Let's set a scene, it's 2011, I have not long owned my first DSLR and have not really found my purpose with it. Sure I have gone around taking some nice pictures of my cats but I made an investment and am looking to build it into a hobby. I need a better subject, I want to head somewhere relatively local to me but still outside of urban sprawl and endless cul-de-sacs to find something more interesting. The first suggestion I get from my family is Cannock Chase - less than 45 minutes drive and it has wild roaming deer. I put together my extensive photography kit, which at that point comprises a single lens and entry level body, load up the car and get on my way exploring the Chase; hopping from lay-by to car-park, I clamber through the overgrowth and down the less trodden paths hoping to catch a glimpse of antlers. And what do i find? Absolutely nothing! But on the drive home a small female darts across the road, not so close as to cause an accident, but now I know for certain they are there and that sparked an ongoing obsession to get immortalise a deer in a photograph. But throughout the coming months of exploring the Chase, getting to know the area and all of its hidden spots, I would develop a love for 3 things: The great outdoors, photography and deer - the first two being my two primary hobbies now and the latter being my favourite bit of UK wildlife.
We return soon after, again and again. Quickly I begin to figure out not only just how skittish deer can be but that the Chase is much larger than I had originally assumed. It took a while, Most of our trips would either have no sightings, fleeting glimpses or I would simply run out of daylight, but eventually I caught my first snap of a deer - a blurry, oversaturated and noisy deer, who was too far away to get a solid picture of with my set-up at the time.
There it is, my first photo of a deer I ever caught, hardly my magnum opus - but to me it didn't matter, I had been trying to capture a picture for months and that blurry mess was a symbol of the inevitable! I knew I would start getting better and better photos but I also knew adjustments were required if I wanted to really get in close; Firstly, I had to start travelling alone, it can be great to have someone with you while you explore but they need to be as obsessed with getting the photo, otherwise they will get bored and end the trip prematurely. My trekking buddies of the time were great fun, I would still hike with them often after this, but If I seriously wanted to get that picture I had to travel alone too. I also tried new approaches, heading over at night and in different weather - it was considerably easier to find them but much more difficult to grab the photo I wanted in lower lighting or poor conditions, so I knew dawn and dusk would be preferable. Finally I came to the conclusion that a point-and-shoot lens, while possible, wasn't really going to cut it - I opted for a fairly entry level zoom lens, the 250mm zoom would be plenty for what I needed. With my new solo exploration and my improved knowledge of the area I continued on, and less than a month later I was starting to get the kind of photos I was hoping for.
Of course, this is just the start of years of exploring the Chase, hoping to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures in just the right pose with just the right lighting and framing. It is worth noting that I, of course, could have gone to nature parks or petting zoos that had deer and grabbed a decent photo within seconds of arrival, and I also could have sought the advice of a more experienced deer spotter and followed them to find the picture I was after, but this was as much about the journey as it was the destination. I fully believe I would not have had my love of all things natural and outdoors if it wasn't for the months I spent trying to get a half-way-decent snap of these wonderful animals.
As I built my knowledge of the areas around the Chase I did learn a few things, hopefully these tips might help you snag the your first picture of these marvellous creatures. Take this advice and begin exploring - my goal is not to say "If you go here and wait long enough deer will eventually go past", even though there are spots that would likely be true, this advice is meant to be a jumping off point to go explore one of England's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, hopefully finding a fun adventure along the way.
Where to be...
There are no guarantees when exploring the Chase, or anywhere that has deer for that matter. I wish I could say "go to these co-ordinates and you will definitely see deer", but its just too variable - I could certainly pick some spots where you have higher odds, but it is better to have a certain range within which to explore. These are wild creatures and a lot of factors affect where they will appear, but what I can do however, is give you places not to be. There are several places in the Chase where you will practically never see deer, at the very most you might see some on the outer fringes of these spots, before they get frightened away by people, dogs or cars. The first of these spots is at the centre of Cannock Chase, the visitors area, coupled with a few holiday parks and camping grounds, if you're visiting during the day when these spots are swarmed with cars and people you'll mostly be wasting your time exploring anywhere near here.
The major A-roads that bisect the Chase are only good to see the occasional crossing, and even then you're unlikely to see deer for very long - once a deer is spooked it tends to run and keep running for a good while. This means you're generally better keeping to the North of the A460, for the simple reason it is larger and will give you more chances of finding them. The deer still have plenty of places to hide though, so you will still have to be patient and get exploring.
What to avoid...
A lot of what you need to know here is just common sense, but it can easily be overlooked or forgotten while you're out exploring - enjoying that fresh air and beautiful nature. First things foremost: while you can explore in a large group everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to noise - deer have good hearing and love to bolt at the first sign of trouble, so keep the chatter to a minimum when searching. Secondly, as much as we love our four legged friends they are a a guaranteed way to scare off deer, as you are basically bringing a predator to visit them. Finally, avoid any strong odours as deer have an excellent sense of smell, you should also try to remain down-wind during any encounters to reduce the likelihood of spooking them.
Of course you can take all the necessary precautions but other people can ruin your day all the same, walkers may not necessarily share your goal to snap up deer and often a free-roaming dog will keep the deer running as far away as they can get. The best you can do is navigate away from anywhere you spot dog walkers or large crowds and, with a little luck, hopefully use them to your advantage: circling away from noisy groups or dogs may cause the deer to be spooked towards you, get your camera ready with a rapid shutter speed and hopefully catch them at full sprint. Finally, you need to be equally respectful to the other nature walkers in the area, try not to block the paths and remember that other folk may be there to spot other wildlife such as birds. If everyone is mindful of each other, then everyone's day can go smoother!
What to know...
Obviously there is a lot to know when trying to track any animal, but it doesn't need to be overly complicated. Firstly, you should tread lightly and constantly scan the horizon. Deer will tend to hear even the most feather-footed once within a certain range, but they might not run as long as you're quiet. They will often just stare you down - a pattern you may notice in the photos in this article, if you time it right it can make for a beautiful photo. Deer almost always travel in herds so if you spot one there is often more in the bushes or hidden by the bracken, so try to use this to your advantage. It may be tempting to rush up and quickly snap the lone deer, but if they haven't spotted you yet try watching them for a while, figure out where (if they are) moving and circling around to get a shot of the whole family. If you find a single deer on one side of the road it may be the rest of the herd has already crossed, try to give the lone deer a wide berth while finding the rest.
Directly tracking a deer is absolutely possible but I don't recommend it - primarily because you're in an area that is popular with dog walkers, cyclists and other groups, the deer here are often spooked and sprinting all over the place, so unless you've got all day to spend tracking you will be better off recognising the spots they frequent and circling around some of their hotspots. That said, keep an eye for deer paths and deer beds where the undergrowth has been trampled - paths will be lightly trampled/parted undergrowth, sometimes difficult to spot, but the deer's bedding areas will be circular and stand out. Once you know a few different routes and bed spots you can start circling the area, deer seem to always frequent the same spots so hopefully you won't be waiting too long. If you really want to get deep into the muck and start tracking droppings, looking for grazing patterns and alike there are better resources out there than this article but I assure you: you really won't need to go to such lengths to get your photos. But if you do find yourself digging in the dung, I really hope the end resulting photos are worth the effort!