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The Sundown Stags of Suffolk

My favourite time of day to photograph deer is at sundown, just as the sun is on the cusp of slipping beyond the horizon and the light is mellow and golden. It seems to dust the outline of the animals, making their silhouettes luminesce. The scrubby grass flames and the stag’s hot breath billows into the cooling autumnal air.

I have spent the best part of a week repeatedly visiting Helmingham Hall, a 15th century moated manor house situated deep in the Suffolk countryside, and surrounded by a picturesque 400-acre parkland.

There are large herds of red (Cervus elaphus) and fallow deer (Dama dama) here, and I have come hoping to see and photograph them during their annual rut when they are looking their finest.

The red deer stags look magnificent, bulky and imposing with bulging necks and impressive antlers. They are the colour of smoked mahogany, with subtle hues of tawny orange and steel grey. In a certain light, their antlers look like ragged medieval billhooks. It is exhilarating and unnerving to be in close proximity to these beautiful beasts, they have the haughty attitude and prancing swagger of a field marshal, especially when they are in full throated roaring defence of their harem.

In the half light of dawn, it is the sound that is quite extraordinary. I managed two early mornings, arriving just before sunrise. Walking into the park at this time is unsettling and enriching in equal measure. The cold air pricks the skin and enlivens the lungs. The trees resemble ents, and it’s easy to imagine them ponderously contemplating the goings on of the passing centuries. The countless generations of rutting deer. There are some trees in the park estimated to be up to 900 years old. Trees that have witnessed the visit of Queen Elizabeth the first in 1561, and trees that were ancient when they were sketched by the artist John Constable in the 1800s.

The two species of deer have quite distinctive rutting calls. The red deer performs a long and drawn out guttural roar, which tails off to a spluttering grunt, whereas the fallow delivers a raucous staccato belching. To hear them stirs something deep in our own DNA. It provokes a long-forgotten strand of memory, of a time when we were part of the fauna, inhabiting the same realm as the deer, long before they became the picturesque adornment of the parkland of the landed gentry. It is the wilderness tamed.

I only witness one bout of battling between the red deer stags, but the fallow deer are full of bravado and energy. I can hear the click and clatter of antler deep in the wood as they slog it out, and every so often an exhausted buck tramps out, panting and dribbling, tongue lolling, barely able to stand.

Photographing them is great fun. I attempt to make use of the glorious autumn light that we have been blessed with. The weather has been kind so far this autumn. I try to be patient, waiting for the deer to stand in just the right place and in just the right pose, framed by the branches of the trees. One of my favourite stags has lost an antler in a bout of jousting, and he can regularly be found near the gardens waiting for the gardeners to bring out the tasty remnants from this year’s vegetable harvest. Such a noble beast, but more than happy to snaffle up garden leftovers.

The forecast is set to change next week, becoming much colder with arctic air bristling down from the north. There’s rain forecast, but I intend to go back to Helmingham and explore further. I hope to achieve a shot of a shaking stag with water exploding from it’s fur. I’ll also come back earlier in October next year, determined to see the red deer in full throttle skirmishes. It’s a challenge, and I can’t wait.

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