Country Matters: Abruptly, a deer's life comes full cycle

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The Independent Online
IT HAS happened before, and it will happen again. Usually the call comes at dusk, from the police, saying that a deer has been hit by a car on some main road; this time it was a farmer who rang in the afternoon, but the message was much the same. He had seen a deer lying in the grass and, although he had driven his tractor up close, it had not moved. Clearly something was wrong with it. Could I have a look?

Experience has taught me that when this sort of thing happens, there is only one sensible course of action: finish the disabled creature off as quickly and humanely as possible. The point is that the instinct of an animal as wild as a deer is to avoid man at all costs. If one lies passively as humans approach, there can be only one conclusion: it is too ill or badly injured to run away.

Appearances can be deceptive. When we lived in the Chilterns, I was constantly called out to deal with deer hit on a fast stretch of road through beechwoods. One day a friend, driving down this road, saw a fallow doe lying on the verge

in a normal recumbent position, her head up, apparently unharmed.

Being no countryman, he decided to move her to a safer place, so he picked her up in his arms, laid her gently in the boot of his car and drove her to my home, where we put her in a stable. I had to admit that she did look perfectly all right: her beautiful spotted coat was silky and undamaged, and she displayed no sign of suffering. When I said that I was sure she must be badly injured and should be put down, my friend became upset.

Against my better instincts, I left her overnight, with some hay and water. In the morning she was dead. All her ribs were broken and her lungs had been pierced. Placid as she looked, she must have been in agony, especially when lifted in and out of the car.

That memory, and many similar, flashed through my mind as I fielded the call the other day. My first action was therefore to get out my .22 rifle and some bullets.

Down the lane, I found that the farmer had already summoned a woodland warden who does a bit of gamekeeping on the side. All three of us piled into a Land Rover and set off up the valley.

'He just lay there,' the farmer kept saying, as though something miraculous had happened. 'I drove right past him, and he never moved.'

'That's because he's hurt,' I said firmly. 'Otherwise he'd have cleared off.'

Within a few minutes we were at the site and there, sure enough, in some long grass beside a hedge lay a young roebuck. When we approached, it did manage to scramble to its feet, then immediately fell over.

Roe, to me, are the most attractive of all our deer: with their big eyes, shiny, dark muzzles and the subtle grey colouring of their faces, they are the very spirit of the forest. Even for its species, this young buck was outstandingly good-looking, with antlers about six inches long.

Yet the moment I reached it, I felt sure it was badly damaged. Why else would it lie there at our feet?

I took hold of its back legs, the gamekeeper its front. It struggled a bit, but feebly, and when we turned it over, we found that it had long scrape marks down either flank. Worse, I could feel the ends of several broken ribs pushing against the skin.

Even though the deer was in the bottom of a combe half a mile from the nearest road, I reckoned that it had been hit by a car up on the hill, and had dragged itself into the valley. (At this time of year, young roebucks wander widely, as they are chased out of territories claimed by older males.)

'There's only one thing to do,' I said. 'Put him out of his misery.' But neither of my companions wanted to take so drastic a step. The gamekeeper, profoundly ignorant about deer and soft-hearted, considering his rustic employment, kept saying, 'He don't look too bad,' and pointed out that the excoriations were already beginning to crust over. In other words, the accident must have happened a couple of days earlier, and the animal might be recovering.

'Why don't I take him to the vet?' he suggested. 'We can tie his legs together and put a sack over his head.'

I said I was quite sure that the animal had dire internal injuries, and that no vet, however skilful, could do anything but put it down. To load it into a vehicle and drive it for half an hour would terrify it, and only increase its suffering.

It was a difficult moment. The impasse was symbolised by the fact that I and the gamekeeper still had hold of each end of the buck, as if we were engaged in a tug-of-war. I did not want to appear callous or hasty, yet I did want to end the animal's suffering.

I appealed to the farmer. 'Well, it's your land. What do you want to do?' But he, too, was loath to take a destructive decision and sought refuge in repeating his account of how he had found the casualty in the first place.

Minutes passed. The gamekeeper kept mentioning the vet, who might still be on duty (it was by then about six o'clock). Paradoxically, the buck did not show any sign of discomfort: it lay still, without shuddering, and made no sound. Yet I knew it must be in pain and greatly frightened.

Gradually I increased the pressure, and in the end won over the opposition. So I fetched the rifle from the vehicle, held the muzzle to the back of the buck's head and pulled the trigger.

One moment it was a lovely, living creature. Suddenly it was nothing but 35lb of venison. In the hope that some of the meat might still be edible, I bled it, and opened it up to remove the entrails.

At once my policy was vindicated, for down one side all its ribs were smashed and buckled. Obviously, if we had left it alone, it would have lingered and died in pain. My companions, who had been very uncomfortable, felt better.

That night I hung the carcass in the larder, and in the morning I skinned it, only to find that it was black and blue with congealed blood from end to end. It looked as though the buck had gone right under some vehicle.

The meat was unfit for human consumption, but I cut off a couple of pounds to make a stew for the dogs, and humped the rest of the carcass away to the spot between the double hedges that has become established as a restaurant for local foxes.

There, over the next couple of nights, various contenders ate their fill; but bluebottles swiftly laid their eggs in the remains, and in an extraordinarily short time the carcass was heaving with maggots. Then, almost before we had had time to recover from the stench, the maggots had gone, leaving a dry, mummified skeleton, minus a few bones that the foxes had crunched up or carried away.

So nature came full cycle. In these dog days of July, the country is not, I am afraid, all honeysuckle and roses. It is also the scene of death and decay, and at this time of year nature shows an exceptionally powerful capacity for recycling its own creations.