Up where the red deer roam

Walk Of The Month: Eastern moors of the peak district - A chance to see the UK's largest wild mammals is what lures walkers to the misty hills on Sheffield's doorstep, says Mark Rowe

Deep autumn, and Britain's bleak uplands come into their own – nowhere more so than in the Peak District.

The moorlands of the gritstone edges in the east of the national park seem a world away from the adjacent metropolitan areas of Sheffield and Chesterfield. Stark horizons are dotted by lonely birch or rowan trees. The purple heather has given way to a strikingly intense orange-hued landscape, caused by the acidic grasses that die back as winter approaches. But above all, it is the lure of the red deer that draws walkers to the eastern Peak District at this time of year.

The Eastern Moors – west and south-west of Sheffield – are home to a herd of around 130 red deer, and on this walk you have a high chance of seeing the UK's largest land mammal, even if you visit, as I did, when lashing rain is interspersed with low hill fog. Starting at Curbar Gap car park above Baslow, this circular walk ascends White Edge, a relatively secluded spot that offers excellent sightings of red deer. The walk then continues along the ridge, before dropping down across moorland to head south along the parallel Froggatt and Curbar Edges.

The walk was suggested by Danny Udall, of the Eastern Moors partnership, a coalition of the National Trust and the RSPB that recently assumed management of these moors. The whole estate covers 2,700 hectares, including Clod Hall Moor, Leash Fen, Ramsley Moor, Big Moor, and Totley Moss Moor. Those names sound satisfyingly gritty and this is indeed real moorland: boggy, remote, and, away from the main tracks, it requires a compass and an appetite for lurching through tough, ankle-deep bogs with no real landmarks to make for.

"The appeal of the moorlands is a large, open environment where you get to experience the landscape on a greater scale, with far reaching views and large skies," said Danny. "Even though the moors are not a natural wilderness – they're created by tree clearance and grazing – I think people get a sense of wilderness from these open places."

The mist suddenly lifted a fraction, and we saw the red deer, just by the 365m trig point, a third of the way along White Edge. Without binoculars and in a light mist, with the deer camouflaged by the surrounding russet landscape, you could mistake the stag's antlers for a windblown, leafless tree. But this was unmistakeable and thrilling: a stag and four hinds, moving purposefully, gracefully, through the moorland, 300 metres away in the middle of Big Moor. "If you stay put on the main path the deer will be quite happy," said Danny. The rutting season has pretty much ended and instead you'll most likely see the stags advancing to mate with the hinds. Right on cue, our stag pranced towards a hind only to be given a clear, unambiguous cold shoulder.

White Edge seems to wind its way forever northwards, threading intriguingly towards Totley Moss. Resisting the temptation to track the path any further, I headed west, following a drystone wall down through woodland to the Grouse Inn and across to Hay Wood. This ancient woodland offered a respite from the rain but it must be a glorious sun-dappled canopy in brighter weather – and well worth revisiting in the summer, when the surrounding meadows will be filled with the colour of wild flowers, contrasting with the stern aspect of the moors. Dropping down to a brook and then up and over the main road, I picked up Froggatt Edge, the path first winding through delightful woodland before striking out over exposed gritstone edges.

Before long, once you've completed the walk and seen the red deer, you may soon be able to eat one of them in the local National Trust tea rooms. Red deer were common in the Peak District in the Middle Ages, when they were hunted by royalty and nobility, and recent escapees from Chatsworth House have resulted in an expanded population. The deer have even been found in villages and gardens. A recent census suggested their numbers are not as great as feared, but a cull remains a possibility.

"We want to tell the story of the red deer, from the fell to the product – we don't want to hide anything. The intention is to sell the meat in our shops," said Mike Innerdale, Peak District general manager for the National Trust.

Above all, though, the Trust wants to encourage people to visit and watch the deer. "The noise of rutting deer, especially on the open landscapes, is an amazing thing," said Mike. "For me, it's one of the wonders of the countryside, right up there with the curlew [the largest European wading bird] for a symbol of the upland moorlands. Seeing a large wild mammal in the countryside is a rare thing in England."

Compact Facts

Distance: Six miles

Time: Three hours

OS map: OL24 Peak District White Peak

How to get there

Mark Rowe travelled to the Peak District with Cross Country trains (crosscountrytrains.co.uk) which offers travel to Chesterfield and Sheffield. By public transport, the walk is best started from Froggatt Edge, reached either by the No 214 bus from Sheffield to Calver, or by train from Sheffield or Manchester to Grindleford station, through Travel Line (traveline.org.uk).

Further Information

visitpeakdistrict.com / easternmoors.org.uk

Directions

From Curbar Gap car park (grid reference 262748), walk through the gate across the farm track, heading south-east. After 100 metres, take the right-hand fork along the grassy track which climbs to White Edge. Turn left, and walk for two-and-a-half miles along the ridge. At the hole in the wall, turn left – signposted for the Grouse Inn – and drop through woodland to cross the A625 to the pub. Follow the public footpath sign diagonally across two fields and two gates to Hay Wood. Turn sharp left and follow the track through the wood. Cross the A625 again, and pick up the Access Land track on the opposite side to reach Froggatt Edge. Keep on the main path along the ridge for two miles to return to Curbar Gap car park.

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