The first wildlife I encountered when I crossed over the bridge into Tring Park was the grasshoppers. They were everywhere, their electric buzz sounding from every direction. The pale grass in which they were concealed was jungle-thick with a million places to hide, but a particularly noisy individual drew me in and I knelt on the grass and studied the ground intensely. Suddenly I found the culprit, rubbing its legs together with fierce ferocity. I just managed to take a few quick photos before the insect propelled itself into the air, leaving the leaf bouncing with the impact.
As stunning as the open parkland was – with butterflies flitting through the grass and red kites wheeling in slow circles overhead – I sought the shade of the forest, already beginning to perspire in another bout of sweltering August heat. The cooling cover of the trees was instantaneous and I made my way up the hill. Sloping overhead from left and right, the trees sighed as a breeze whistled through them. The canopy was a blend of greens, browns, oranges and, where the sun was shining, molten gold. Further up the hill I found a small clearing speckled with sun and shade and set down my blanket. Blue tits churred up in the trees and a distant jay screeched into the silence.
The first activity came from two grey squirrels who came darting at full pelt straight through the clearing. One continued right past me but the second wasn’t nearly so trusting. Hopping onto a nearby tree, the squirrel studied me intensely. After a few moments’ deliberation, it decided to take the long way round and shimmied up the tree in fragmented bursts, pausing every so often to stare again, bushy tail twitching. I’d obviously plonked myself in a squirrel playground and this one was making sure I knew it.
After the branches had stopped shivering from the squirrels’ antics, the forest fell silent. My eyes kept catching on long lines of spider web that sparkled each time the sun touched them. They were mesmerising; delicate gossamer threads lifted by the breeze. Behind them, voices permeated through the forest and a group of dog walkers marched past, each dog’s nose on overdrive with all the enticing aromas. Another squirrel foraged close by, exploring the leaf litter in small hops and tail twitches.
Every so often a single leaf would fall, twirling slowly to the ground like confetti. It seemed that no animal had disturbed it, so it must already be the beginning of autumn. Soon, the leaves would explode into warm colours and tumble to the ground before the first frost.
There was another rustle to my right and I glanced up, expecting to see another dog walker or jogger. An involuntary gasp escaped and I watched in disbelief as a female roe deer headed straight towards me. She briefly disappeared behind a tree and when she emerged suddenly spotted me, stopping dead in her tracks three metres from where I was sat. For several long moments we stared at each other, both equally incredulous. I willed her not to be scared of me but she was naturally rigid with unease. My camera lay right next to me within easy reach, but I knew the second I moved she would bolt. So I ignored my photographer’s instinct and stayed frozen.
We continued to gaze at each other and I took the opportunity to admire her beautiful face with its large, black nose and literal doe eyes. Eventually she skirted around me, falling back to a safer distance and emerging onto the path, her elegant legs moving in long strides. As she retreated I grabbed my camera and snapped just before she disappeared, although of course my real photo opportunity was long gone.
There comes a time when an encounter is worth not getting the picture and I believe that was one of those times (or so I kept telling myself afterwards). Not only would reaching for my camera have startled the deer unfairly, but it would have undoubtedly shortened my time with her. For those few precious seconds I ignored all distractions and savoured the thrill of engaging with a wild animal, especially one as naturally wary as a deer. Experiences like that don’t happen every day and sometimes it’s best to simply be in the moment, even if you pass up the possibility of a killer Instagram post.
Long after the deer had gone I buzzed with excitement. The afternoon was warm but goose bumps had risen on my arms as I sat relishing the encounter. I’d always been captivated by the elegance and composed beauty of deer. In a way I found them near mythical. Despite their supposed abundance I very rarely see them, so to experience one so unexpectedly close and without any warning was exhilarating.