It's at this time of year that I move towards photographing the Red Deer rut at Woburn Abbey. I've been visiting the rut at Woburn for for several years and I feel not yet made the best out of any of them. This year I will hopefully have 5-6 consecutive weeks to focus only on the Red Deer rut. One of the reasons I love the Red Deer rut is because I can focus my time to this one project rather than worry that there is some else I should be photographing. It's great to be able to visit numerous times and see how the rut progresses. That is one of reasons that makes me come back to Woburn year after year. Whilst access cam be incredibly frustrating as you have to keep to the public footpaths (you can't just walk anywhere, though each year I see many people, both photographers and visitors, way off the paths in areas they shouldn't be so please keep to the paths if you do come as it's helps the Park Rangers) but it can be very rewarding watching the rut progress over severals weeks and getting that one good image. Each year I have the same conflict on whether I should visit somewhere like Richmond or Bushy Park, but if I visited those places they would be a one or two day trips and I couldn't experience the whole rut and watch the changes occur. Sometimes watching the wildlife experience over several weeks is much more important to me than getting a few better photos.
This year I thought I would blog weekly updates on how I get on each week, and give an idea of the number trips I make and the amount of time spent trying to get that elusive Red Deer rut image. The rut at Woburn isn't somewhere you can turn up to for only one day and walk away with a huge number of 'keepers'. I try to make numerous trips over several weeks. These trips usually last only for a few hours because I try to time the visits with the best light. Often I walk away only having taken a handful of images, sometimes even none.
I've started early again this year, making my first visit on Saturday 9th September. I like to get down to Woburn for my first trip in the first week or second week of September. The first trip is more of a scouting trip, trying to work out what has changed since I was last there and which point the rut is currently at. One aim of the first trip was to find out what the ferns look like. Trying to capture an image of a Red Deer Stag in the ferns with 'headgear' is always my aim within the first few weeks of the rut. Over the years I have had some memorable encounters of Red Deer Stags in the ferns, my most memorable was in 2015 when I was able to capture this sequence of a Red Deer Stag eating the low hanging tree branches.
Sadly the ferns aren't as good as previous years, this year they are very low (only a foot or two in height) and in poor condition. I'm not sure why the ferns are like they are this year, in previous years they are usually 3-5 feet high and are a huge block of green colour. Over the last couple of years the ferns have been cut back considerably, in places losing 20-30 metres in depth, and huge paths have been cut into them to allow the tractor towing the visitors trailer to access the areas beyond. Whether this has resulted in the stronger ferns at the edges being removed and the previously protected weaker ferns at centre now taking the full force of the weather causing their poor condition I'm not sure. Whatever the reason it's unlikely I will capture any images of stags in the ferns this year, an image I've always aimed to capture in the first few weeks before the rut really gets going.
The one problem visiting Woburn in early September is the time of sunrise. On my first visit, 9th September, sunrise was 06:27 which means setting an early alarm as Woburn is roughly 30 minute drive away. The good thing is as the rut progresses sunrise is 10 minutes later each week making the last few weeks feel like a lay in. Being the first visit I wasn't expecting to get any encounters, let alone one that will probably be one of the best encounters of the rut. This Red Deer stag was quite content grazing only meters away. It was so close that even zooming out to 200mm still cut off the rear legs. I find a portrait like this only works if the whole of the stag is in frame, sadly I mucked this one up.
After this deer walked away I couldn't find any other deer within rang of the public footpand and were located in areas inaccessible to me. The light was now becoming harsh so it was time to go back home for breakfast.
With that first encounter showing want can happen and a favourable sunrise forecast I decide to make second sunrise visit the next morning. Usually I would leave it another week before returning as the first few weeks of September is very early in deer rut terms and usually quite quiet. The morning dawned with some nice colour in the clouds and a thankfully few deer milling around. About ten minutes after sunrise I saw this stag heading towards a tree on top of a ridge, providing the perfect opportunity for a silhouette. Trees and Red Deer stags make very recognisable silhouette shapes, and I love the opportunity to try combining the two especially with a faint tint of sunrise colours behind.
The light was quite good up to thirty minutes after sunrise. The light was softly diffused and there was some deer about. This Red Deer stag took interest in me and posed nicely.
The light was nice but whilst the eye contact of the deer makes the image more interesting I just wish I was able to get more of its legs in the image. To me they just seem to be cut off too much by the brow of the hill in the foreground. Its one of those images where its nice but it just could be that little bit better.
Towards the end of the visit before the light became too harsh I encountered this stag under the trees. This stag sums up some of the signs of the rut will soon be starting. At the start of the rut the stags cover themselves in mud to make them more attractive to the females. What really stood out to me was the size of those antlers, they are huge, there are nearly 30 points on that set! That's definitely not a stag I would want to get too close to.
So week one ends with two visits and 3.5 hours spent at Woburn. It was a good start to the rut but its still very early. There are signs it's slowly starting but the stags are still content to be in male groups and are all still eating. I only heard a couple of bellows too. Once the rut starts the stags will be too busy and won't eat until its over.