Country diary: a narrow escape back into the woods

Headlights sweep through rain up Farley Dingle against a deeper darkness of trees, when suddenly they catch an eye. Wide, black and full of fear, the eye looks through the windscreen from the head of a deer that turns in slow motion away, back into the woods. The moment lasts as long as a single swipe of windscreen wipers but is the difference between life and certain death; a second sooner, another step and the deer would be another roadkill statistic.

Although Dama dama was here in the last interglacial period, it became extinct in Britain and was reintroduced from North Africa by the Phoenicians or the Romans or the Normans, to be kept in semi-domesticity in deer parks. The fallow deer in the woods of Wenlock Edge may have escaped from Attingham Park at Atcham in relatively recent times. There, on an afternoon with low sun through the great oaks of the deer park, the herd gather to be fed turnips, a staple for the medieval folk who would only trespass here on pain of death. Now, people come from far and wide to get close to the deer. Does, ghostly pale, dark-backed or menil (spotted), and bucks of all ages and antler size – pricket, sorel, sore and great – form a herd with its own internal organisation, while at the margins others move in and out twitchily.

Peripheral foraging is less synchronised and more intense at the edges than in the centre, a trade-off between protection from predators and less interference from the rest of the herd. The individuals at the margins may lose contact with the centre, as a result of social inequalities that would lead to conflict in larger groups.

Perhaps being fed regularly reduces social instability, but it’s easy to see how the outsiders might take the opportunity to split from the herd and form their own groups. Such an escape led ancestors into the woods on Wenlock Edge and one of their descendants to step from a cold, wet night into the lights of oncoming traffic; turning her head to avoid the collision, she sent her terrified gaze through a car windscreen; a small memory of an eye in the rain.


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