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.

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.