Archibald Hamilton.

The red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 online

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Online LibraryArchibald HamiltonThe red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 → online text (page 2 of 22)
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Severn sea lies the whole coast of Glamorgan. The
dull patch of smoke to the eastward is Penarth and
Cardiff ; that to the west is Swansea (the farthest
point is Worm's Head) ; inland one can make out
the Gwaelo de Garth and the high ground by Dowlais,
while far inland the Brecon Hills are clearly dis-
cernible. It is a curious view by night. Right
opposite are the twin lighthouses which warn the
mariner to keep clear of the treacherous Nash Sand ;
to the east a lightship off Penarth and the light on
the Flat Holmes seem close at hand ; but the first
thing that catches the eye is the long range of
electric lights on the docks at Barry and Penarth.
Then the ironworks can be distinguished as one


after another they work a Bessemer steel furnace,
Hghting up the surrounding country as with a search-
hght. Old Dowlais, Cyfarthfa, Ebbw Vale, Plymouth,
New Tredegar, and the New Dowlais each in turn
lights up the hills, while away to westwards there is
an abiding glare which tells that work in the furnaces
of Swansea ceases not night nor day.

The view from Dunkery varies, of course, with the
state of the atmosphere, but under favourable circum-
stances an immense area is visible. Let the eye
follow up the waters of the Bristol Channel, and in a
very clear light three conical hills, one behind the
other, are easily recognisable as " Malvern's Lonely
Height." This is probably the farthest point
ordinarily visible, though the Ordnance Survey men,
it is believed, identified some very distant points.
But on any reasonably clear day there are many
distant objects which are easily discernible.

The islands in the channel are the Steep and Flat
Holmes, with Worle Hill marking where the ancient
Phoenicians embarked the lead from Mendip, and
where the modern excursionist to Weston-super-
Mare enjoys himself upon the sands. The Mendip
Hills are almost shut out by the line of the Quantocks,
whose bold outline fills the eastern horizon. Away
to the south-east a dim line of hills is the Black-
down Range, separating Somerset and Devon and
terminating above Wellington, where an obelisk to
the memory of the Iron Duke may be discerned with
the glasses. In the foreground are the Brendon


Hills, terminating in Haddon Hill in the deep woods
below which couches many a lordly stag. From
almost at our very feet a valley finds its tortuous
course to the southward. The Quarme Water runs
down it to meet the Exe coming from the westward,
and we can trace the deep-wooded valley, down
which their united waters flow, extending for miles
and miles, till it is lost in the dim distance, where a
depression in the high ground far away shows where
Exeter lies hidden, and where the tiny stream which
rises almost at our feet flows out a broad and
stately river into the English Channel. A very faint
line of hills a little to the east of this is the high land
above Lyme Regis, while the curious V-shaped gap
which is visible in very clear weather shows where
Sidmouth basks in sunshine on the seashore.

Passing westwards one sees the bold heathery
heights of Winsford Hill, some 1,500 ft. in elevation,
dividing the dense coverts in the Exe Valley from
the denser w^oodlands in the valley of the Bade.
Beyond that the long purple line of Anstey Common,
Molland Common, and South Molton Ridge marks
the southern boundary of what may truly be called
the Exmoor country, but the eye passes beyond
them, and is arrested by a far-away ragged outline
standing high against the sky and getting wilder and
more ragged towards the west, which one wants no
guide book to tell one is Dartmoor, with Yes Tor
and Cawsand Beacon towering above the general
line. A little west of Dartmoor we may, with Juck,


