Red Deer, Red Skies and the Wisdom of Lonely Sunflowers

Red Deer at Sunset

Red Deer at Sunset

On Sunday, Laurie and I got a little lost driving in the west of the Island. It was dusk and the tiny back lanes seemed to appear completely different, as if the Pixies had mischievously moved them around. We had driven to try and get a glimpse of the red deer herd just past Chale Green. The Island is thought to have no wild deer; this appears to be a farmed herd, high deer fences around the land that they occupy. I feel sad that they are being farmed – I would love to see them roaming wild on the Island, although I know that some control would be necessary in such a small area.

I spotted this herd last autumn, on a very similar evening, the sky vividly red in the west. I nearly gave Laurie a coronary, screaming at him to stop the car. Darkly silhouetted against a stunning autumn sky were the unmistakable shapes of deer just beyond the hedge. At an opening near a gate, we stood just feet from the herd. The hairs on my neck rose and tears welled as I realised that at the centre of the group stood a massive Stag, a full rack of antlers. They were all utterly still and silent, their elegant heads focused in our direction. Laurie and I were equally hushed – it was hard not to be awed by such a beautiful sight.

On Sunday, we arrived at the spot but only a hind and her calf were present. We drove further west, watching as the tip of an orange sun sunk into the sea. The sky grew fickle and changeable, its bleached blue – sharpening the silhouettes of trees already beginning to shed – turning quickly to richer shades; pastels darkening into that vibrant salmon red so much a feature of autumn sunsets.

Getting lost proved fruitful. The lanes were full of bats, treating us to close range aerial displays, skimming low over the car and across the windscreen, the trees channelling their flight up and down the open roads. A red eyed hare, caught in our headlights, loped beside us, agitated and uncertain, eventually risking a crossing and merging into the dark mass of a cabbage field.

We eventually found ourselves back on the road that passes the deer feeding racks. We were delighted to see that many of the herd had now arrived. Stood by the gate in our usual spot, we watched them as they watched us. The big old stag was absent but younger males were present. Last year, many of these would have been recognisable by their single spiked, vertical antlers; now the familiar rack of tines had developed, three or four, not yet the seven of a mature Stag. Even so, they made the most impressive of silhouettes.

I wondered how being a farmed herd impacts on the rut. This is rutting season. In the wild, throughout the year the females and young remain together while males roam in groups or wander alone. The rut brings the two groups back together. On the mainland, we would visit the deer park at Petworth House, West Sussex in October. Here the deer are Fallow. The whole park would resound with the bellowing of Bucks defending their territory. Red Stags and Fallow Bucks beef up at this time, their necks thickening – they are powerful and beautiful creatures and their roaring during the rut is a wonderfully primal sound. I have a stag tattooed upon my upper arm; I feel a great attraction to these wonderful animals. They have the most soulful faces; the deepest, darkest eyes that speak of something old and barely remembered: endless ancient forests; musk and leaf mould; darkened branches a mesh of locked tines against the half light of dusk and dawn. 

Driving home, the wildlife continued to grace us – a fox trotting down the lane at Chale Green; a badger at high speed, its low rump comically disappearing into the grassy fields of Gore Cliff. But perhaps the most surprising encounter on the journey home was not fauna but flora – in the dead autumn grasses on the low banks of Chale Lane, a single sunflower. Its lack of support meant that its long stalk had not grown vertically up, strong and straight, but had spiralled, and in doing so had enabled a kind of low level support. There in the dying light – incongruous in this season of shedding – a vibrantly alive, beautiful golden head, packed with the seeds of countless more sunflowers. It had seeded and grown here, surviving in a time and place that appeared so at odds with its nature, and yet had made the most of where it found itself and blossomed nevertheless.


  1. trish said,

    October 16, 2009 at 9:10 am

    This sounds like an ideal SUNday. Lovely. Trish xx

  2. Jake said,

    October 21, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    That’s a beautiful picture of the red deer !

  3. Tim said,

    June 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    One of the Isle of Wight’s best kept secrets is that we have a small number of Red Deer living and breeding in the wild. They are very shy and secretive and far more difficult to spot than any farmed deer. The browsing and grazing of these deer can enhance biodiversity by creating a mosaic of grassy and shrubby understories favourable to some of the other rare mammals that we have here including Red Squirrels, Hazel Dormice and Bechstein’s Bat,

  4. tim said,

    March 3, 2014 at 7:49 am

    The Forestry Commission have recently clarified a misleading impression that they may have given about the Isle of Wight having a deer free status.

    To quote Simon Hodgson, CEO, Forest Enterprise England :-

    ” This is of course a relative term which compares the minimal deer numbers on the Isle of Wight with significant populations on the mainland”.

    Unfortunately this has previously led to many people erroneously believing that there are no deer on the island and it would be more correct to say that woodland biodiversity on the Isle of Wight benefits from the presence of a low density wild deer population.

    In fact we have had wild deer on the island since the 1970’s or 80’s and there is a small breeding population of Red deer, last year Roe tracks were also discovered here.

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