Seeing the deer rut at Knepp

Those of you who follow the blog (not many I grant you), may have noticed that we go to the Knepp re-wilding project quite often. It’s just an hour’s drive from home and has a lot to see. However, this was our first time in the deer rut season.

Knepp is divided in to 3 “blocks”, the northern block, the middle block (where the owners of Knepp, the Burrells, country house is) and the southern block. All of our previous visits have been to the Southern block as that is where the camp site is and where most of the other “safaris” take place. We had previously walked through the middle block, but this was our first proper visit there.

We arrived for 8.30am on a very cold and frosty Saturday morning and was greeted by the site of a stag in the mist as soon as we drove through the gates and on to the estate. This was a sure sign of a great morning ahead.

Darren started off by giving us a presentation on the project at Knepp, about all of the different species on the site and how they all contribute to bringing the site back to a relatively natural and sustainable state. As well as all of the fantastic mammals on site, Knepp is home to a large (and growing) population of purple emperor butterflies, scarcely seen turtle doves and tuneful nightingales. However, it was deer rut season and we were there for the deer!

Darren told us about the three species of deer that call Knepp home, these are (in size order, smallest first) roe deer, fallow deer and red deer, the largest land mammal in the UK. I have to say I learned quite a lot in this introduction to deer. For example, did you know that fallow deer have twice been hunted to extinction in Great Britain and twice been reintroduced by foreign invaders? First by the Romans and then by the Norman conquerors who brought them over to form deer parks. Or that a deer’s antlers, even the really big ones, grow annually in the space of only 2 or 3 months.  Also, did you know that many terms used in common English today find their roots in the life-cycle of deer? For example “prick” comes from a buck in their second (or prickets) with unbranched antlers who generally behave like a nuisance or “pricks” in the rutting season.

Anyway, once the presentation was over, we piled into the ex-Austrian army transport that the guys at Knepp use for their safaris. We set off into the cold and soon found a herd of red deer, a large stag and his “harem” of hinds. The stag was in his element, grunting, roaring and sniffing the air. However, after just a few minutes a huge stag with antlers which seemed to be 6-foot across appeared. He looked like he had come straight out of an advert for scotch whisky. Our previously confident stag, knew he was no match for the newcomer and slowly sloped off, looking back ruefully every few steps. Although two males will fight over the right to mate, it is a last resort, they would rather not risk injury or death if they can help it.

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The victorious stag

Next we headed out to find the fallow deer. The mating rituals of the fallow deer differ from the red deer in that they lek. “What’s a lek?” I hear you say. A lek is where the males congregate in mating area, each claiming their own piece of territory (which they return to every year), scraping the soil and urinating in the area making it as attractive to the does as possible. The does will then come over the most desirable male to mate. We saw a number of males, each in their own lek groaning and calling out. We stopped there for a while, getting out of the truck and consuming the provided tea and sausage baps, which were very welcome on such a cold morning.

The safari finished with a drive round some of the other interesting feature in the middle block, the ruins of the old Knepp Castle, the old iron mill pond (now home to a number of water fowl) and the new Knepp castle, home to the Burrells).

It was great to see these mating behaviours for the first time and we’re looking forward to going back to Knepp again sometime next year.

Looking for wolves and lynx in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus, and getting stuck in the mud.

“I’m stuck” Heather said as I came to a stop in the mud behind her. As I stood there, I felt myself sinking deeper into the “dry” riverbed. The cloying mud was now up to the top of my wellies and I tried to lift one foot. No. And then the other, not a chance.

I was stuck too.

We had arrived in the Naliboki Forest earlier that morning after an hour and a half drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We were greeted on arrival by Irina and her husband Vadim, who was to be our guide over the next 3 and a half days. Vadim and Irina run the Naust Eco Station, deep in the forest.

We were in Belarus to see the diverse range of mammals that exist in the Naliboki Forest, a huge, complex habitat that is home to wolves, lynx, bison, elk, deer, wild boar, beavers and a whole range of other creatures. Vadim is a professor of zoology at the University of Minsk who has switched to conducting full-time research in the field, much of which is funded by organising these eco-tourism trips. There were only three of us for most of this long-weekend, with another hardy-soul joining us for the last day and a half, although Vadim does have groups of up to 16, especially on the longer trips, which can be a week or two long.

Vadim is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, always with a story to tell or an opinion to offer on where the world is going wrong, but it’s clear that he has a passion for the forest and the research he is conducting that will help to understand the forest, it’s animal inhabitants and hopefully help to preserve them both.

The forest is also home to a number of people (including Vadim and Irina themselves), with a smattering of villages and homesteads dotted around. Although these numbers of dwindling with many houses in villages only occupied at weekends and houses deep within the forest are lived in by people in their 80s whose children have long since been attracted by life in the city. These homes will be abandoned when their occupiers pass away and they will be left to gradually fade and be consumed by the forest.

