by the stream are as puzzled as to the identity of the killer as everyone else.
"We don't allow hunting on our land," they said. "We don't have the licence. But we can't police all our 80 acres all the time. He could have been shot here, or he could have wandered off."
Rackenford sits just south of the North Devon link road, a dangerous highway connecting Barnstaple and Tiverton. It was a few miles south of Exmoor itself that the Emperor is thought to have been killed. Somewhere in the moorlands on either side of the road lives the landowner who sanctioned the kill.
Whoever it is, their identity is unknown, and there are some in the community who want it to remain that way. "You won't find out much around here," said Russ, peering up from his task of removing moss from a 19th-century gravestone in Rackenford churchyard. "Not in a community like this."
"Go and ask the farmers," said the landlady of the local pub, the Stag Inn. "They know things," she adds, mysteriously. But the farmers have closed ranks. "Emperor? Never heard of it," said one. "Don't know anything about it."
On the farm that has become the focus of suspicion, the owners are away. A man at the door insists they have no knowledge of a shooting on their land. "I won't believe it's dead until I see the proof."
Although the Emperor's demise was likely to have been entirely legal, the sentiment in the village is that a crime has been committed. "Country people love animals, but they also hunt," said a local who did not want to be named. "But there is an understanding that you go after the old or the infirm, who are brought down with dogs and then shot. That is not what has happened in this case." Another simply stated: "I hope they catch who's done it."
That said, there is also a theory that although the Emperor remained the dominant male, at 12 years old he was past his prime and it is better for younger stags, who reach their prime at five years, to take over.
If a stag is dominant for too long, he may begin mating with his own offspring, and the resultant inbreeding is considered to weaken the gene pool and cause health problems, just as it does in human populations.
The couple who have watched the Emperor defend his kingdom disagree with this reasoning. "Now he's gone, his place has been taken by an even older male. You can tell from his receding antlers. That's what happens when they are past their prime."
Aside from an anonymous eyewitness who claims to have seen the Emperor's head being loaded into a van, the Emperor's abandonment of his harem is the only evidence of his death. But for the couple whose garden overlooks his home, this is compelling enough.
Mounted in the hallway of their sprawling home is a set of antlers, modest in size, but decidedly unusual. "They're silver," says their owner. "The only trophy we want."Reuse content