just make out the dim outline of Brown Willy afar
off in Cornwall,

But let us look closer home, for there at our feet lies
spread out what we have come so far to see. Exmoor
lies before us, fold upon fold, ridge after ridge, purple
heather and long yellowy-green grass in countless
succession, till afar off one sees the rounded top of
Exe Head Hill, where amid the boggy ground, much
to be avoided by the uninitiated, the Exe, the Barle,
the Bray, the Lyn, and many lesser waters take their
rise and hurry down steep-sided combes on their way
to the cultivated valleys below. Chapman's Barrows
and Hangman Hill above Combe Martin close in
the distant view, but it is here, in the foreground,
among those deep combes, which under the now
setting sun look but like shadows, that the real
home of the red deer lies. Here at our very feet is
his birthplace and his nursery, for here on this bleak
hillside, among the black soggy ground not half a
mile away, and in these narrow combes below us, a
vast proportion of the herd of hinds elects to spend
the winter. On those heathery moors, secure from
disturbance, they lay down their spotted calves and
gently tend them during the early summer months,
while their lords are in seclusion enduring the agonies
entailed by growing a new set of antlers. And here
when their appointed day comes, in rain, or hail, or
sleet, it may be they show that with the best of
hounds and science it may take all day to kill a


Down from this high land before us descend into
the fair country of Devon the Exe, the Mole, and the
Bray. These and their tributaries run, as do all West-
country streams, in deep wooded valleys such as the
deer love, and little by little, as the herd has
increased in numbers on Exmoor, and as it has been
increasingly hunted, the wild deer have spread, and,
being kindly received by a most sporting race both
of landowners and farmers, have increased and
multiplied exceedingly.

But we have lingered long on Dunkery, the sun is
in the west, Cloutsham farm lies 700 ft. below us,
where Mrs. Land will give us the best of tea and
the thickest of cream, and so we shall find our way
on to Porlock Weir, where the waves washing up
against the beach shall lull us to sleep.



Captain and leader and lord of the herd,
Bold and alert when his mettle is stirred,
Lithe as a lion and light as a bird.
Royal in crest. — Whyte Melville.

Beautiful beyond description as is the scenery of
West Somerset and North Devon, it is not to look
at scenery that sportsmen assemble there every
autumn in hundreds ; it is to go stag-hunting, to see
this wild sport carried on, if not with all the ceremony,
at all events with all the essential peculiarities
which characterised it five hundred or a thousand
years ago.

What is it that draws people of all descriptions,
in vehicles of all descriptions, drags, carriages, carts,
motors, bicycles, to every meet of the Devon and
Somerset Staghounds ? The large majority know
nothing about hunting and care less, hounds, horses,
and even riders are but a spectacle of passing
interest, but they have come to " see the stag," a
fixed resolve, pursued with a determination which,
however laudable at the end of the hunt, is some-
times rather out of place at the beginning. This


desire, however, to have a good look at the deer is
not pecuhar to the casual visitor ; it is common to
every stag-hunter, and always has been ; it is
engrained in the nature of the West-countryman.
The intense popularity of the hounds with the
labourers, with the women and children, with those in
every village who never have a chance of hunting, is
because the hounds are the means by which they get
to see the stag.

According to the West-country belief, to dream of
hunting is by no means lucky, unless you dream that
you see what you are hunting ; then it is an omen of
the best kind.

This desire has probably been common to all
countries and ages, and is no doubt due to two
causes : first, that it is absolutely essential to a good
day's sport that someone capable of judging a deer
should see what hounds are running; and, secondly,
a right appreciation of the fact so well set out by
Manwood : " He Is accompted of divers writers to
be the most stateliest beast In his gate that doth go
upon the earth, for he doth carry a majesty In his
countenance and gate."

It is not to be denied that a good stag is an
animal which it is well worth making an effort to see,
and stag-hunting would be robbed of half its charm
if one were not to see the stag ; but the effort should
be made with discretion and in such a way as not to
interfere with sport.

One of the main reasons which makes the ordinary


visitor so anxious to see the stag is a deeply-rooted
disbelief in the fact of his being actually wild. Only
a few years ago the writer heard a sportsman who
had enjoyed a few days > with the staghounds
questioned on this point. His reply was amusing :
" Oh, well, they are not what you would really call
wild''^ — with an emphasis — "not like they are in
Scotland ; they keep them in a park or place of that
kind, and turn a few out at a time as they are
wanted." A suggestion that they were really wild
was met with the politest incredulity.

