Monthly Archives: August 2015
My novel Five Days on Ballyboy Beach is featured today on Long and Short Reviews for their anniversary party. If you click on the link you can enter a raffle for a $100 voucher for books on Amazon, or Barnes and Nobel and other stuff.
I’d like to say mismanagement right off, but we’ll get to that.
The place I’m talking about is Pamplona’s city park, called the Taconera, made out of the old city walls/moats.
Now that the festival is over, the city has gone back to being famous for it’s fortifications, and it’s small herd of red deer that live in one section of these.
There have been deer there for decades. There were other mammals, like goats, and wild boar for a long time, but they were removed over the years. The deer are accompanied by a lot of fowl and a few wild species, like pigeons, magpies and pestering Jackdaws.
The deer did go at one point (for unknown reasons, though the public was told it was due to inbreeding; a patent lie) but a new herd of two stags and eight hinds were purchased four years ago, not long after I moved here.
At first, there were no problems. The calves all settled down in their fairly open enclosure, and learned that the people looking down on them were no threat, and in fact dropped bread for them to eat (there is a lot of left-over bread in Spain; too much for mere ducks to consume).
Those in charge, I assumed, had been in charge of the previous herd, and had years of experience of deer.
I was wrong.
Through a friend, I found out that the vets who are responsible for the deer are better at their other job of health inspection than large mammal husbandry. Those who feed the animals are merely gardeners, and are ill-equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary, or indeed aware that their activities and actions can actually create future problems for their wards.
The first problem happened when the hinds became pregnant as yearlings and gave birth as two-year-olds. This was a big surprise to the vets. I’ve no idea why, other than extreme ignorance of deer biology.
They assumed the small calves “hiding” in the short-cropped grass (no areas had been left grow into a meadow for such, or has been since) had been abandoned by the dam, and my explanation to the contrary came too late for the first calf out of the six born that year not to have been given bottles – of what kind of milk, I don’t know.
Next year, more calves were born. The herd rose to around twenty, but some were removed – why, or which ones, was never explained. One of the features of this park is that there is no scrutiny, no explanations, no public information. I’ve tried to get answers from the local council, writing emails, but gotten no reply. I’ve written letters to the same newspaper that published my video, pointing out problems in management and husbandry, but received no acknowledgement, much less had them published.
The real problems came when the two stags grew each year and fought during the rut. Conflicts were minimised when two-year-olds, because one stag broke an antler, though he was dominant. His antler was not great the following year, but during their fourth year, they were both spectacular.
The staff’s lack of experience from bad husbandry bore ill fruit.
They had treated the deer as domestic pets.
Worse, they still do.
However, during the rut, these are dangerous animals.
The solution for the park was to put the deer up on a revelin, a triangular mound surrounded by lower ground, and close the gate at the bottom of the ramp they use to access this high ground (their favourite place and the only continuous shade under some big cedars to shade them).
Unfortunately, one of the stags was kicked off the ten-foot wall. No biggie for a deer, but he could not get back up. And down below he was left alone without even a shrub to thrash his antlers against.
And then a gardener came in.
I wasn’t there, and there was only a witness after the gardener had been fending off the testosterone-crazed animal for a few minutes, raising the alarm.
But it’s not hard to figure out what happened.
The deer had no fear. He’d been raised to consider humans harmless. Suddenly one was approaching – it had to be a rival, another deer which he could spar with, could expend his energy on. So it attacked.
People don’t get attacked in the wild because even the testosterone-fuelled anger can’t over-ride fear of humans, them being hunters and all.
On deer farms, most stags get their antlers removed, just like bulls are dehorned.
In this case, going in alone was a mistake.
The man survived, but he won’t go back to work there.
The deer did not survive. It was removed next day. I asked if it might be donated to a soup kitchen, but got no reply.
That’s all fine and dandy. Mistakes happen. We learn from them.
Or we don’t.
There was still a pricket (a one-year-old stag with simple straight points) up with the other mature stag. It was kicked out a few days later, down on the lower level. Of course, the lessons had been learned. The gardeners would not expose themselves to danger again.
No. I witnessed several scenes of stupidity.
While the guys entered in pairs, they didn’t stick together the whole time. One guy stood five yards from the young stag and fed it corn, then took photos of it with his phone, while his superior walked away – a good fifty yards away.
I saw them stand in front of the big stag behind the fence while the stag made the gestures I’d observed while I’d studied the choreography of fighting in deer as an undergrad. The stag won each stand-off. They did not open the gate to feed the hungry deer, now running out of fresh grass up on their small enclosure.
A few days after that, the young stag was gone.
I asked where it was, and was curtly told it was gone and further enquiries could be made to the city council. These enquiries, as I said, went unanswered.
Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’d had another scare with it. It seemed so peaceful, but I’m sure the first big stag also looked peaceful till it attacked.
What followed was a debacle of the highest order.
The deer remained in their enclosure of less than half a hectare for the rest of the winter. All eleven of them.
