Red Deer have roamed wild throughout Staffordshire for centuries, with two notable populations on the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the edge of the Peak District) and in and around Cannock Chase. Over the past few years, I have photographed the annual autumn Red Deer rut in Bradgate Deer Park in Leicestershire and, outside of the rut, wild Red Deer on the Staffordshire Moorlands and in Scotland.
This year, as part of my ongoing work photographing the nature of Staffordshire, my aim was to photograph wild Red Deer rutting on or close to Cannock Chase but these deer can be a little elusive. However, after a tip off from a friend, I was put in touch with a local photographer who very kindly showed me a location on the edge of Cannock Chase where a group of wild Red Deer could be found. Whilst these deer are accustomed to seeing humans, albeit at a distance, they are nonetheless truly wild, free to roam without being confined or managed. As such, they are far less approachable than the deer in a deer park.
Having found the group of deer, I was pleased to find that it was dominated by one large and impressive stag who had already established his harem of females. The rut was already well under way.
The area where the deer were in consisted of mixed open grassland and lowland heathland with heather still in flower all surrounded by deciduous woodland, consisting mainly of Silver Birch trees. This offered possibilities to make images that were different from the ones I already had made of the rut.
Photographing the rut affords the opportunity to witness and document the behaviour of the deer at this crucial time of their life cycle. During this rut, I was fortunate for the first time to witness and photograph “bulling” – which is where a hind mounts a stag in order to demonstrate her readiness to mate and to encourage the stag to do so.
Another behaviour I hoped to photograph portrays the purpose of the rut, the dominant stag ensuring that his genes continue via the next generation. This has to be portrayed sensitively, with the low light when this image was made helping to achieve this purpose.
One of the great advantages of digital photography is the ability to try different techniques and to have instant feedback on the results – all at no additional cost. One particular technique I will use – if the conditions are right – is to use a slightly longer shutter speed and to pan with a moving subject. The results are unpredictable but this adds to the fun! In this image, a young pricket is captured having been chased off by the larger dominant stag.
In the last few years there have been incredible increases in the high iso performance of digital slrs. Together with advances in autofocus, this now allow images to be made in very low light without the use of artificial light. For nature photographers this has opened up many new possibilities to make images. For me, this is the most exiting development in camera technology and I cannot wait to see what the next generation of cameras offer. I now start to photograph before dawn as soon as I can see the subject and will continue to photograph at dusk, increasing the iso as the light levels drop, until I can no longer see the subject.
As the light levels drop, I deliberately underexpose in camera in order to more accurately reflect the conditions being photographed. Underexposing also has the benefit of increasing the shutter speed which further facilitates low light photography.
During twilight, with the pale bark of the Silver Birch trees reflecting the last light of the day, the deciduous woodland had an ethereal, almost magical quality. Being alone with nature in these conditions is a privilege that I am always grateful for being able to have and to share.