Although these trips are for paying visitors, you are just there for the ride. It is clear that Vadim would be out there driving and hiking through the forest daily, checking his 50 or so camera traps and collecting data for his books and papers whether you were there or not.

Each of the days was fairly typical in format, but visiting different parts of the forest, with different sites and environments to see and, of course with any sort of wildlife watching adventure, with random chance playing its part on what creatures you may see.

Each morning started early (pre-dawn) with a home-cooked breakfast, always with something hot, such as the traditional and delicious syrniki (a kind of thick pancake made with cottage cheese), supplemented by cereal, fruit and coffee or tea.  This would then be followed by a drive in one of Vadim’s 4×4 cars to one of the open field areas within the forest, with the morning being one of the best times to possibly spot wolves, lynx, bison, elk or deer. This was followed by one of two daily hikes, typically 8km in the morning and 4-5km in the afternoon, into different parts of the forest to check on Vadim’s camera traps, checking what it has been snapped and replacing batteries. These walks traversed through different landscapes, from dense forest treks, to river beds, alongside reed-trimmed canals or across open fields. All of these walks are pretty tough and Vadim, a natural woodsman, sets a spritely pace, with the thick foliage, deep mud or uneven ground all contributing to slow and difficult progress.

The day would then finish once darkness has set in, by searching out at a likely wolf spot and with with Vadim re-creating his best wold-howl and listening to see if they would respond.

Lunch was often prepared by Vadim himself over a wood-fire out in the woods, offering the chance to fuel up and have a rest before the next trek, and dinner would be prepared by Irina in the evenings, these included traditional Belarusian beans and pulses, sausages, salads and fried potatoes. Beer and a local spirit was also always on the table!

Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves or lynx on this trip. They are both elusive creatures, but we did see signs of them, including scat, tracks, bones of prey and “wolf cub toys” and we saw incredible images of them on the camera traps. However, we were lucky to see bison, elk, red deer, roe deer, a wild boar, capercaillie, a great grey owl, a spotted eagle, a peregrine falcon and a grass snake in 3 and a half days.

My wellie, stuck in the Naliboki mud
My wellie, stuck in the mud…

And the mud? After a couple of minutes of “no-show” Vadim came back to see where we were, to be confronted by Heather and myself almost up to our knees in mud. First he took many photos of our predicament and then helped us, bootless, out onto the river bank. Our boots were then literally dug out by hand. It was embarrassing enough to be stuck in the mud, but not as much it happened to me again on the way back 20 minutes later!

Knepp Safari – Red Deer, Rabbits & Bats

It was Heather’s birthday at the weekend, so as a surprise I took her to one of our favourite places in the UK, the Knepp rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex.

Knepp is one of the largest lowland rewilding projects in Europe and they operate safaris from Easter to October. As the land is also crisscrossed with public footpaths, you can also explore much of the area by foot. As it was a special treat, we stayed at the lovely Ghyll Manor hotel in Rusper, but Knepp also has a camp site, (which we enjoyed last year) as well as some cool glamping accomodation.

This year we did the 2-hour dusk safari, starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes before it was due to start and had a quick briefing with the guide about the project, what we might see and the usual health and safety stuff before joining the other 10 visitors in bundling into the Austrian Pinzgauer (an ex-army 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) in our tour round the southern range of the project.

Soon after setting off, we saw Exmoor ponies (obviously no-longer in Exmoor) along with a load of rabbits. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere around the estate, which I’m guessing is one of the things that attracts the many birds of prey that inhabit the estate including buzzards, barn owls, osprey and goshawk. Although, we only saw a buzzard on this occasion, swooping low through the trees.

There are a few tree-top platforms around the estate and we stopped at a couple as we went round, with the great elevation giving great views of the environment and allowing you to fully appreciate the size of the estate. The guide was a keen birder and when we were on the first platform he pointed out all the birdsong we were hearing, including nightingales, robins, whitethroats, blackbirds, cuckoos and owls. We descended the platform and strolled into one of the fields to see if we could get closer to the cuckoos. As we stood there, one of the group spied some massive antlers belonging to a red deer sticking up from behind some scrub. Soon another huge stag appeared from the tree-line, followed by another. The dusk light made for a beautiful viewing and a good photo-op!

Back in the vehicle we made our way further round the estate, seeing more red-deer and some roe deer. We were also lucky to see a couple of turtle doves, one just strolling along the track. At another field we got out and checked on some corrugated-iron sun-traps to see if we could find some reptiles. No luck on the first one, but at the second we found a slow-worm and grass-snake. Some adders have also been reported at the estate, but we haven’t seen any on our three visits.

We ended the tour as the sun-light was almost gone with a sun-downer drink of white wine (or an elderflower soft-drink) and some home-baked cheese nibbles overlooking the pond. the guide also had a bat-detector which we used to track bats as they flew from a nearby house to the pond and back.

It was a great end to a beautiful early-summer day and we are planning to return to Knepp later in the year for the deer-rutting safari.