Country Matters: Whistling in the frosty dark

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The Independent Online
DEER have quite a wide repertory of calls: at various times they roar, grunt, groan and bark - but have you ever heard one whistle? Sceptics who doubt that such a phenomenon is possible should proceed at once to the forests round Wareham, in Dorset, where the sika rut is at its peak and the stags are whistling out territorial challenges at all hours of the day and night.

This week, in brilliant frosty weather, I went out twice with Mark Warn, a young Forestry Commission ranger, trying to augment the annual cull. Although experienced with fallow deer, I had never witnessed the sika rut, and I was fascinated to see how this species compared with the one I knew.

Sika deer come from Japan, whence a few were brought to England in the second half of the 19th century. One pair was presented to London Zoo, and others were released on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour; in 1896, some of these escaped and swam across to the Isle of Purbeck (which, in spite of its name, is part of the mainland).

It was descendants of these that Mark and I went after on Monday evening. Reinforced by later escapers from the park of Hyde House, near Wareham, the feral population has increased enormously and spread to many parts of Dorset, so that a carefully-planned annual cull is needed to keep numbers at an acceptable level.

For woodland deerstalkers, the age and texture of the forest are all-important, as they are the factors that govern visibility. In that part of the country - former heathland - the Commission's woods are principally conifer, and of a certain age: block after block of semi- mature spruce and pine, with straight, bare trunks rising in rows, and, every now and then, a gap or ride, where a couple of lines have been taken out. This means that you can see a certain way into the trees, and a long way down the rides.

So we set off, on a glorious evening, with low sun gilding the forest canopy. Mark, clad from head to foot in green, led at a snail's pace, with me following a yard behind, a loaded rifle slung on my shoulder. On the soft sand of the track it was easy to move in absolute silence. Every few yards we stopped to look through binoculars - and constant checks were needed, for among the serried trunks there were any number of dark lumps which could have been deer. Here and there we passed a patch of trampled mud where a stag had scraped to mark his territory.

Suddenly Mark stopped. Down a ride to our right, two dark-grey shapes were showing in the biscuit-coloured grass: a hind and calf feeding. They had not seen us. We could easily have shot them - but the hind season does not open until November, and we were after stags only.

We watched them for a few moments before creeping on. Then Mark stopped again in mid-pace and made a slight gesture to his left. At first, through my binoculars, I saw nothing but a tangle of branches. Then I realised that, in the middle of them, a furious- looking face was glaring at me: a sika stag, with characteristic black lines slanting downwards and inwards above its eyebrows.

'Shootable?' I whispered.

'No. It's only young - four or five.'

As we slunk on, the stag never moved, but stood rigid as a tree, confident that immobility rendered it invisible.

Half an hour later we were moving down a wide open forest road when all at once I heard what I had come to hear: a long, piercing whistle which started low, rose in a curve and fell again, four times repeated - an eerie, astonishing sound, not at all the kind of noise one would expect a deer to make.

The stag that had called was deep in the trees to our left; but all at once a black shape emerged on to the track from our right: another mature stag, heavy and thick, with an eight- point head, moving towards that provocative whistle. After scrutiny with his glasses, Mark decided it was shootable. Yet it was not safe to fire a rifle straight down the track: we had to create an angle.

Easing to our right, we sank down on to a bank and I brought my rifle to the ready. But the stag had moved on into cover. On a hunting-horn doctored with the insertion of squeakers from children's toys, Mark blasted out three extremely lifelike whistles, in the hope that he could lure the beast back. When nothing happened, Mark cupped his hands to his mouth, tilted his head back and let out the squeal-dying-into-a-moan which is the sika's second, more intimate, form of challenge.

Again there was no reaction. For half an hour we crouched motionless on the bank, poised for action. Occasional surges of wind came sighing through the trees, but in the lulls between them I could hear myself breathing. Inch by inch, the last rays of sunlight moved up and off the tops. Frost nipped at my ears. The sky began to pale, and dusk thickened among the trees. Never the slightest sound emanated from the place where the stag had disappeared. Had he moved on? Was he still there, listening for tell-tale sounds, exactly as we were?

In the end we went on, and at last light we met a group of hinds on their way out to feed. At the sight of us they wheeled and fled like shadows, but one let out a piercing shriek of alarm: a noise that might well scare stiff anyone who did not know what it was. By the time we reached our vehicle, the forest was nothing by a thicket of black fretwork silhouetted against a fiery afterglow.

By 6.45 next morning we were up a high seat in freezing, crystalline darkness. Ahead of us stretched a huge bog covered in dry grass and reeds, grey-white with frost. Through binoculars we could just make out some dark shapes moving about it.

Whistles ripped out from every direction - sounds so primeval that (I thought in a moment of fantasy) they could well have been made by pterodactyls rising from the swamp. As we waited for the light, we discussed in whispers the tactics of sika stags. Whereas a big fallow buck will round up 20 or more does, and keep them herded into an area no bigger than a football field, the sika seem to favour a much looser system. Their method is to establish a territory which lies on the route to and from nocturnal feeding grounds, and to accost parties of does as they pass across.

This was certainly happening in front of us. Two mature stags were parading about, and at one point we had hopes of a fight, as they passed within yards of each other in pursuit of hinds crossing the bog on their way back to cover. But the main flow of traffic had already taken place in the dark, and we were just too late to catch anything in range.

As dawn broke, a pink flush stole over the reeds and the big bruisers retired into the trees. But whistles continued to resound, and after a while we crept round to the far side of the bog to see if we could get a stalk there. We had many further close encounters with hinds and prickets (second- year stags), but never managed to approach within range of a mature beast.

So we came away empty- handed, but far from empty minded. I felt I had been to another world and learnt some of its secrets. Ever since, I have been haunted by dreams of black monsters forging through reed-beds in the frost of dawn, and heavy gentlemen whistling with frustration in the dark.