Photographing European fallow deer in Charente-Maritime, France
The European fallow deer: a very difficult animal to photograph
We learned by chance that the European fallow deer, Dama dama, had been reintroduced into some areas of Charente-Maritime, France. Usually, the deer is found in the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, Essonne, Loire and Indre. As we were in the area, we took advantage of this chance to get some wildlife photos.
Unsuccessful attempts at tracking
In our first attempts at following the deer, we tried to use the same tactics as we had for tracking wild pigs. It was not a very good idea. We did not know how to do it properly, because we had never had the opportunity to go to the east of France to photograph deer. After two days of tracking the animals, we had to face facts: we would have to learn the habits of these animals before we would be able get anywhere near them.
We were in a closed area of several hundred acres, where the animals live in a natural environment. They are not fed. They must fend for themselves. As a result, they have retained their natural instincts and are very suspicious of people.
We contacted a bow hunter who specializes in hunting wild fallow deer. During our years of photography, we have learned that bow hunters and photographers have exactly the same problems. They both have to get very close to animals without being detected. The hunter taught us about the habits of fallow deer and the best ways to find them and approach them without being heard.
A medium-sized deer with a variety of coat colors
Fallow deer are medium-sized compared to other species of deer. Male deer, or bucks, measure 4 to 5 in length, and are 3 feet tall at the withers on average. They weigh approximately 140 pounds. Female deer, or does, are slightly smaller. They can be up to 4 feet long, and are a little under 3 feet tall at the withers. They weigh around 80 pounds.
While most deer are reddish fawn with white spots, they can also be black, or even completely white.
The bucks have broad palmate antlers which can weigh up to 15 pounds. They shed these annually during April and May. Young deer are called fawns.
An animal with remarkable physical abilities
Now that we knew more about the proper way to approach deer, we tried again. We looked for a herd of deer with binoculars, and once we had found one, we started our approach, staying aware of the direction of the wind and the position of the sun.
We soon learned that the bucks live in small groups away from the does. We also spotted does with fawns grazing peacefully in the meadows.
At the beginning of our project, we did not know just how keen the senses of these deer are. They have excellent sight, hearing, and smell. If they heard so much as the crunch of a twig 100 yards away, the whole herd would leap off with surprising alacrity. We were surprised by how high they can jump. They get up to 7 feet off of the ground, and can cover 20 feet in one jump. They are also extremely fast. We have learned that they can get up to 45 miles per hour for brief spurts, with an average speed of 30 miles per hour for longer sprints.
An animal with very sharp natural senses
In our first photography sessions, we quickly realized the tactics that we had used with other species of European deer were not going to work. We decided to use blinds, instead of trying to stalk the deer, since they are very suspicious of people.
Any unusual or new element in its environment is potentially a danger to a fallow deer. When we first set up our blinds, the deer consistently avoided them: the blinds were something new, and therefore, until proven otherwise, they were a danger. Also, however well we were camouflaged, the deer would still avoid us at first because of our camera lenses. Even if we had the sun at our backs and the lenses reflected no light, the deer could still see them, and so they kept well away until they were sure that the lenses were harmless.
Photographing fallow deer in a natural environment is very challenging
In France, some people keep half-tame fallow deer live around their houses, because they are beautiful animals, very "decorative" and very social. Even if they are not tame, they may very well live near houses in the meadows. But even if they are still very suspicious, they can be approached.
However, in the wild, the deer act very differently. In a wild herd, there is always a doe who is looking for any noise or any unusual movement. If she sees or hears anything that she doesn’t like, she growls to warn the herd, then runs away in the direction which she chooses. The whole herd follows her.
We only took pictures from our blinds. Usually herds of fallow deer move through the meadows by fairly established paths. After a few days, we had come to understand the paths. Following the advice of the bow hunter, we managed to put our ground blinds in the right place so that they would not attract the deers’ attention.
When we approached the deer outside the blinds, we were able to take several photographs, while the animals were lying in the grass and brooding. This is the best time to approach them, even if it is difficult. The slightest suspicious noise and the watcher alerts the group to leave.
Our fondest memory: photographing a male from a ground blind
Our fondest memory from this trip is undoubtedly the magnificent male that we managed to photograph from less than 25 yards away. On the one hand, we were very proud because the deer had not spotted us, and secondly, he was a beautiful animal in the beautiful morning light.
We found a large meadow where the herds of males would come to graze. We arrived very early to avoid being seen while getting to the blind. We had waited for two hours when we saw a deer walking nonchalantly through the woods on our left. We decided not to move our lens towards him, since even that small movement would probably have alerted him of our presence.
We waited quietly for him to walk in front of us. We were very excited. Our hearts were pounding just as they had when we spotted our first deer. We breathed softly. He grazed peacefully, looking up from time to time to keep an eye on the surroundings. We were glued to our viewfinders, waiting for the right time to start taking our pictures. When we started, he raised his head, wondering what the crackling noise was. Despite the anti-noise accessories we use, the camera still makes some noise, and that is enough to alert these animals.
He stayed for thirty seconds, looking at our blind, wondering what he should do. Finally, after three bounds and a sprint, he was out of sight.
But we had what we wanted: a beautiful portrait of a male European fallow deer.
The European fallow deer, a prey of choice for photograph hunters
Over the course of our visit, we learned to love this extraordinary animal. It has become rare in the region. There are few places where it can still be photographed in its natural environment. But it is beautiful, graceful, and intelligent animal, and a prey of choice for wildlife photographers. Now we know how to take good photographs of it.