Progress in Velvet

Secretive bucks showing velveteen progress

It is hard to ignore a shadow of progress. Tits now sing in the dripping woods, and woodpeckers have started to drum in the stillness. There are already lambs in the greenest and most absurd lowland fields, and their white tails are replicated in custard yellow on the hazel twigs. There is an almost audible growl of industry beneath the fallen leaves where bulbs are beginning to hoist their sails – stubbles of green shoots emerge between the molehills. We are now just hours away from the first snowdrops, and a matter of days until the skylarks begin to fly their kites and stake their claims to the hill. A sloppy, distracted winter seems to be withdrawing apologetically into a doldrum of pre-spring activity.

Roe bucks have suddenly become conspicuous over the past few days. Several old friends seen in previous years are making headway towards fine six-point antlers. There is already an obvious difference between roe on the hill and those which lurk in the deep hazel woods along the Solway coast. So much of antler formation is based on the quality of winter feeding, and while many of the lowland deer are well advanced towards a full set, several animals on the heather hill are still unable to show much more than blunt, stubby foundations.

The roe which stay on the hill all year round tend to produce small, lightweight heads which merely run to jaggy spikes, but there are always a few wayfarers from the low ground during the rut to buck the trend and bring an element of class. I love the idea that we humans only ever see a tiny percentage of any given population of roe. Mature, cautious animals can become almost invisible, and brief windows during the rut are often the only moments when you stand a chance of seeing them. Perhaps this part of the mystery which makes these the most captivating of all deer.

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