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.

A weekend’s camping at Knepp – Buzzards, pigs, deer and a kestrel?

This was our second trip to the Knepp re-wilding project in West Sussex, the first was an afternoon’s dusk safari, whereas this time we went for a weekend’s camping with a self-guided wall around the project.

We arrived on Friday evening and quickly set up our tent. We bought some firewood and kindling from the on-site store, so we could get a fire going in the fire-pit that comes provided with each pitch.  On the way back to our tent we saw a bird of prey hovering and hunting over the heath-land next to the campsite, we’d left our camera and binoculars with the tent so couldn’t identify it in the dusk light, but hoped it would come back the next day.

We got up early on Saturday morning, had a shower in the great facilities and made breakfast over the camp-stove. We decided to do a walk round the grounds to, see what we could find for ourselves. Last time we camped we did the “country-pub walk”, so this time we chose the Castle loop, which is about 8.8 km long. The site provides some handy printed maps of the walks you can do around the grounds and the way is marked with colour-coded stripes on sign posts along the way.

Almost as soon as we first strode on to the trail, we saw (and heard) a couple of common buzzards, soaring and circling looking for prey. Not long after, we came across a couple of Tamworth pigs, fast asleep by the path. They woke up when we approach, but didn’t seem too bothered, and as they stirred, a piglet came trotting on to the scene.

Dotted around the project are a number of wooden viewing platform, built into the boughs of trees, acting like high-rise hides over the ranges and we climbed up into a view as we trundled around. We stopped for lunch at the Countryman Pub in Shipley around half-way round for much needed refreshments. After lunch we passed the Shipley windmill and on to Knepp castle. Close to the castle we saw a large herd of fallow deer, complete with very impressive antlers.

There was also another tree-top viewing platform near the castle and as we descended we heard a deep, rumble coming closer. Soon a Lancaster bomber came past us, low and slow. I believe there are only 2 of these incredible aircraft left flying and only 1 in the UK, so this was probably the rarest sight we would see all year!

We were on the home stretch now, dipped into a bird hide overlooking the mill-pond, which seemed well stocked with swans and coots, before seeing the single-wall that is left of the Norman keep at the old Knepp ruins. We arrived back at camp for a bit of a rest before making another well-earned supper on the fire-pit. Luckily the mystery bird of prey did make a comeback that evening over the heath and I had my camera ready. The light was failing and it was at the extreme range of my 300mm lens, but I fired off a few shots and am pretty sure it was a kestrel. The first time I had ever seen one.

Knepp is one of our favourite places to visit whether its camping or safari and I’m sure we’ll go back again. I think we may try glamping next time!

 

Back to Blandford – Is that an Otter? No, it’s a mink!

So, yesterday we had a free Sunday and made the drive down to one of our favourite haunts in Blandford in the hope of seeing some otters and maybe kingfishers too. We arrived late in morning, bought some supplies and set up some camp chairs by the river in a spot where we had some success previously.

Before long a loud splash was heard to our right. No otter, but a dog jumping in, chasing a tossed ball and cooling itself in the river. This was repeated throughout the day,  with various pooches. We began to think that this was not to be our day, there is no way an otter is going to come out when the river is full of dogs! Or maybe it was just too hot?

Late in the afternoon, we strolled to a few other points along the river, but no sightings. Finally, we tried one last spot, more secluded and with more shade. Moments after we sat down by the bank, some dark, willowy shapes appeared on the opposite bank, slivering down into the water and beneath an overhanging outcrop of rocks. 1, 2, 3? Are they otters? Aren’t they a bit small? Are they pups?

 

I fired off a few quick shots before they disappeared and zoomed in on the screen. No, not otters. Are they weasels or a stoats? Hmm, don’t think so. With the aid of a google search, it turns out they were mink. A non-native species, now found over a lot of England.

We headed off for home, happy that the day wasn’t a complete blank and then also spotted a little egret, before it was scared off by another dog jumping in the water.

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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.

Cornwall day two – dolphin watching in Padstow!

So, back on a boat today.

After another great cooked (veggie) breakfast at the Little Mainstone guest house, we jumped in the car for the hour long drive to Padstow, made famous by Rick Stein and his restaurants, but is a very beautiful little fishing in its own right.

We were booked in the 2 hour discovery trip with Padstow Sea Safaris. We got kitted up in our warm layers, waterproofs and lifejackets before heading out to the harbour, down some steps and into the boat. It was a RIB, so guarenteed to be fast, windy, a bit bumpy and a bit wet.

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Keep warm! Lots of warm layers and waterproofs needed on a RIB in spring.

We headed out of the estuary and along the coast to a cove with a rocky feature called “The Dragon” due to its likeness to a sleeping Smaug. Unfortunately there were no seals here, just a lonely Shag, so we headed back out to “Seven Souls” another sheltered cove where we came across a single grey seal, its head bobbing in the green waters.

Next stop was a small island, home to nesting seabirds. We had a wonderful sight of a seal on the rocks as dozens (if not hundreds) of Guillemots and Razorbills launched themselves from the cliff abive it’s head and straight towards us.

After a few minutes watching this spectacle, we headed towards Port Isaac, home to the Doc Martin TV series. As we motored on we saw a common dolphin, then another and soon we were joined by a small pod of 4 or 5, playing chase with us and surfing through our bow wave. This is the kind of dolphin experience you imagine and we felt lucky to see it. This went on for about 15 minutes before 1 got excited and started jumping, seemingly just to entertain us.

Time was running out, so we took some photos at Port Isaac before heading back towards Padstow. We kept close to shore, stopping at caves along the way, hoping to see some more seals who like to sleep on some “shelves” inside the caves. We saw one more grey seal “bottling” in the water before we returned to Padstow. We were dropped off on the beach (due to the tide) and walked back 10 minutes to town.

We had lunch in Cherry Trees Coffee House, which serves the most amazing cakes along with pasties and other lunch fayre. We can heartily recommend the Easter Caramel Brownie Tart!