Every attempt to enter the enclosure simply further enforced the idea in the stag’s mind that this was a battle against rivals, and he was keeping his harem safe from them with his threats. The men backed down every time. They were afraid, and treated the deer as a danger rather than showing it who was boss – who was the fucking human, for god’s sake.
The grass was grazed away. Animal welfare groups threatened the council with court cases unless the situation was improved. Eventually the gardeners resorted to throwing up hay onto the wall.
The stag remained in rut in part because the hinds were not all pregnant – because they didn’t have enough forage to achieve sufficient body condition.
Then the newspaper reported that the stag would be sold to a farm, and no stag would be present for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’d artificially inseminate the hinds after a number of years.
That was when I wrote a letter to the paper pointing out that if just one of the hinds were pregnant with a male calf, their plans would not work out quite like that.
I saw a group being led through the park one morning, marking places on the walls, and on their exit, the stag was taunted – to demonstrate its antagonism, I suppose. A few days later, the stag was still there, but had lost its antlers.
The farm did not want the stag with its weapons intact. Of course – it’s a deer in need of re-education.
Why antler removal had not been used right after the attacks was another mystery, for a while. I found out, from that friend, that someone in the office considered it unsightly for a stag to be in the park with no antlers. But starving the hinds was ok…
That raised its own set of questions. Who are these deer for? For us, the public? Then why not let us know what is going on? Why not just get rid of the deer otherwise? If the public will disprove of a de-antlered stag, surely we object to the stags (and hinds and calves) being removed without explanation.
A week or two after that, some safety barriers were installed. These are like the fences you see in a bullring, if you’ve ever seen them, where the humans can hind behind a narrow gap between the wall behind them and the barrier in front.
Useful. Especially five months beforehand.
Not such a great necessity if you’re planning to have only hinds in the herd for the next five to eight years…
Perhaps they’d read my letter.
So the stag was shipped off, and the hinds were allowed down to graze on new grass and put on some weight before birthing. Five of them had given birth over the course of a week or more. Another was born a few weeks later.
I assume at least one more will give birth this year. I haven’t been by since before the festivals started, in early July. The deer were enclosed up on the revelin despite the heat wave and the only water available down low. I hoped the plan was not to leave them there for the festival, but next day the gate was open.
Hinds and young calves in late July.
What concerned me most was seeing, a few weeks before that, the gardeners feeding the deer the leaves and twigs of the trees they’d pruned in preparation for the festivals. I don’t object to the deer getting some variation in their diet, some roughage, some browse, of course. The problem was that as the gardeners went by with more branches, they held them out to the hinds, encouraging them to approach, and in one case, eat out of his hand.
A calf born to that hind will grow up believing humans are nothing to be feared. When he grows a nice rack at maturity, and testosterone tells him these beings, who are no threat, are rivals for his hinds, he’ll do what nature tells him, and through human stupidity yet again, he’ll be shipped out to a farm. If he’s lucky.
A gleam of hope has appeared recently in the change of city mayor, and the council. The head of the department responsible for the deer has been changed. The new leader is a biologist, who studied with some folk I know, and hopefully will be a bit more enlightened about the management of this tiny herd. That way, I, and the few citizens like me who are aware of and interested in the minutia of the herd, can enjoy them without the frustration as we’ve felt watching such a mess being made, and, more importantly, the deer are allowed to be as wild as possible, as free as possible, and not suffer as they have, simply because of their keepers’ ignorance.
I must add an addendum here, even as I post this.
I had a stroll past the park yesterday after being away on holidays, and saw that the herd now consisted of 8 adult females. All of this year’s offspring have been removed. Since it’s only the middle of August, all of these were of course still suckling from their dams. I’m not sure, however, of the animal welfare issues in separating them if the young are sold to a farm – whether they will be given supplemental milk – but given that the hunting season for female deer is always delayed until at least October in consideration that dams will be yet lactating (and I found during my studies that a third of hinds were lactating still in January and February), I find it a bit callous to say the least.
With just hinds in the herd, it seems that we may as well empty the park completely of deer. There will be no rut to watch, no births to witness, no calves to observe take their first steps or suckle; just frisky hinds mounting one another and going through oestrus every month all winter.
Who wouldn’t rather see some sheep or goats down there instead?
As writers, poets, we often have to describe a scene, or try to. Sometimes the scene is invented, but we also borrow real experiences for our fiction, and we strive to faithfully put down words that will at least echo the actual situation we saw.
Nowadays we can take photos of most things. We can video a bit of a concert (though I much rather just watch) or take a panoramic shot of the top of a mountain. This helps convey to others the kind of experience you’ve had.
And sometimes that’s just impossible. There are things for which you just had to be there. And among those who were there, the phrase, “remember that time…” will always come up.
I had one of those last night.
The Perseid meteor shower was supposed to make lots of shooting stars, but it was cloudy. I went outside to read my book and wait to see if the sky would clear.
