Country Matters: Bubbly and sarnies beat call of the wild

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MEET BAMBI, the oldest red deer in the world. Now 31, and holding her place in the Guinness Book of Records for a fourth year, she has reached an age unlikely ever to be surpassed by any other of her kind.

Usually, when exceptional longevity is claimed for any animal, doubts are cast on its provenance and authenticity. This was certainly so of the celebrated white hind of Loch Treig, supposed to have lived for 200 years between the 16th and 18th centuries and vouched for by a series of unimpeachable witnesses. In fact she can only have been a succession of white ladies inhabiting the same territory, and seen intermittently from a distance.

Yet about Bambi there is no doubt, for she was found at birth by Johnnie Fraser, who was then stalker at Inverinate, a deer forest in the west of Inverness- shire, and she has been with him ever since.

On 8 June 1963 he came upon a calf, born during the night or the day before, lying in the bracken; and although he knew that the mother would almost certainly come back to it - for hinds have a habit of leaving their offspring alone while they feed - he took it home as a pet for his four daughters.

Bottle-reared on dried milk, the calf flourished, and grew up in the company of the Fraser family's two milk cows, to which she attached herself. As Johnnie puts it, 'she made them her company', and identified so strongly with cows and humans that she seems to have forgotten that she was a deer.

She took to following people like a dog, and often made free of the Frasers' house, an old shooting lodge where, if Johnnie's wife, Nancy, was not careful, she would clear the kitchen table of anything edible. Sandwiches always went down well, even if they had meat in them, and on festive occasions she would lower a glass of champagne.

The strangest feature of Bambi's life has been that she never seems to have felt the call of the wild. The idea of procreation apparently passed her by, and although she was free to go away to the hill, she never did so. Often at Inverinate she would attach herself to parties of tourists walking out to the Falls of Glomach, some four miles up the glen, and then come back with them.

When she was nine Johnnie gave up his job and 'flitted' back to his native haunts in the east, becoming head stalker to Lord Lovat at Beauly, just north of Inverness. Bambi came too, anaesthetised by a vet for the journey, which she made in a trailer; but when she reached her new home, she missed the company of cows so much that she several times swam the Beauly River to join a herd on the other bank. Each time her owners had to walk her back via the Struy Bridge, two miles upstream from their house at Kiltarlity.

In the wild, hinds seldom live beyond 15 or 16, and the greatest age ever reached by one on the Isle of Rhum, where scientists from Cambridge have been monitoring the population since 1970, has been 19. How, then, has Bambi proved such a phenomenal survivor?

Her secret lies in the fact that she has always eaten so well. Wild deer generally die because their teeth give out. In the Highlands their environment is harsh, their food poor; and when they can no longer take in enough nourishment, they fade away, overcome by the wet and cold of the winter.

Bambi now lives in a soft lowland meadow, with an open-fronted shed for shelter. She has long since lost her teeth, and she would certainly have died but for the fact that easily eaten food comes to her three times a day - a dry mash of beetroot pulp, flaked maize and molasses, as well as titbits of bread and other choice scraps.

By any standards she is now an exceedingly old lady. Johnnie reckons that in human terms she is about 140, so it is hardly surprising that 'her bones are all creaking and crackling as she walks'. He fears that the coming winter will test her severely, but naturally hopes that she will pull through to see another spring.

'It was a shame I took her from her mother, right enough,' he agrees. But at the same time he reckons he did her a good service, as she has lived the equivalent of two lives instead of one. He also inadvertently did a bit for conservation: had Bambi remained wild, she might well have borne six or eight calves, thus adding still further to the overpopulation of deer which has been plaguing Highland landowners for the past couple of decades.

So many people know her - through personal contact, radio or television - that inquiries about her welfare come in from all over the world; and when she does at last move up to join the great herd in the sky, thousands of fans will mourn her passing.