The chalky grassland of Coombe Bissett Down offers a wealth of wildlife to its visitors: its steep valley slopes are peppered with vibrant wildflowers, such as selfheal, eyebright and devil's-bit scabious, which are flitted between by butterflies of browns and blues; small armies of bees add to the buzzing chorus of beetles and bush crickets; and mewing raptors circle lazily in the sky – high above the flocks of titmice and finches that sing from the scattered hawthorn shrubs. The reserve’s mammals, however, are not quite as conspicuous.

I spent the last two months rummaging through the scrub and hedges of Coombe Bissett Down in an attempt to get an insight into the lives of Britain’s wild mammals. With the assistance of a trail camera (and blind luck), I was able to capture a few of the reserve’s more elusive inhabitants along with some fascinating behaviour that I have never seen before. Mammals are much more social and habitual than I had expected, and some individuals had quite distinctive personalities. What struck me most, however, was the diversity of mammals that I was able to photograph in just one reserve.

European Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus

During the 18th century, roe deer were extinct through most of Britain, but they have since been successfully reintroduced and are now widespread among landscapes of mixed woodland and fields. They are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk, and it is relatively easy to see them – I have seen them multiple times at Coombe Bissett Down – but usually at some distance where they are grazing or running away. The deer also proved particularly difficult to capture with a camera trap as they spend a lot of time in open fields where there are no convenient trees to strap a camera onto. That said, a small tree at the edge of a wooded region of the reserve showed signs of ‘fraying’ where a male deer had stripped the bark off by rubbing his antlers against it; luck would have it that a male decided to mark his scent there one night. 

Roe marking, Oliver Davies 

Roe deer have scent glands on their forehead, hind legs and feet, which they use to establish breeding territories and convey information about sex, age and status of the individual. This male’s antlers will shed in late autumn, immediately start growing again, and be fully formed by the following March.

Roe herd, Oliver Davies 

Unlike fallow deer (Dama dama), which congregate in large herds sometimes 100 strong, roe deer are usually seen alone or in small family groups. They also bark like a dog, which acts as an alarm call.

Stay tuned for more wildlife footage from Coombe Bissett next week!