Have you ever wanted to go on safari but don’t fancy leaving the UK? Now you can, in Exmoor National Park in Somerset in the southwest of the UK. But, hang on, can you really see lions, elephants and rhinoceros among the heather and bracken? Well, no – not even Exmoor can conjure up the African ‘Big Five’. However, an Exmoor safari really is the next best thing.
You get to travel in a specially designed Land Rover, and there are plenty of binoculars to use. And you gain the splendid services of a larger-than-life guide, Richard, who looks like he’s a distant relation of Hagrid from Harry Potter and who barks out information as he maniacally wrenches the wheel of the 4×4 so that you lurch and bounce in your seat while listening with rapt attention to his fascinating stories. Welcome to Discovery Safaris of Porlock, for two-and-a-half rollicking hours of excitement!
An ex-soldier, Richard was determined to forge a path for himself that involved the outdoors. As he lived in Porlock, Exmoor was on his doorstep, and you don’t get a wilder part of the country than that. He spent several weeks living out on the moor, learning as much as he could about the habitat and its animals, before setting up Discovery Safaris. Now he takes visitors on hair-raising trips across Exmoor to learn about the wildlife of the area. And it’s not just squirrels and toads. Did you know, for instance, that the largest wild animal in the UK lives on Exmoor? For thousands of years red deer have roamed Exmoor, and Richard knows exactly where to find them.
As we set out on our search, Richard took us past a giant nest of wood ants. Fully three feet tall, it was a seething mass of the creepy critters. Luckily, for those with an aversion to this particular form of wildlife, we could gaze at the mound from the safety of the Land Rover. Next we were shown Bat Wood, a wild stretch of woodland that at dusk is dense with bats on the wing (although we had to take Richard’s word for this as our safari took place on a sunny autumn afternoon).
Next, Richard spooked our party with tales of the poisonous yellow spotted adder that likes to sunbathe in patches of stone. Then, all of a sudden, the Land Rover braked to a halt at the side of a track and Richard pointed urgently across the valley.
There stood a herd of red deer calmly cropping the grass. Most of them were hinds (female) but there were one or two stags distinguishable by their larger size and their impressive antlers. All the deer had distinctive red-coloured fur and brown-tipped ears. The stags stared unmovingly at us as we oohed and ahhed and clicked our camera shutters. They did look quite splendid, and so close too! It was like an early scene from Bambi (not the sad part!).
Richard gave us the lowdown on the stags and their antlers. Each year, around April or May, they shed their antlers and then grow a new set, each set bigger than the previous one with extra branches or points. A stag with 12 points is known as a Royal, one with 14 is called an Imperial, while the king of stags – the Monarch – has 16. That’s a lot of headgear to carry around. But what exactly is the purpose of them? Quite simply, rutting.
As we moved off to find another good spot, Richard launched into full dramatic mode. He set up the scene describing two stags readying to fight each other, then swerved the Land Rover right and left to simulate the movement of the stags as they clashed their antlers together. We clung on to our seatbelts and door handles, laughing nervously. The point of this fighting is to determine which stag is the strongest. When one is victorious, he assumes control of the herd and mates with the hinds. The deer then give birth to a roughly equal number of male and female calves. However, there always appear to be more females than males as, being larger, the male calves require more food and are more likely to die in the winter when it is scarce.
The reason red deer have survived so long is down to their senses. The deer’s vision is good, but is attuned to movement rather than detail. What we can see clearly at 100ft they can see only at 20ft. But because they can see 310 degrees without turning their head (because their eyes are at the side of their heads) they are very alert to predator movement. They also have much better vision than humans in low light – which is why dawn and dusk are their favourite times to be out and about. Their sense of smell is much better than a dog’s. Under the right conditions they can sniff out a human (or other predator) half a mile away. All this gives them a better chance to escape from danger. Despite this, hunting deer, once the sport of kings, is sadly still something that continues.
A few of us were curious about the antlers and demanded more explanation. Why did they shed their antlers, and more importantly, how? Did they just fall off? Not according to Richard. True to form, he explained how a stag would charge into a tree then wrench its head backwards, ripping the antlers off and leaving them embedded in the bark. He then revealed that the deer chew, yes actually chew, their torn-off antlers – for the calcium. This was all sounding rather too gruesome for us townies, too much ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’. Richard tempered this with the next part of the story – the new antlers that grow are covered in velvet. Ahh, now that sounded more like it. But not to the deer – the stags immediately scratch off the velvet by scraping their antlers against bushes. Of course, how could they possibly win a rutting fight with soft, velvety antlers?!
While trying to stifle these images of broken antlers and deer viciously clashing heads, we came upon another stag, nibbling at the bracken. At the sound of the Land Rover, he was startled and bounded over the heather, then stopped and looked at us, quivering slightly. His head and antlers were silhouetted against the sky – a truly majestic creature, if not a monarch of the moor, then definitely regal, regardless of the number of points he had.
As we headed back to base, we spied a couple of sturdy Exmoor ponies nuzzling each other and felt relieved that at least these familiar animals appeared calm and unruffled. With all the drama of the deer, we needed something to bring us back down to earth…
If you want to experience a truly exciting safari ride across Exmoor with the irrepressible Richard, contact Discovery Safaris of Porlock (www.discoverysafaris.com) to book your own adventure. Priced at £25 per person per trip, it is money well spent.