It’s a bright, cold morning with thick dew and a little frost on the tired autumn grass. We’ve come to a favorite spot in the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. From our vantage point, looking north we can see for miles, right the way to the greensand ridge that borders the Weald.
We’re in typical Ashdown terrain: Heathland with clumps of woodland – some oak, some beech, both squeezed by the relentlessly spreading birch. Here and there are clumps of scots pine. In between is a thick, even, a brown sea of bracken with islands of rough grass where the bracken has been mown to retain the important heathland habitat.
Roe stag, Photo Tomasz Wyszyński
This is a popular spot for dog walkers, runners, and hikers. It’s a relatively high-traffic area with car parks and even a visitor center. Most people come here with no other thought than to enjoy what they’re doing.
They don’t look further than the end of the dog lead or map but we know something special. Another world exists here – a world parallel to ours. We see little hints of it as we walk along. Between the human footprints, a few of them made this morning after last night’s rain, we find deer tracks.
You see, this place is a haven for deer. At this time of year, there are some signs that even the least observant can’t miss. Off to the northwest uninterrupted woodland covers a larger area, probably six or seven hundred acres.
From here, even though we must be half a kilometer or so away, we can hear a sort of rhythmic belching. This is the sound of the rutting fallow stag, announcing his presence to every fallow deer in the area.
We move along slowly and without fuss. It’s good to absorb the sights and sounds of nature. In doing so we also become less disruptive ourselves. Calmer, quieter. As we walk along with no other care in the world something catches our eye.
Look! Just over there, in a clearing a distance away. A roe stag. He’s browsing on the grass around the edge of the cleared bracken. With the wind in our faces and at this distance, he’s not concerned by us but he knows we’re here.
He’s dressed in his drab grey winter coat. And now another! A doe emerges from the long grass at the woodland edge. In a similar drab grey coat with the exaggerated white ‘target’ on her rump, she moves delicately across the clearing.
Often called the fairy of the woods, roe is delicate in every way. Anyone, like me, more used to fallow deer will instantly know this isn’t fallow just by the way she moves and holds herself.
We know there’s a path through the bracken just ahead that will take us down the hill and emerge into the grassy clearing close to the deer. Slowly we move. At first, there’s not even a flicker of acknowledgment – we’re just another human and dog where humans and dogs usually are.
As we descend the path we move slowly, making sure we keep below the line of the bracken to avoid being silhouetted against the bright morning sky. The wind’s still in our favor. Stopping to peek over the wall of bracken we see them both still there, grazing with the odd glance towards the noisy couple with dogs who are now passing on the path above us.
Now we’re really in the moment. Dog walkers are passing either side of this primal scene, oblivious to the joy that is so nearby. Their voices seem unimaginably loud. The wind rustles the bracken. An anonymous little brown bird flits over the bracken. We can even hear its wings beat. Further on down the path, we go, stooping to remain unseen.
The deer are still grazing, enjoying the morning sunlight in the clearing. We stand there for a few moments simply taking in incredible beauty. Before too long they move off one after the other, gliding into the woodland silently like grey ghosts.