As well as meeting interesting people and exploring our diverse landscape, working on Countryfile means that I get to see a lot of British wildlife. I’ve seen badgers emerging at night, red squirrels scurrying up trees and wild boar hoovering up acorns like there’s no tomorrow. They’re such fun to watch, but I think I’m more partial to the gentle, feminine looking creatures that grace our parks and woodlands.
I love the words associated with deer – doe, buck, dama dama, and my ultimate favourite name for a deer species – fallow. I went to see these beautiful creatures at Petworth Park.
The ancient market town of Petworth has origins that can be traced back to medieval times. Its winding lanes, antique shops and cafés are a joy to pootle about on a sunny afternoon, but the real jewel in its crown is Petworth Park – a 700-acre estate owned by the National Trust.
Petworth House is home to a generous collection of sculptures and paintings, and the estate’s parkland was the inspiration for some of JMW Turner’s local scenes. The wild beauty of the park is no fluke. Capability Brown designed the estate with a clear vision in mind – to create a gentle transition from parkland to the surrounding countryside, using carefully planted oaks, sycamores, beeches, limes and horse chestnuts. Perhaps this is why deer are so at home here, grazing beneath the boughs of the trees.
At this time of year, the deer are looking a bit scruffy – they’re molting for the warmer months ahead and the bucks are shedding their wonderful palmate antlers, which are wide and spread quite flat. You’ll notice that many of the females are pregnant, and will give birth from late May to early June.
With deer, it’s not all gentle grazing and Bambi-like sweetness. The main spectacle of the deer’s cycle is the annual rut in autumn and, as I was about to find out, when it comes to who gets the girl, whoever shouts loudest wins.
When I visited Petworth, I was in the company of scientist Alan McElligott of Queen Mary, University of London. He explained that during the rut, bucks compete for the attention of the ladies (does)by groaning and thrashing their antlers while walking
alongside their opponents.
In order to maintain superiority, the buck must constantly drive away rivals, which he does by bellowing out a roar. It sounds like a throaty burp. There are 600-700 deer at Petworth, half male and half female, but only about five bucks will service all the does. “The big males have the highest rate of groans” Alan explained, “which scare the less dominant males away. Curiously, older red deer bellow less and are more attractive for it.” (Good news for aging Lotharios everywhere!).
The university was conducting a study about the frequency and pitch of the deer groans, and what they actually mean. Today we were going to do something never tried before – record a sequence of groans, play it back to the herd and observe the reaction. We managed to record the groans of a big male and then placed a large speaker on the periphery of the rutting action. When a smaller buck entered the ring and began stalking a doe, we pressed play. The buck was stunned and looked towards the speaker, bewildered. We played the sequence again.
The buck walked away, seemingly warned off by the calls of the bigger beast, even though he couldn’t see him. Clearly the bellow contains pretty detailed information. It may seem obvious, but the experiment shows that deer recognise characteristics of their opponents, and decipher size and age, based on bellows alone.
As well as fallow deer, in spring you can watch green woodpeckers feeding on the ant hills dotted about the park and Canada geese skimming across the lake.
You might even catch a dusky glimpse of one of the resident barn owls. If all the wildlife excitement gets too much, retire to Petworth House and calm your eyes by contemplating one of Turner’s mesmerising oils on canvas.
How to get there
The park is situated in the centre of Petworth on the A283. The nearest train station is in Pulborough, 5¼ miles away.
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Coultershaw Bridge, Petworth
This delightful inn sources its seafood from local south coast markets and potting boats.
Willow Barns B&B
Enjoy breakfast in their beautiful courtyard garden.
Considered by many to be Britain’s loveliest market town.