Living in the Hertfordshire countryside, as we have done now for almost 10 years, we are spoilt by the most stunning landscape all around us. It definitely makes me more mindful of the seasons, and gives a feeling of intense connectivity.
October, with its shortening days and cooler weather, is the month we have to think about altering our daily walking routine to respect the wildlife with which we co-exist in our local area of Ashridge.
Love these really old beech trees with their knobbly roots.
With the beauty of the changing trees, the incredible autumn golden sunlight, funghi of all shapes and sizes peeking through fallen leaves, and the pungent smells of damp earth and woodsmoke from neighbouring houses, autumn is one of my favourite seasons. People start wrapping up against the chill of the morning, and if we are lucky enough to have dry days, dog walking in the forest is the ultimate soul food.
But a walk in the ancient forests and parklands of England at this time of year can also be a dangerous activity, given that it's rutting season; the time of year when the deer are at their most active, vocal and pumped up high on testosterone. The stags are competing to mate with the does who are only fertile for a day each year so, as you can imagine, competition can be fierce!
Ashridge, set amidst the Chiltern Hills, is An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is essentially a large park of about 5,000 acres of forests, common land and chalk downlands, wholly owned by The National Trust. As well as being home to us, it's also chocabloc with the most amazing variety of birds, bats, insects, arachnids, flora and fauna, some of it rare and only found in this area of Britain.
There are many special trees at Ashridge but this statuesque beech is probably one of the most poignant. Young American soldiers, based at Ashridge in the run-up to the Normandy Landings, carved their home states onto the tree (Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Illinois and South Dakota), along with the date, 5th April 1944. It's also topped by the letter 'V' for victory followed by three dots - 'V' in morse code.
Of all the reasons to visit Ashridge, spotting fallow deer and muntjac pretty easily has to be way up there. In fact they are so numerous, we've been startled on many occasions when the deer have jumped out in front of us whilst we've been walking, and driving through the forest in the car, and on one occasion when we were on our bikes, which was pretty crazy, as a 15 stone stag hitting you at 20 mph would probably smart a bit.
The deer at Ashridge have been around since the 13th Century when the area was a Royal hunting ground, and are now so prolific that they've apparently become a nuisance, decimating large areas of shrubland that normally provides nesting and food for a whole range of birds, mammals and insects. And just to teach them a lesson, the poor things get culled every year to keep the numbers down.
On pretty much every walk towards the end of the year we find the legs of deers littered about the woods. I still don't know the actual reason why you only find the legs, but someone once told me that the hunters saw off the legs once they've shot them as they are easier to haul out of the forest and fit into the back of their vehicles. Anyone know if this is true, or if there's another reason for it?
Either way, my dogs can often be seen running around the forest with a deer leg in their mouth. They don't actually eat them, just carry them aloft proudly like some badge of honour. Dog owning around here is definitely not for the faint-hearted or squeamish!
One of our Cocker Spaniels, Buster, is a notorious wildlife chaser (he is a Spaniel after all). Squirrel, pheasant, crow or butterfly; if it moves he'll chase it. He's never successfully caught anything (thankfully) and always comes back on command, but returning to my original point, rutting time is the period when I choose my morning walk in an area I know the deer won't be, therefore reducing our chances of becoming embroiled in a dangerous situation.
I'm now such a professional country bumpkin deerstalker I know exactly where the deer are going to be hanging out, so we head in the opposite direction.
This morning, without the dogs, I went up to the area of the forest where the stags bray and call out all the other large males in the area. It was about 7.30am and pretty dark up there and I have to say, my heart was pounding as I heard the unmistakeable bellowing as I crouched down next to a tree to try and capture the action.
If you've never witnessed rutting season, it's probably the closest thing you'll get in this country to watching lions from opposing prides on safari in Africa. The noises they make actually sound like the roar of a lion, and when you get two magnificent males together ready for battle it's absolutely spectacular to witness.
Unfortunately this is not one of my pictures. I'm thinking the photographer must've had a very long lens to get this shot.
I got as close as I could without them being aware of my presence and sat as still as possible for about 20 minutes. I know the stags can be much more territorial and unpredictable at this time of year so I'd advise you to keep your distance, and if you want to try and take pictures, go for the longest lens you can lay your hands on.
At one point whilst I was sitting there the stags looked like they were running my way. Not sure what I'd do if that happened. What's the rule here, do you stand still and make like a tree, or run for the hills?...a stag selfie would certainly increase my Instagram followers no end...
I think maybe they are a few days off actually locking antlers and perhaps we are in the preamble, so I'll go up again tomorrow...but in the meantime, if you've got dogs I'd definitely recommend leaving them at home so you can experience (with great caution, of course) the incredible spectacle of the annual rut.
Have a look on the National Trust website and plan a trip to one of the UK's beautiful ancient forests. If you don't manage to see any deer you'll still be mesmerised by the colours and smells of one nature's most glorious spectacles...the great British autumn.