I grew up visiting the New Forest every summer with my grandparents. They had a big old camper van that we’d have to pack everything back into whenever we wanted to drive anywhere else. We turned the tables into beds and a drop down compartment above the front seats made a bunk berth. My siblings and I loved it! They’d take two of us camping at a time to give my parents a break from five children running riot through the house in the summer holidays.
My favourite campsite was Black Knowl which was flanked by a river on the way in and overlooked a huge moor at the back with a keeper’s cottage on the left hand side. For a 6 year old fascinated by dam-building and deer-spotting, this was heaven!
So, on an early February Sunday that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be windy, rainy or sunny, this now 29 year old still fascinated by it all headed down to the back of Brockenhurst to see if this site was still as exciting as I remembered. On arrival, we were met by a barrier across the main entrance. It seems these caravan sites are closed for the winter. It meant we had to walk about a mile from the public roadside car park, but even this brought back vivid memories. Gorse is one of the few flowers that seems to just keep going all winter. My older sister once got booted into a gorse bush by one of the less well tempered New Forest ponies! However, if you brave the spikes, the rich yellow flowers smell of coconut and pineappple; nature’s very own Piña Colada!
As we got closer to the site I came across the stream that I’d spent many summers damming. Today, this healthy section of river hosts the occasional otter and a small run of sea trout. I spotted a grey wagtail perched up on the corner as we approached, this water-loving bird was probably already claiming the territory ready for spring.
Crossing the stream through the woodland, we came out onto the mooor. Keeper’s cottage on the left, hard standing camp pitches on the right and a few ponies dotted around. It hasn’t changed one bit.
The weather did keep changing, one minute we’d get a patch of sun, the next it was a full downpour. The ponies didn’t seem to mind and despite being semi-wild most were clearly very familar with walkers.
The goal for this trip was to try and find the red deer that I used to spend hours scanning the back of the moor for with an old pair of chunky binoculars – the type only your grandparents have. From 300m I’d strain my eyes trying to differentiate between dead sticks of gorse and red deer antlers, looking for any hints of movement that would give the latter’s position away. But today, I think the elements had forced the deer back into the trees.
We crept up the treeline and crossed the moor at its narrowest point, regularly squelching ankle deep into the pools of muddy water dotting this exposed landscape. At one point a woodcock erupted from a tiny patch of heather, no more than 2 feet in front of my left boot. I adore the way they fly, wheeling left and right through fast, intermittent wing beats. It’s a predator avoidance strategy: try not to be seen, and if you are seen, make it as hard as possible to be caught!
As we got into the stand of Scots Pine that marked the back of the moor, we froze. 30m away, standing four or five trees into the patch – was an enormous red deer stag in full antler. I counted at least 14 tines (the individual points on both antlers) – making him a dominant male, a monarch.
From the other side of the moor, I hadn’t been able to pick him out with my binoculars, there was too little light in the trees. But standing here, once our eyes adjusted, we could pick out a small herd. There were at least two large stags, a couple of hinds and one 2017 fawn.
The hind closest to us, a pale individual, stamped her front foot on the ground a few times – a warning sign to indicate to any of the herd that might not have seen us that there was potential danger present. But they didn’t bolt as I’d expected, they just stood, and stared. We enjoyed the stand off for about 20 minutes before leaving them to continue their day – which likely consisted of sheltering from the elements in their stand of pine.
With a renewed excitement and thinking the day couldn’t possibly get any better, we carried on walking through the pine trees to see what else might appear. Every few paces we’d stop, crouch down and scan for movement amongst the trees. Deer spotting is fantastic fun, if you’re patient, you can stalk surprisingly close to them. In this environment, you always have a sense of being watched. Normally, because you are.
Straining our eyes, we noticed a little movement about 70m away in the trees. Through binoculars, I was met with a beautiful image. Three fallow does (doe sounds like bread “dough”and it’s the name for a female fallow deer) were moving perpendicular to us through the forest. As I got eyes on them our scent prompted them to turn and look at us intensely, gifting us a magical moment and we all stood motionless.
One was pure white, a 2017 youngster, not quite full size and obviously very nervous. The small group only stuck around a few seconds before darting off, zig-zagging their way amongst the trees. They disappear remarkably quickly like this, leaving just their footprints (known as “slots”) as a calling card.
Getting that close to adult red deer and a pure white fallow doe was a red-letter day experience. I’ve spent many years watching deer on the New Forest, the Ashdown Forest, Thetford Forest and the Forest of Dean – but this was one of my favourite day’s deer watching.
On the way back we were treated to another great view, as the sun arrived a different herd of red deer hinds came out onto the moor; a perfect end to a perfect day of deer spotting.