Stag Spotting in Lakeland

© Christopher P McLeod

Norman Hadley enjoys an annual autumn foray into the secluded valley of Martindale, where red deer vastly outnumber humans, and the seasonal rut is in full swing.

In the Autumn, a young stag's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Or something very like it. An addiction to love famously denied Robert Palmer the ability to eat or sleep and the male red deer, Cervus Elaphus, is little different. Come October, our largest wild land animal transforms into testosterone-crazed parody of roaring, rutting, antler-clashing masculinity. All other concerns are put on hold while he disseminates his genes as far and wide as possible in the narrow window of the females' fertility. If the hinds have any opinion on all this noisy competitiveness, they keep it to themselves. Perhaps they regard this prize-fighting as a welcome burst of excitement. Alternatively, they may exchange sly eye-rolls and get on with their grazing.

Rutting Red Deer  © Christopher P McLeod
Rutting Red Deer
© Christopher P McLeod

England's Miniature Highland Paradise

The croaking of stags is a sound felt as much in the ribcage as in the eardrums

If you want to see these monarchs of the glens in substantial numbers, then Scotland is the place to go and autumn is the time to see and hear them at their finest. Indeed the Gaelic for October, an Dàmhair, translates roughly as the time of stags. But if Scotland is too much of a stretch for you, Lakeland has a miniature Highland paradise tucked behind Ullswater's southern shore. True, it will never compete with the herds sweeping majestically across Royal Deeside, but the landscape is on a much more manageable scale and you're virtually guaranteed to see and hear them.

A lack of stature is no disadvantage to the hills here, either. You can get up as far as 800m on High Raise but the best, the shapeliest and the ones with the best views in the area are generally the middle-height ones.

Martindale is not really one valley but four: a splay of fingers radiating from the knuckled hub of Hallin Fell. Each has its own character. Clockwise from five to eight o'clock they are Fusedale, Rampsgill, Bannerdale and Boredale. Don't be put off by the unflattering name Boredale incidentally; it just means valley of the wild pigs.

Certain places naturally associate themselves with a particular season; just as Rannerdale reaches perfection at bluebell-time, Martindale is beautiful in any season but comes into its own in October. This has now become an unmissable annual ritual in my autumn calendar; when the evenings shorten, the shadows stretch and the bracken rusts, I inexorably head for Martindale.

High Street range from Place Fell  © Dan Bailey -
High Street range from Place Fell
© Dan Bailey -, Oct 2011

The Royal Approach

From across Ullswater, Martindale looks remote and mysterious. You can reach the area from the motorway if you do the little chicane around the head of the lake at Pooley Bridge and trundle down the south shore, engaging low gear for the spectacular zigzags over the hause of Hallin Fell. But I always feel the best way to approach Martindale is from above, either on foot or on a mountain bike. Then it becomes like entering some hidden kingdom. If, like me, you grew up with Arthur Conan-Doyle's "The Lost World", you can really let your imagination fly. I've never actually spotted pterosaurs here, but I'm not ruling anything out. In any case, the deep groans of the stags are as rich and sonorous as the booming voice of Professor Challenger himself.

When the evenings shorten, the shadows stretch and the bracken rusts, I inexorably head for Martindale

My favourite approach is via Boredale Hause, with its long, easy, raking path sloping up from the beautiful pastures of Hartsop. The views across the head of Ullswater to St Sunday Crag and the Helvellyn range are among the most delectable in Lakeland. The hills wear a richly-hemmed skirt of trees here and look particularly spectacular in Autumn. Notice, too, the recent rewiggling of Goldrill Beck between Brotherswater and Ullswater. This is an attempt to create a slower-flowing catchment to protect downstream towns from flash flooding and create a richer riparian ecology. It will be fascinating to watch how these efforts unfold over the next few years; amidst all the environmental despair, this is a real ray of hope.

Martindale from Hallin Fell  © Dan Bailey -
Martindale from Hallin Fell
© Dan Bailey -, May 2014

The hause itself is the portal to the lost world beyond and as soon as you reach the crest, you will start to hear the Cretaceous croaking of the stags. It is a sound felt as much in the rib-cage as in the ear-drums, reverberant as whale-song but far lustier, full of melancholic carnal need.  If you peer down into the valley, you may even catch a glimpse.

The hause is a notorious cross-ways of paths with many options: three descents and three rising paths. You can drop straight down to Boredale itself, or swing back left to descend to the Ullswater shore path. Alternatively, you can head up the slanting trod to Beda Fell or take the southbound route up to Angletarn Pikes and, ultimately, High Street.

A Recent Foray

On this particular October day, I had left work at lunchtime and got myself up to Brotherswater by early afternoon. The trees around the lake were softly russet but still held their leaves; the water had the cool blue patina of beaten tin. From the hause, I took the northerly path up Place Fell, with its stony zigzags finishing in a very short scramble to the summit with its perfectly perched cairn. As ever, this a fell to linger on, with its enviable location in the crook of Ullswater's upper reaches and its many subsidiary summits offering birds'-eye views down to the lake.

After a brief exploration, I set off down the northeast ridge, rejoicing in the highly relevant name of Hart Crag. At the tussocky col of Low Moss, I forked right to pick up the delightful slanting path down to the little bridge at Garth Heads. As usual, there were no humans to be seen but the fellsides all around reverberated with stag-roar as I grabbed a bite to eat and brewed up by the babbling beck.

Martindale is at its very best in autumn  © Norman Hadley
Martindale is at its very best in autumn
© Norman Hadley

Although it was still British Summer Time, the sun was starting to sink and it was time to haul myself back up to summit-height, first gaining the tiny col above Winter Crag, with its memorial bench. Rays of autumn light streamed through Boredale Hause like extended fingers of greeting. A mighty pine stood guard over the valley like a lost piper furth of the glens. I took the rising ridge-path up and over Beda Head, with impressive views across Bannerdale to Rest Dodd and The Nab, richly lit in the warm, dipping light.

In previous years, I've continued on the ridge up and over Angletarn Pikes to the tarn itself and beyond. On this occasion, I could hear stags high up in Boredale and decided to drop onto the raking bridleway back down to the Hause. Sure enough, there was a drumming of hooves such as you might hear at Haydock around 2:30, and a dominant stag chased a crestfallen rival across my path, both apparently too engaged with the Darwinian struggle to acknowledge my presence.

From the hause, I retraced my steps back down to Hartsop. The easy raked ascent was now a pleasant, knee-friendly descent, with the deeply-incised vee of Kirkstone Pass luring me homeward. The shadows were deepening and the first headlamps had started to light up on the cars threading their way down to the valley. I would soon become a pair of tail-lights heading up the other way, knowing I would be back next October, responding to the stags' summoning bugle call.

Deer in Upper Troutbeck  © Norman Hadley
Deer in Upper Troutbeck
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2020

Safety Notes

Rutting stags are pumped up with testosterone, potentially aggressive, and may mistake you for a rival; always keep your distance. Whenever you enter the domain of the deer, you have to make sure you're neither intruding on their lives nor putting yourself in harm's way. To be absolutely sure of access, you can contact Dalemain Estate Office on 017684 86450 to establish whether there are any activities with the deer that would endanger walkers.

Walks in the area:

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24 Oct, 2022

Had a close encounter with a stag while mountain biking on the roman road off High Raise a few years ago, stags were roaring, i suddenly saw something in my periphery vision to my left, a stag charging down the hill, it veered off before it got close! it probably thought i was another stag from a distance, such an amazing experience seeing these beasts up close, took me right back to the highlands.

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