It was the usual scenario. “What are we doing here, Daddy?”
“Er, we’re going for a walk,” I replied in a tight-lipped kind of way in the expectation of a volcanic reaction.
I wasn’t disappointed. “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! I don’t want to go for a walk.”
“Well, Mummy does, Mungo does and so do I, so you’ll just have to come along. Unless you want to stay in the car.”
At this point, Sam probably collapsed on the ground, wailing as if he’d just been told that an asteroid was about to smash into Legoland and obliterate it forever. But I can’t be sure, because I’d stalked off to get a parking ticket.
Plus, at that point I bumped into Michael Wilson, information officer at RSPB Arne on Dorset’s the Isle of Purbeck (a short peninsula that forms the southern side of Poole Harbour) and I was doing my best to pretend that the family standing around the metallic-blue Ford Focus – that may or may not have included a five-year-old boy beating the ground with his fists – was nothing to do with me.
I’d originally arranged with Michael to turn up at Arne at first light (without the family), because that, he said, would give us the best chance of running into our quarry for the day – rutting (or fighting, in other words) sika deer stags.
Storm St Jude had put paid to that idea, but by the time we woke at, well, about first light, it had largely blown itself out. So we went anyway – to have a walk, of course. Seeing any sikas would have to be a bonus. And though the deer depicted in The Gruffalo’s Child looks more like a roe deer (it’s the short antlers, since you ask), it was still another species to tick for the boys.
Michael said he had half an hour to spare and offered to set us off on a walk. Arne is a mixture of woodland, scrubby heathland and coast, and on this late October, now surprisingly sunny Sunday, morning, it was looking beautifully autumnal. In short, it was a perfect day for a walk.
It was a perfect day for a walk – and picking up oak leaves and acorns.
Within 10 minutes, Michael had found us some sika deer. They’re close relatives of red deer, though slightly smaller and slightly less red. They’re native to the Far East, and they were originally introduced to nearby Brownsea Island. There they would have stayed, except sika deer – like all deer – can swim. There was a stag and two hinds, and there wasn’t a lot of rutting going on. What I’d really come here for was to hear the noises the males make – oddly, high-pitched calls that I’ve heard described by former Springwatch presenter Kate Humble as sounding like a rusty gate, but there was none of that either.
The stag clearly didn’t need to rut. He had his girls, and he was doing just fine, thank you very much, so we wandered on. Sam got a decent look, but they were 100m or so away, and he wasn’t hugely impressed. But at least, by now, he’d more or less accepted the walk situation. (Though I’ve just been told by his mother that she’d given him a piggy back for the first half a mile.)
Michael left us and we carried on to the beach, along the sandy shore, then headed back inland. Below and to our right, dendritic channels of water had felt their way into what looked like a dark green expanse of saltmarsh. “It’s the Amazon,” Sam declared confidently. He’d seen it on the Octonauts, which is fast becoming his wildlife Bible. His mood had noticeably improved and was now verging on ebullient, so I wasn’t going to complain about a minor geographical error, or contradict Captain Barnacles.
To a boy who has been raised on a diet of Octonauts, this isn’t Arne RSPB Reserve, but the Amazon.
And then, entering a small area of woodland, we heard it. To me, it didn’t sound so much like a rusty gate as a rabbit being dispatched to meet its maker, but there’s no doubt what it was – a sika deer, unless of course it was a rabbit. And then, there it was again, somewhere within the deep, dark wood…
I picked up Mungo, and walked towards where the noise appeared to be coming from. There it was again, this time from a different direction. And again, but still I saw nothing. By now, Louise and Sam had caught up with us. We stood, gazing outwards in all directions, in a small clearing. And there they were, two deer, a stag and a hind, just 20m away, picking their way silently along the edge of the wood.
“Wow,” said Sam. “Wow, that’s amazing” (and all without a hint of irony or sarcasm – well, he is only five). The stag looked at us briefly, and carried on. There was no sign of a rival, and we didn’t hear any of those strange, slightly pathetic squeaky calls again.
And that, more or less – apart from a few running races and the like – was the end of our adventure. Back at the carpark, Sam and Mungo were given some well-earned treats. But despite the bribery, despite our efforts at almost Pavlovian conditioning (you go on a walk, you get chocolate), I’m quite sure what reaction I will get next time I suggest that we are going on a walk. And it won’t be, “Hooooooooray!”
Arne’s network of tracks were perfect for running races.