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And dined untax'd, untroubled, under
Oh! trifling head, and fickle heart !
252.-HABITS OF THE RED DEER.
SCROPE. [THE following interesting contribution to Natural History is from a spirited and agreeable volume, published in 1838— The Art of Deer Stalking,' by W. Scrope, Esq.]
The red deer is not a very hardy animal ; he does not by choice subsist on coarse food, but eats close, like a sheep. With his body weakened and wasted during the rutting season in the autumn, exposed to constant anxiety, and irritation, engaged in continual combats, he feels all the rigours of winter approaching before he has time to recruit his strength :--the snow storm comes on, and the bitter blast drives him from the mountains. Subdued by hunger, he wanders to the solitary shielings of the shepherds; and will sometimes follow them through the snow, with irresolute steps, as they are carrying the provender to the sheep. He falls, perhaps, into moss pits and mountain tarns, whilst in quest of decayed water plants, where he perishes prematurely from utter inability to extricate himself. Many, again, who escape starvation, feed too greedily on coarse herbage at the first approach of open weather, which produces a murrain amongst them, not unlike the rot in sheep, of which they frequently die. Thus, natural causes, inseparable from the condition of deer in a northern climate, and on a churlish soil unsheltered by woods, conspire to reduce these animals to so feeble a state, that short summer which follows is wholly insufficient to bring them to the size they are capable of attaining under better management.
If we look at the difference in size and weight of two three-year old beasts, the one belonging to a good, and the other to a bad farmer, we shall find that difference to amount to nearly double. The first animal is well fed for the sake of the calf, both in winter and summer; and the last, from insufficient keep, loses in winter what it has gained in summer, and requires double the food in the succeeding season to restore it to what it was at the commencement of winter. Thus it is with the deer.
About the end of September, and the first week in October, the harts swell in their necks, have a ruff of long wiry hair about them, and are drawn up in their bodies like greyhounds. They now roll restlessly in the peat pools till they become almost black with mire, and feed chiefly on a light coloured moss, that grows on the round tops of hills, so that they do not differ so entirely from the rein-deer in their food as some naturalists have imagined.
In this state of rutting they are rank, and wholly unfit for the table. Such deer a good sportsman never fires at; but many may be found at this time, not so forward, but perfectly good; and they are, of course, easily distinguished. This is a very wild and picturesque season. The harts are heard roaring all over the forest, and are engaged in savage conflicts with each other, which sometimes terminate fatally. When a master hart has collected a number of hinds, another will endeavour to take them from him: they fight till one of them, feeling himself worsted, will run in circles round the hinds, being unwilling to leave them: the other pursues, and when he touches the fugitive with the points of his horns, the animal thus gored either bounds suddenly on one side, and then turns and faces him, or will dash off to the right or the left, and at once give up the contest. The conflict, however, gene
rally continues a considerable time; and nothing can be more entertaining than to witness, as I have done, the varied success and address of the combatants. It is a sort of wild just, in the presence of the dames, who, as of old, bestow their favours on the most valiant.
A conflict of this savage nature, which happened in one of the Duke of Gordon's forests, was fatal to both of the combatants. Two large harts, after a furious and deadly thrust, had entangled their horns so firmly together that they were inextricable, and the victor remained with the vanquished. In this situation they were discovered by the forester, who killed the survivor, whilst he was yet struggling to release himself from his dead antagonist. The horns remain at Gordon Castle, still locked together as they were found. Mezentius himself never attached the dead body to the living one in a firmer
Deer, except in certain embarrassed situations, always run up wind; and so strongly is this instinct implanted ir them, that if you catch a calf, be it ever so young, and turn it down wind, it will immediately face round and go in the opposite direction. Thus they go forward over hill-tops and unexplored ground in perfect security, for they can smell the taint in the air at an almost incredible distance. On this account they are fond of lying in open corries, where the swells of winds come occasionally from all quarters.
I have said that deer go up wind, but by clever management, and employing men to give them their wind, (these men being concealed from their view,) they may be driven down it; and in certain cases they may easily be sent, by a side wind, towards that part of the forest which they consider as their sanctuary.