I’m in a village with 5 streetlights a mile from the next 5 streetlights and 20 from the city, so it’s pretty dark and we can see the Milky Way on a clear night.
Off to the north east a row of storms lit up the sky. They must have hung all along the Pyrenees, because though the wind was coming from that direction and I could hear the windmills on the hills between me and the lightening, I could hear no thunder.
And there must have been constant thunder, for the lightening never stopped. For the whole hour or more I was there I did not count more than a second and a half between flashes.
I’d never seen such a spectacle. It was like natural fireworks, like a light show at a concert but traced across a swath of sky, like there was a battle of the Gods taking place. Each flash illuminated a different section of cloud, their formations changing all the time.
And the strange thing was that up above me the sky was perfectly clear. I could see the Milky Way; though waiting for shooting stars was hard with the distraction and the light “pollution” from the show.
Taking a photo, or trying to, would be silly. I did try to record some video, but the camera could not do justice, so I turned it off.
There are some things you don’t really want to share with anyone. Like a cup of tea at dawn in the countryside, letting the first sunrays heat your back, watching dozens of swallows warm themselves on the telephone wires and listening to the drone of bees already in the lavender.
And there are others that you just have to share with someone, just so that someone else can verify how amazing the thing was that you saw, so that everyone can’t just dismiss it as imagination or exaggeration or wishful thinking.
Last night was like that.
I shared it with my mother-in-law.
My wife was too tired to stay out very long, so I told my parents-in-law to come out from the television and see the spectacle. My mother-in-law had never seen anything like it in the seventy years she lived in that village. We stood leaning on the garden gate and marvelled at it, listening to the crickets and cicadas in the balmy night.
And then, right in front of the lightening, we saw the biggest, brightest, longest-lasting shooting star I’ve probably ever seen, at least in twenty years. We both cried aloud and were glad neither of us had missed it – though it would be bard to miss, for it was long enough that you could have turned around and still caught the end of it.
When she reluctantly went inside, I shared the night with a glass of whiskey and watched for another half an hour. The sky above me eventually began to cloud over, and the storm cloud thicken, so the flashes were more hidden, and I decided to call it a night. And then, just as I turned, and though the sky was hazy then, another shooting star passed in front of me. It wasn’t as bright because of the cloud, but I could distinctly see the smoke trail it left behind it.
I’ll never see a show like that again, I’m sure, but as I watch the swallows take off in droves this morning, I know I was privileged to have seen it at all.
Sometimes it feels like a nuisance, as a writer, to be a poet too.
So many hours can go by just making some short poems as perfect as I can make them…
But you can’t escape the way the writing comes.
Here are a selection of this summer’s work…
The Weight of Centuries
From the hilltop, the plain extends into haze,
A mosaic of mixed farming and forests
Even against the noise of the swish of
Windmills, the insects persist, cicadas trill, drill
Butterflies flutter across this pre-alpine meadow
Which has persisted despite pine plantations
Roads cut into the red earth
I sit on a fallen stone wall on which so many days have stretched,
Spying small valleys into which vineyards have been etched
And I feel the weight of centuries.
I have returned from my homeland to my adopted home
And wonder now where to take my holidays.
I watch tourists of my same shade trail past
This terrace exploring the old town of Pamplona,
Its small cobbled streets, of which I live in the thick.
It’s a privilege to drink this beer here, in holiday clothes
With nothing to do but write and raise my child, and
While aware this is my own particular “first world problem,”
I wish still to somehow, for some days, “get away from it all.”
The ultimate experience of
A walk into the wilderness
For most – that stroll in swimsuit
Along the surf alone
While the family builds sandcastles,
Untethered to anyone – is now tainted
By the telephone taken along.
Last Bastions for All to Admire
The last bastions of utter luxury
And we can look upon them
What it must have been like
Who were able to enjoy them
Before the rest of us arrived
Upon the sand.
In an Old Farmyard
Sun warms a wall, formerly whitewashed,
Now sand blasted to expose the beauty of
Raw stone and soft mortar in irregular mosaic.
Similar pillars stand centuries, supporting
Painted red gates that seldom open upon
A lane left to the birds and other wildlife,
Now a road to nowhere in time, like byres
And empty stables into which swallows
Still swoop to suspended nests of soil through
Slit windows, simply monuments to former toil.
At the Waterfall
Waterfall echoes white noise,
Breeze whispers through oaks.
Observing butterfly lawn,
Lounging on picnic blanket
Under piebald white and blue sky,
But unable to block out banal
Banter and utter bollox of
The barbequing family
Who parked their car beside us.
I’ll Take the Moon
Over festivals all very stimulating,
With curves as wonderful as any in creation
During a night as long as stars can sustain,
A concert of the songs of our
Latest pandemic’s potentially greatest loss,
A spectacle of lights and dazzling objects,
I’ll take the moon,
Rising orange in third quadrant
Past the Pyrenees.