Here among the echoing tree-trunks the noise is tremendous, primeval

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The Independent Online
Stand here on the lip of the valley and listen, in this huge silence before the dawn. Behind us the horizon is paling, but the wood below remains black as night. A touch of frost has silvered the grass, and only a breath of wind wafts from our left.

Up floats the hoot of a tawny owl. A flight of duck passes unseen overhead, pinions whistling. Then suddenly it comes - the sound we are after: the deep, guttural grunt of a fallow buck on the rut.

There he goes - one, two, three, four grunts-cum-snorts, like those of a colossal pig. The voice sounds like that of the buck I am trying to cull, an animal with a freak right antler.

Another buck strikes up, much farther away. I wait until our own buck calls again, and then, having verified his position, whisper, "Let's go!" Make as little noise as you can. Ease each boot down gently. At the junction we wait and listen again. There he goes, louder now.

Turn left, move on. In the gloom I can just discern my marker log, laid there to pin-point the beginning of a secret path which I keep swept clear of leaves and twigs. Dead slow, now. Feel for every step. Duck under this branch. Twenty yards on, we come to a natural lip, where the hillside drops steeply away. We slide into position and settle on bare earth, with the rifle propped on a fallen tree.

Silence below. Has something shifted them? No - a stick cracks. Then the buck lets fly. Here among the echoing tree-trunks the noise is tremendous - harsh, urgent, primeval, hair-raising.

Glimmer by glimmer, light penetrates the forest. What is it that has drawn the buck back to this traditional rutting stand? For generations, come late October, his predecessors have staked out their territory on this one small patch. Are they influenced by ley-lines? Or is it just that the open glade, and the overhead cover, make them feel secure?

Now movement is visible in the gloom. Binoculars reveal black shapes flitting through the foliage. Then comes a clatter of bone on wood as the buck thrashes at some branches. By the changing focus of the grunts, he is heading north now, to our right.

In a moment he will turn back, quartering his chosen patch. The light is growing by the minute. Soon we shall see him. The wind, drifting uphill, brings his pungent scent. He has been urinating in a mud wallow and rolling in it, to freshen himself for the fray.

More movement below. Through the glasses, I can make out the pointed faces of does and fawns - the harem, hovering in attendance.

By his voice, the buck is on his way back. Yes - there he comes, head- down, snuffling along the ground. Such is the stress of the occasion that he will have stopped eating days ago: his stomach will contain nothing but a sludge of earth.

As he stops in a light patch I catch a glimpse of his antlers. Hell! This is not the freak, but a bigger animal in his prime, too good to shoot. What's happened to our target?

But another dark shape appears: this is the freak, dislodged from his place in the wings. For a few seconds he and the master-buck walk parallel, three yards apart. Then suddenly they wheel inwards; their antlers meet with a crash. Locked together, the two heavyweights smash through the bushes as they wrestle.

Then, barely 10 yards away, a stick cracks. I glance sideways. A single doe has been drawn by the commotion. Too late to lie flat - she has seen us. Pray God she doesn't bark in alarm.

She does. Away she bounces on rigid legs. She barks again. Down below, the whole wood dissolves into movement. Ten, 15, 20 beasts stream away. In seconds the stage is empty.

Another blank morning - but never mind. We have had the luck to witness one of the most ancient and mysterious rituals of the autumn woods.