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How I found myself in the middle of a ‘roe ring’, the circular courtship dance performed by roe deer
Of the six species of deer resident in Britain, roe deer are my favourite. They move with an elegance which makes them an irresistible subject to paint. In summer their reddish coats stand out against the lush green landscape. Roe deer really are beautiful; they have lovely black and white muzzles, white chins and dark eyes. Although normally elusive, July and August is a good time to watch them. Not only are they rearing their fawns, but they are also about to begin their annual mating season, better known as the roe rut. The bucks are more visible as they abandon their normal wariness and begin marching around their territory trying to attract a doe. They are also looking particularly fine at the moment. You can see them fraying bark off trees and bushes with their antlers to leave their scent as a deterrent for other bucks.
To spot does at this time; listen out for the high pitched rhythmic cry that they use to attract a mate as they come into oestrus. It sounds more like a bird call than a mammal. I have learned to mimic this noise and can now call in young bucks – sometimes they run in at top speed stopping only metres away from me. It is more difficult to outsmart an older buck though. As the female comes into season the dominant buck in the area will follow her closely until she is ready to mate. The buck has to be vigilant because she will not go unnoticed by other bucks, especially younger ones, who will try their luck given the chance.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to witness the courtship ritual of these beautiful creatures and even got to see them making ‘roe rings’ – the circular patterns that they repeatedly trample into the ground during this ritual. I watched the pair out on heath land for three days, following them each day from dawn to dusk. There was little cover and so I before setting out each day I donned a full camouflage suit. On the last afternoon as I followed them, suddenly, without warning, the doe set off at top speed. The buck followed in hot pursuit.
She ran through reed beds, over walls, through ditches, zigzagging as she went, testing the strength and fitness of her suitor. She wanted a clever buck too, and so would dive into cover and spring out in the opposite direction with her head held low as if she was trying to lose him. I tried to keep pace but it was impossible with 15kg of camera gear. So I headed to a patch of gorse in the centre of their territory, which gave me a good vantage point from which to watch their courtship. Just as I settled down to watch, the deer disappeared into the distance and leapt over a wall. I thought I had lost them, but then I heard the rasping breathing of the buck and looked up in time to see them heading straight for me. I crouched down as they entered the small patch of gorse where I was hiding. The doe burst out just metres in front of me followed closely by the buck.
It gave me quite a fright. I have been charged by a buck before, so I backed off into a really thick patch of gorse, ignoring the sharp thorns. When I looked up again I noticed their pace had slowed. They were exhausted. As I watched the doe started to walk in figures of eight weaving in and out of the gorse. As she did so the male slowly followed her. Officially this is known as ‘roe rings’. It is something I had read about before and seen evidence of in pathways walked into foliage. But I didn’t ever expect to be hidden in the centre of this courtship dance. It is quite extraordinary to see these animals behave in this almost trance-like way as they walked round and round the same route. Unfortunately, I was unable to take any photographs as I only had my telephoto lens with me – I hadn’t expected to be so close. But I was content just to be able to witness this incredible scene.Author: Robert E Fuller