Yet the red deer with his neighbours on Exmoor,
the horse, the badger, the fox, the otter, and the
hare are the oldest indigenous animals in England,
and their bones are found plentifully in the caves of
the Mendip Hills along with those of the elephant,
the cave lion, the woolly rhinoceros, and the

The red deer at one time undoubtedly was
found all over the United Kingdom, and the fine
herds which exist to-day in Windsor, Badminton,
and other parks are merel)/ the descendants of wild
deer which have been enclosed. In some parts of
Westmorland, as well as in the New Forest,
there are, or recently were, a few remaining
specimens, while on Dartmoor their extinction is
quite recent.

So much has been written by authors, ancient and
modern, on the natural history of the red deer, and
so faithfully and charmingly has the story of his life


been told by Mr. John Fortescue in his own
inimitable style, that it is not necessary to say more
than a few words here, and just to touch on a few
characteristics a knowledge of which forms a part of
successful woodcraft.

Deer are classed generally as gregarious animals,
but in the red deer the gregarious instinct is not so
strong as in other kinds, and it depends largely on
surrounding circumstances, such as food supply and

The little spotted calf is laid down by the hind
after being carried by her a trifle over eight months,
the spot chosen being almost invariably on heather
or long grass, though almost any sheltered undis-
turbed place will be made to serve on occasion. At
this time, and until the calves are strong enough to
travel some little distance without fatigue, the hinds
lie and feed separately ; there may be others not far
off, and they may all use the same feeding grounds,
but their movements are independent of each

The calves are almost all born within a very short
period, according to the late Dr. Collyns between
June 7th and June 21st; under the old Forest Laws
the month following the feast of St. John the
Baptist was ordained to be an absolutely close time
under penalties of great severity. This, allowing for
the change in the calendar, would cover the same
period. Dr. Collyns in all his long experience only
knew of two cases of calves being born except



between the dates mentioned ; but since then other
instances have been recorded, and the writer not
many years ago saw a Httle spotted calf not more
than a week or so old quite at the end of September.
The little fellow was lying in the deep heather in the
Deer Park, just where his mother no doubt had
pushed him down and bidden him lie still, and still
he lay, while a hundred or more horses thundered
by. The writer stood by till the rush was past to
prevent his being ridden over, and then looking
round he caught sight of a hind trotting back-
wards and forwards as if in great anxiety just
by the slope of the hill into Woodcock Combe ;
the moment he left the spot the hind cantered
straight up to where her calf had been left and
lay down.

It is the common habit of a hind even with a much
bigger calf — they frequently run with the hinds for
nine or ten months — to make the calf lie down if
hounds are on the line, and to wait close by so that
hounds may catch a view of herself instead of killing
the calf.

It is a point much disputed whether a hind has
her first calf at three or four years old, but the
better opinion seems to be in favour of the earlier
date ; but when once she begins to breed she rarely,
if ever, misses a year until she attains a great age.
Many directions are contained in some of the
treatises on stag-hunting as to hunting only yeld or
barren hinds at certain periods of the year, and it


cannot be denied that there are always one or two
what the farmers call "long-nosed old hinds"
about ; but they are hinds which never have calves,
they mostly dwell by themselves, and ape the
characteristics of the other sex, even to the extent
of growing tushes. These old hinds are, as a rule,
easily distinguishable ; but of ordinary hinds of four
years old and upwards it would be safe to say that
not one per cent, misses laying down a calf. A few
well-authenticated cases of twins have been recorded,
but they are very rare.

The calf when born is spotted like a fallow deer,
but loses his spots at about three months old.
During the summer and early autumn the habits of
the hinds vary somewhat according to the ground on
which they may be. In the enclosed country they
always lie in the woods, they live for the most part
separately, though where one hind is found, there
are probably others not far off ; but on open ground
they gather for mutual protection into small herds,
and stags on similar ground take a like precaution.
Young male deer keep company with the hinds till
they are about three years old, when they join the
stags, and generally each youngster attaches himself
to an older stag, who finds him of the greatest
service as a look-out, and also as a substitute if
hounds are about — the old writers talk of a stag and
his " esquire."

