Au Natural: On the Trail of Roe Deer

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Award-winning wildlife photographer, Bret Charman, shares his recommendations for capturing one of Europe’s more timid animals, with practical advice and tips.

One of the fascinating things about wildlife in Europe, is that many species are over-looked. Is it that they are deemed too common, or is it that people just don’t know how to approach and photograph them? Well, one of those species in the UK is the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), only one of two native deer species in the country and particularly nervous around people...


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To photograph roe deer, you can’t go to one of the many parks. Instead you have to get out in to the countryside and do it the hard way. I am particularly lucky as I live within the South Downs National Park, and the rolling hills of the South Downs are one of the roe deer’s strongholds. In fact, the population here is so high that they are considered to be a pest species. For me though, there is no issue with having so many deer about, as it just makes the photographic opportunities and encounters more readily available.

I work a regular patch with permission from a conservation-minded land owner. This means I have the right to roam on more than 3,000 hectares of prime roe deer habitat, from rolling fields filled with wheat, barley and oilseed rape, to mixed woodland and open pasture.

The art of photographing roe deer takes time to perfect. The species is actively hunted and they have an innate fear of man, so you can’t simply turn up and get some shots. A great deal of knowledge, persistence and practice comes into play to capture a solitary image, let alone a portfolio. Firstly, you need to understand the landscape you are working in and know how to use the available cover, keeping you hidden for as long as possible. Then you need to take into account how the wind moves and changes across the landscape. If a roe deer catches your scent, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t get any keepers that day. As well as having a remarkable sense of smell, the roe deer has superb hearing and you can understand why with those satellite dish-like ears. Any wrong move within earshot will give your position away, whether that be stepping on a twig, or perhaps a cough or a sneeze. On top of that their eyesight is actually very good and any movement will alert them to your presence. In regards to the deer’s vision, they can actually see on the UV spectrum. You can be wearing the best camouflage in the world, but if the material shines under UV light, you will stand out like a sore thumb.

Hopefully by now you will have an idea of what it takes to start photographing roe deer, so now comes the fun bit: practice, practice and yet more practice. Trust me, you might initially get lucky and capture a dreamy image, but to keep doing so is where it becomes challenging. Going out again and again to build up a portfolio takes a lot of dedication and perseverance. This is part ofwhat keeps me coming back for more; if something is too easy then it is almost not worth the effort.

Over the last few years of working with roe deer, my approach has changed and gone are the days where I try to get as close as possible. Now I constantly work on trying something new. It is letting your approach evolve that allows you to a capture a broad range of images and really show the species in a new light.

If you get the opportunity to photograph roe deer, there are a few‘tricks of the trade’ I can give you. Firstly, it is important to have permission to work within quite a large area and, before you even try to take any pictures, explore every ditch, hedgerow, copse of woodland and the general terrain. A good time to do this is in the winter months, when there is less vegetation to get your clothes caught on and you can see the landscape. In spring, the female deer give birth to their young and are more elusive, but the males start to patrol their territory for the summer rut. My best piece of advice at this time of the year is to sit back and watch from afar. Grab a pair of binoculars and learn the deer’s habits from a distance. This gets the deer used to your scent in the area, without impeding on their day-to-day activities.

As spring turns to summer, the vegetation will be growing fast and providing the perfect cover for your photography. Now is the time to get out there and learn your trade. As summer progresses and the roe deer start to rut (July into August in the UK), the crops start to turn to beautiful golden hues and everything hopefully comes together. The key is to learn to pre-empt what the deer will do. I always scan the area with binoculars and try to get ahead of the deer, ensuring I am downwind and keeping a low profile. By letting the deer come to me, they are usually relaxed and often approach to within a few metres. The challenge then is moving so as not to disturb them. I am well known for crawling up to half a kilometre to try and get into, and out of,
a position.

If you are interested in photographing roe deer it really comes down to one thing: perseverance. You won’t necessarily get the rewards immediately, as your technique has to be worked on and perfected. As with all wildlife, the key to success is knowing and understanding your subject. Once you have that innate understanding of the roe deer’s behaviour, you can start to build up your portfolio of work. It is a real privilege to be allowed into the private life of a large mammal, particularly in the UK, and I hope that this inspires you to get out and try your luck with a local species.

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