Woburn Abbey is not very far away from where I live. Every now an then I like to go for a walk through the deer park. I know they’re not real wild deer, but the park is a great place to watch deer at close quarters and in fairly natural surroundings. Put another way, it is 3,000 acres of grassland, trees, small copses and lakes – although it is managed habitat it offers a chance to see all manner of wildlife.
If you look back at previous years you’ll see that I make a point of visiting the Deer Park in October for the Red Deer rut, and this is truly a spectacle to behold. I recommend it to anyone if they’re able to travel to Woburn. But actually, the park is a good place to visit at any time, especially with the attached safari park and zoo.
It is perfectly possible to visit the Deer Park and see plenty of deer without even having to leave your car. There is a public highway that crosses the park – you can drive through (carefully, mind) and the deer are there either side of the road. But this isn’t the best way to see it. There is a whole network of public footpaths that means you can leave the car in one of the neighbouring villages and stroll through on foot. You can even work out a big circular walk on the paths that takes you well away from the road and into some lovely hidden spots.
Scarlett and I took a walk through the park to visit the monthly farmer’s market in Woburn village. I like doing this, as it gives me a chance to combine a bit of wildlife with some local shopping, although the highlight of the day is usually in the crypt of Woburn parish church, where they serve tea and home-made cakes. What more could you ask for in a walk?
The park is home to Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, the last three species having inevitably escaped and become naturalised in the local area. A fifth species, Pere David’s Deer, have so far remained in the park. They have the distinction of having been made extinct in their native China but were preserved in Woburn and a few other places, so successfully that they have now been re-introduced back in their homeland.
Pere David’s are slightly odd-looking, vaguely cow-like deer. They can be identified quickly by their backward-pointing antlers (the points of Red Deer antlers face forward). In their breeding season they gather foliage on their antlers as a display, which is quite a distinctive feature.
When we visited, the Pere David’s were congregated around and in one of the ponds, standing up to their knees in the water. I’m not sure why – it wasn’t that hot. Perhaps it is another of their odd behaviours.
The Red Deer are almost ready for the rut now, but the stags are still in groups. Soon they’ll separate and start calling to attract their own ‘harem’ of females. The ones in the picture above are still quite young. As they grow older they will develop more points on their antlers and lose their spots. There are some real monster stags at Woburn.
Fallow Deer, like the ones above, were introduced to Britain by the Normans. They are easily identifiable by their ‘palmate’ antlers (which are flat, like the palm of your hand, I suppose). Colour is not an absolutely reliable feature for any species, as a rule, but Fallow Deer are typically much lighter than other species, being spotted or even entirely white (a pure white deer was frequently seen running wild around our village a few years ago, a bit like a deer version of Moby Dick).
The deer were the main feature of our walk, but there was plenty more to be seen. Scarlett enjoyed seeing ducks on the ponds and rabbits on the grass. I enjoyed finding a wasps’ nest dug out by a badger (so there are badgers about even here, in this managed park!) But the church in Woburn deserves a mention too, from a naturalist’s point of view (and not just for tea and cakes).
St. Mary’s church is relatively modern, being built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in the 1860’s to replace the older church in the village. It is handsome enough though, with some fantastic gargoyles. The vicar, Steve, is a nice chap too. For me, though, one of the most interesting features is inside: a window commemorating Mary, the ‘Flying Duchess’. Mary is a fascinating character. She was a noted aviator, hence the name, and she was lost without trace in a flying accident over the sea in 1937. During the Great War she set up a hospital for servicemen at Woburn that still bears the name ‘Marylands’, although it is now in the process of being converted to luxury flats. For more information on Mary, see Wikipedia.
OK – fascinating history lesson, BWM, but where is this actually going? Well, in addition to her other interests, the Duchess was also a keen birdwatcher. After her death, she was commemorated with a large stained-glass window in the church depicting St. Francis of Assisi (“Whose work was in the hospitals, whose delight was in the birds” – very fitting).
And this is the point I’m slowly getting to. The artist of the window decorated it with birds found in Woburn Abbey and the park. An idea is forming in my mind – the ‘Flying Duchess Challenge’. If all these birds are local, then why don’t I set myself the target of seeing them and ticking them off a list? Following in Mary’s footsteps, if you will.
This is where it gets tricky. The picture above is a big, hi-res image so you can zoom in on the birds. Some are common enough – magpie, tawny owl, heron and so on. Some are much more challenging. That looks like a chough in the top right. I’ve seen these on Anglesey, but they vanished from southern England a long time ago. Some birds are downright difficult. There’s a hoopoe in there, and they’ve been recorded in Bedfordshire fewer than half a dozen times since the 1940s. It will definitely be a challenge, firstly to identify all the birds on the window, and secondly (and more difficult still) to actually see them, particularly locally.
I like the idea of it, even if it is nearly impossible. I’ll keep you posted.