Stags are not found in company with the hinds
except during the rutting season, which lasts for

C 2


about three or four weeks from October 8th. Then
every big stag has a harem, consisting of just
as many hinds as he can call to him by his " belling,"
and can keep other stags from taking away from
him. Fierce, and occasionally deadly, are the battles
that then take place. Food is utterly neglected, the
turmoil of love and war fills the peaceful valleys and
moors with angry bellowings and the signs and
sounds of combat. Stags fence with their antlers
with great skill, manoeuvring so as to get in a thrust
with the brow antler, which is the fighting point,
long and nearly straight, sharp as a bayonet. A
thrust, delivered with the whole weight of the stag
behind it, is a terrible thing, as many a gallant hound
and more than one horse has found to its cost. But
the fighting stag is quick to parry, and the fight
consists mostly of a pushing match, horn locked in
horn, and with knees on the ground. At length one
fails, his strength gives, and, disengaging, he
turns to fly ere his victor can catch him. Fighting
mostly takes place at night, and few are the chances
of watching a combat ; but if one has that good
fortune it is well to keep out of the way of the beaten
deer, as he is apt to wreak his vengeance on the first
thing he sees. A fine ram was found one morning
in the field above Exe Cleeve gored to death, no
doubt by a stag who had rashly attempted to invade
the harem of a stag stronger than himself. On
another occasion a stag appears to have run amok
at the roots of a torn-up larch tree, and have hung


himself up, so that he perished miserably, and was
not found for months afterwards.

It is rare for one stag to kill another outright, but
this happened in 1905 to a stag in the coverts above

A deer with plenty of range and the society of the
other sex is practically harmless, but it is far other-
wise with a stag kept in close confinement. A
farmer who brought one up from its birth and made
a pet of it, was gored by it when the rutting season
of its fourth year set in, and had the narrowest
escape. Nothing but the presence of a friend with
a gun saved the life of one of the best agriculturists
in West Somerset.

A stag was brought up many years ago by Dr.
Clarke, of Lynton, almost from its birth, in a paddock,
and was considered quite tame ; but when a party of
visitors went to look at it, and an usher from Mine-
head School, in response to the wish expressed by a
young lady to see it run, climbed over the paling and
rattled his hat, the stag promptly went for him, and
finally tossed him, badly hurt, over the railings, after
tearing off so much of his clothes that he had to be
rolled up in a lady's shawl before he could be con-
veyed back to the town.

Some years ago, as people were going back from
Exford to Dulverton after a day's hunting late in
October, they found a big stag had taken possession
of the road just by Spire Cross, and was " belling
and carrying on terrible, scorting up the stones with


his feet." Those who were mounted made a detour
over the heather, but the driver of a carriage thought
it prudent to wait till the stag moved away. It is
most improbable that the stag would have actually
attacked if the carriage had been driven straight on
at a good pace, but he might have stayed " belling
and carrying on " till the last moment, and the
horses would' most probably have become quite out
of control, and an accident resulted. The driver
exercised a very wise discretion.

The writer once examined a field of potatoes where
two stags had been fighting the night before. It was
a curious sight. The antlers had been driven in
places deep into the ground, in others they had
acted like the coulter of a plough, while the marks of
knees on the soft ground were very apparent. The
devastation wrought both by horns and feet was
complete ; a patch of twenty yards each way was
dug as thoroughly as ever the farmer could have
done it with a bisgay — they do not use a potato-
fork in that country — and the hinds had finished the
mischief by eating the potatoes afterwards when
peace was restored.

With the exception of a feeble bleat, used only to a
very young calf, the hind is mute, and the stag's
only sound is the roaring or belling note to which he
gives vent in the rutting season to summon his
attendant hinds, and to bid defiance to all the world
beside. It is a weird sound when heard at night,
very startling when heard for the first time, and it



has a peculiarly disturbing effect on horses if close
at hand.

