Stag fright: a close encounter with the Beast of Bushy

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A Royal Park's big attraction has turned on visitors. Tom Peck braves the rutting season

Sandwiched between a car park and a children's adventure playground, the frenzied howls of England's great prehistoric sexual ballet ring out. Red deer stags, with their giant antlers, stare one another down and roar with unmasked intent as does, in their scores, sit in peaceful repose.

It was for the purposes of hunting them that Henry VIII first brought red deer to Bushy Park, near Hampton Court Palace in south-west London. Now, in the throes of a mating season suddenly turned unseasonably hot, and with British deer numbers apparently at their highest since the Norman invasion, the animals' violent sexual courtship has started to claim victims from other species.

First a swan was set upon. Then last week a woman was pushed to the ground by a rampaging stag. Now a man in his 50s has been knocked over on to his back by one of the beasts.

With locals struggling to come to terms with the blind malevolence of nature as it answers its primordial call, a villain has emerged; the "Beast of Bushy", a rogue stag hell-bent on terror. But like other mysterious creatures to capture the public imagination, the beast is, alas, a myth greater than the sum of its parts.

"The rut happens every year," said a spokesman for the Royal Parks authority, which manages the park. "But the unseasonably warm weather means more visitors than usual at this time of year. There have been attacks, but there's no Beast of Bushy."

About 320 red and fallow deer inhabit the 1,100-acre park. Where some other parks deploy railings or fences, here authorities rely on fear alone to maintain partition between man and beast. Usually the tactic is successful, but 2011 is an extraordinary year for a number of reasons. The largest harem, of 60-odd animals, has temporarily settled in one of the park's busiest areas. At the centre is a giant animal with a frightening roar. Around the perimeter other stags lurk, some with comparatively small harems of their own.

People who venture too close are chased away at speed. Then there is the weather. The rut occurs around the same time each year.

The 16-pointed stags, with their freshly grown antlers, fight over the females. But the recent warm weather has brought more visitors than usual.

Signs warn against feeding or venturing too close to the animals but they often go ignored. "You see people trying to feed them, going right up to them," said Daniel Tudoriou, 23, who works at an ice cream stall a few dozen yards from where the "Beast" has installed his ladies. "I don't know how they do it. I'm terrified to go anywhere near them. They're absolutely massive. I grew up in the countryside in Romania. My dad kept a deer. But it wasn't like these ones. They're huge.

"In the summer time they're really friendly. But they're like people, I guess. If you really love a girl and someone goes near her, you get angry."

Weaving between the angry animals yesterday was the usual crowd of children on school trips, retirees, mothers with prams and carers pushing wheelchairs.

"Oh my God!" screeched one American tourist. "We're leaving."

Amateur photographers peer down their lenses, seeking to frame the beasts against the rural landscape, but like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, it is the one you don't know is there that gets you. More than one suffered a close call as a stag bore down on them from behind.

A Royal Parks spokesman warned: "Deer are wild animals and must be treated with caution."

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