It is to be noted that on the hill-side the largest harts lie at the bottom of the parcel, and the smaller ones above; indeed, these fine fellows seem to think themselves privileged to enjoy their ease, and impose the duty of keeping guard upon the hinds, and upon
their juniors. In the performance of this task, the hinds are always the most vigilant, and when deer are driven they almost always take the lead. When, however, the herd is strongly beset on all sides, and great boldness and decision are required, you shall see the master hart come forward courageously, like a great leader as he is, and, with his
confiding band, force his way through all obstacles. In ordinary cases, however, he is of a most ungallant and selfish disposition; for, when he apprehends danger from the rifle, he will rake away the hinds with his horns, and get in the midst of them, keeping his antlers as low as possible.
There is no animal more shy or solitary by nature than the red deer. He takes the note of alarm from every living thing on the moor—all seem to be his sentinels. The sudden start of any animal, the springing of a moor-fowl, the complaining note of a plover, or of the smallest bird in distress, will set him off in an instant. He is always most timid when he does not see his adversary, for then he suspects an ambush. If, on the contrary, he has him in full view, he is as cool and circumspect as possible; he then watches him most acutely, endeavours to discover his intention, and takes the best possible method to defeat it. In this case, he is never in a hurry or confused, but repeatedly stops and watches his disturber's motions; and when length he does take his measure, it is a most decisive one: a whole herd will sometimes force their way at the very point where the drivers are the most numerous and where there are no rifles; so that I have seen the hill-men fling their sticks at them, while they have raced away without a shot being fired.
When a stag is closely pursued by dogs, and feels that he cannot escape from them, he flies to the best position he can, and defends himself to the last extremity. This is called going to bay. If he is badly wounded, or very much over-matched in speed, he has little choice of ground; but if he finds himself stout in the chase, and is pursued in his native mountains, he will select the most defensible spot he has it in his power to reach; and woe be unto the dog that approaches him rashly. His instinct always leads him to the rivers, where his long legs give him a great advantage over the deer-hounds. Firmly he holds his position, whilst they swim powerless about him, and would die from cold and fatigue before they could make the least impression on him. Sometimes he will stand upon a rock in the midst of the river, making a most majestic appearance; and in this case it will always be found that the spot on which he stands is not approachable on his rear. In this situation he takes such a sweep with his antlers that he could exterminate a whole pack of the most powerful lurchers that were pressing too closely upon him in front. He is se
cure from all but man, and the rifle-shot must end him. Superior dogs may pull him down when running, but not when he stands at bay.
The deer, like many other animals, seem to foresee every change of weather: at the approach of a storm they leave the higher hills, and descend to the low grounds; sometimes even two days before the change takes place. Again, at the approach of a thaw, they leave the low grounds and go to the mountains by a similar anticipation of change. They never perish in snow drifts, like sheep, since they do not shelter themselves in hollows, but keep the bare ground, and eat the tops of the heather.
One would imagine that in a severe storm many would perish by avalanches. But, during the long period of sixty years, Mr. John Crerer remembers but two accidents of this nature. These were in Glen Mark: eleven were killed by one fall, and twenty-one by another: the snow in its descent carried the deer along with it into the glen and across the burn, and rolled up a little way on the opposite brae, where the animals were smothered.
Harts, are excellent swimmers, and will pass from island to island in quest of hinds or change of food. It is asserted that the rear hart in swimming rests his head on the croup of the one before him; and that all follow in the same manner.
When a herd of deer are driven, they follow each other in a line; so that when they cross the stalker it is customary for him to be quiet, and suffer the leaders to pass before he raises his rifle. If he were to fire at the first that appeared, he would probably turn the whole of them; or if he were to run forward injudiciously after a few had passed, the remainder, instead of following the others in a direct line, would not cross him except under particular circumstances and dispositions of ground, but would bear off an end, and join the others afterwards. It must be remarked, however, that when deer are hard pressed by a dog, they run in a compact mass, the tail ones endeavouring to wedge themselves into it. They will also run in this manner when pressed by drivers on the open moor. But they are sensible they could
the narrow oblique paths that are trodden out by them in the precipitous and stony parts of the mountain, or encounter the many obstructions of rock, river, and precipice, that rugged nature is continually opposing to them, in any other manner than in rank and file.