The sound is not easy to describe ; it differs
entirely from the bellow of a bull or the roar of any
beast of prey, though it sometimes ends in a succes-
sion of short coughs, such as a lion gives when he is
really angry. It is emitted through the mouth, not the
nostrils ; the head is usually held high, with the nose
thrust forward ; the fore feet are held wide apart and
rather forward, as if to resist pressure from behind,
and, indeed, the whole muscular power of the body
seems to be used to drive the air from the lungs
through the mouth, the most noticeable point being
a strong vibration in the sound, which makes it
audible at a great distance. One may hear the stags
belling any October evening in the woodlands round
Exmoor, and occasionally in the daytime, but it is
not easy to get a chance of watching one at close
quarters. This the writer was lucky enough to do
recently in an enclosed park, and, a due retreat being
secured, was able to stand within a few yards of a
grand stag, carrying all his rights and three on top,
who was so absorbed in defying his enemy that he was
oblivious of all else. The coughs sometimes heard
appear to be terms of abuse, for the stag would run
forward a yard or so in a crouching attitude, and then
suddenly throw up his head and give two or three
short coughs and stamp his fore foot. The whole
action and attitude were intensely provocative and
insulting, and generally had the effect of making the


enemy very angry, but he gave way a yard or so
each time. Darkness closed rapidly in and all hopes
of watching a combat were at an end.

The tawny coat which has given to this species
its distinctive title of red is common to both male
and female, and differs but slightly in individuals.
The hind is, if anything, a little duller in colouring,
and the lighter parts under the belly are greyer than
in the male.

It frequently happens that there is great apparent
difference in colour between deer seen together, and
we have all heard wonderful stories of the " girt black
stag " of such and such a place, and have even been
privileged to see him, but it is black peaty mud on
a russet coat all the time. All deer love to roll in
water or mud to cool themselves. The older deer
learn that mud keeps off flies and they increase their
devotion to the mud bath — the blacker the mud the
better they seem to like it. If they are lying on
Dunkery or on Exmoor, they can readily find mud
of a blackness as complete as that of any ink ever
advertised, a fact which the wearers of many a smart,
light-coloured habit or grey tweed suit have found
out to their disgust, and have also found that the
stain does not wash out with the same facility that
it does out of the coat of a red deer.

During the rutting season the long hair on the
neck and throat of a stag grows to a considerable
length, giving him almost the appearance of having
a ruff round his neck.


Deer have been occasionally recorded with patches
of white about them, and, indeed, tradition points to
there having been harts in England, as there are a
few still in Germany, wholly white. The White Hart
is a common sign for an inn, and hart is the ancient
and proper term for the full-grown male of the red
deer, not the fallow. Our ancestors in days gone
by were extremely punctilious in the correct use of
terms of venery. White fallow deer are quite
common, but in spite of the fact that the signboard
artist almost invariably draws a fallow buck, there
must have been, it would seem, some traditional
existence of a white hart. That he was then, as
now, a lusus natures is probably to be inferred from
the fact that he usually wears a collar and chain.

The teeth of all deer are like those of sheep — that^
is to say, they have two cutting teeth in the lower
jaw as yearlings, four as two-year-olds, and so on till
they get a full mouth of eight teeth at four years
old ; stags at five years old develop two tushes in
the upper jaw. The upper jaw has no cutting teeth.

The red deer is properly described as hart or
stag, hind, and calf, while the terms buck, doe, and
fawn are confined to fallow deer.

The term hart is not used in the West.


OF THE stag's HEAD.

Then here's to him who leads the hunt

With Tally Ho ! Away !
And brow, bay, and tray, my lads,

Brow, bay, and traj-. — \\'hyte Melville.

The most remarkable thing about a stag — that
which makes him '* The stateHest beast in his gate
that doth go upon the earth" — in his "head" — to
use the correct expression, his antlers, in common
parlance. The term " horns " is wholly inapplicable
to the head of a deer, but has been in common use
from very ancient days, as witness the old rhyme :

If thou be hurt with horn of stag
'Twill bring thee to thy bier.

Horn is a mass of fibre compacted together with
glutinous matter, and is hollow, with a core of
sensitive bone duly supplied with nerves and blood
vessels, whether the horn grows from the head, as
in a cow, or from the foot, as in the hoof of a horse.
Horn is not shed annually ; it is worn away and
replaced by growth.

The antlers of a deer are shed every year, and are
an almost solid mass of bony deposit without nerves


or blood vessels, their growth being perfected within
about eleven or twelve weeks from the time the old
head is " mewed" or shed.

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Online LibraryArchibald HamiltonThe red deer of Exmoor, with notes on those who hunted them, from Robert D'Auberville, 1070, to Robert Arthur Sanders, 1906 → online text (page 2 of 22)