Monday, December 12, 2022

A Neighborhood Buck in a Bit of Trouble

Trail camera night photo
My wife and I own our thirty-five acres of woodland and bottom land--we've got the title and it's all legal. However, for most of our neighbors, that title means nothing, neighbors we occasionally see but most often only see hints at their presence. Whether is a glimpse of a whitetail deer's tail as it leaps a barbed wire fence, the snakelike trace of a muskrat's tail in mud, or the tiny, almost-human print of a raccoon's paws at the creek side, we share our land with the animals that "possess" it as much if not more than we do. These neighbors aren't limited by property lines or signs proclaiming no trespassing or hunting. Their territory is determined by creek and ridge and hollow, by sunlight and acorn drop and seed set. Our most common neighbors are "wild" animals, although their behavior often is more predictable and reasonable than that of many humans. 

Purchasing a trail camera that is connected to our phone plan has provided us a much better awareness of the animals that live on our land. The photos sent to us via our cellphone plan do give us a real-time glimpse into wild animal activity even though we have bought and mounted the cam primarily to determine if any cattle have escaped our neighbor's pasture. Our joke has been one steer saying to the other, "Why you want to escape and get over on their land? Our farmer's been treating us right, feeding us regularly. Why, he's even been fattening us up lately!" We haven't digitally captured any strays yet, but we have managed to catch images of a number of deer, a raccoon, a fox, and a heron with the trail camera, although most images are infrared taken at night. 

Sometimes the image of an entire deer has been captured, and sometimes only a portion of the deer--the head of a spike buck, an ear, the south end of a doe heading north. Once a photo displayed no deer at all, only a landscape with some brush to the fore, and then we realized that the "brush" were the antler tines of a buck passing close to the camera. That was when we realized we had a good-sized buck that regularly spent time on our land. We became used to seeing images of the buck crossing our bottom land down by the creek. He became our most photographed citizen, with both black-and-white nighttime images and colorful daytime portraits. 

Fall had arrived and deer had begun moving more, mating season and hunting season causing a stir, and that's the time when our neighborhood buck got himself into a bit of trouble. I'd been down at our bottom land along the creek with our tree guy, working on a plan to both clean up the creek of deadfall and to determine the run of a barbed wire fence to create a north pasture area. We walked the creek and checked out the places where fence crossed the creek, the weakest spots and most likely places for cattle to breach the fence. We made our plan, and I walked the man up the hill to his truck. 

Heading back down the easement that skirts the gravel road a half hour later, the scene of meadow, creek, and bridge had altered; adding to the bucolic peace was our buck, he head stuck through the barbed wire fence and his antlers firmly trapping him between the strands. Well, there go my plans for the afternoon, I thought, realizing that I needed to rescue the animal. 

Buck caught in barbed wire
I approached the buck and saw that it probably was the mature animal that our trail cam had photographed. Up close, my first impression of the animal was how solid and muscular its neck, chest, and shoulders were. Its neck was faintly colored with a red streak of blood where it had fought the wire. As I approached, the buck began to fight the wire, attempting to escape, jerking its head from side to side as it tried to back away from the fence, the wire bowing and the steel fence post loosening in the ground. I stopped, realizing the animal was increasing its injury, and as a new landowner realizing this animal was strong enough to destroy the fence. 

I back away and considered what to do. Deciding first to talk to my neighbor who I knew was a hunter, I jumped into my UTV and jammed to his house, following the gravel road across the bridge. He wasn't home, though. Next I tried to call the local state Department of Natural Resources but received no reply. Deciding that the sheriff's office was my last resort, I called, and the dispatcher took my information but wasn't too enthused. Texting a message and photo to my wife, she contacted our neighbor--yes, the one who had been so negative to me the first time we met--and then texted me back that our neighbor was on his way, a quick message considering that the communication trail had been from me to my wife to the neighboring farmer's wife to the farmer himself. No direct link to Mr. Curmudgeon.

I arrived from camp back down the hill to the trapped buck to find my neighbor approaching the animal, which jerked at the fence mightily until my neighbor laid his hands on the animal, which then froze, not moving. Then with some jerking and pulling, the buck was free. As I walked down the hill toward man and deer, I saw that the buck wasn't moving but was just standing by the fence, still imagining that it was entwined in the barbed wire, I suppose. My neighbor shooed at it, and then it backed off and leapt down the creek bank and crossed beneath the bridge, following the stream bed to freedom. I saw that my neighbor had some scratches on the back of one hand--more blood given to the land.

This was my chance to thank my neighbor, who was the hero in this little adventure. After shaking his hand and providing thanks, he said, "I've been doing this for fifty years. It may seem heartless for you to hear, but I do it as much to save the fence as the animal." I replied that I understood, having seen how the buck had almost jerked a fence post loose when I had first approached the trapped animal.

I felt glad that the buck had been saved--and the fence--and that an opportunity had been provided for my neighbor and me to have one more interaction that was positive overall. Trust can be gained bit by bit over time, with patience and understanding. That's my hope, at least. 

"I tried DNR first and then the sheriff's office," I said. "A deputy come out to help?" he asked. When I replied in the negative, he just chuckled. "Yeah, they didn't sound like they were coming with sirens screaming," I said. It was, after all, deer season, and the DNR in Iowa plans for between a hundred and a hundred twenty thousand deer to be harvested each year. A deer stuck in a fence? That's probably right up there with someone calling in saying there have been some old tires dumped along the road.

We're not at the end of the story, though. As my neighbor was driving off in his UTV, he stopped and gestured me over, saying that the buck was stuck in a thicket of multiflora across the road. These wild roses thickets can be brutal, and evidently the buck after his barbed wire experience psyched himself into thinking the thorns of the multiflora were barbed wire. My neighbor asked if we should shoo the buck out of the thorn patch.

Early photo of me setting up the trail cam
"He can get out of that," I said. "It's not like the barbed wire." I was thinking that this is a big buck during rutting season, and that now there was no barbed wire fence between us if it decided to get aggressive. My neighbor approached the buck again, though, and before he got close, it moved out of the multiflora and away, down the creek. We chatted for a bit while on the road at the bridge, the mailman stopped and chatted for a bit with us, and then we all went on our way. 

Later I phoned my wife, and she said that the farmer's wife had texted reassurance, that everything would be okay. She was right! We had all cooperated in a neighborly way, and the buck had escaped the danger of the barbed wire just in time to deal with the opening of the shotgun segment of deer hunting season. I wonder now, a couple of weeks later as I write this narrative, how that buck has fared. He may be free, he may be venison for some hunter, food for the table, but at least he isn't stuck in that barbed wire fence, suffering his way toward a cruel death. We do what we can and let the wide ways of the world roll on. It's a good world, in part because of good intentions and unexpected heroes, some of whom arrive in a muddy UTV, wearing blue denim and Carhartt canvas. Actions speak more loudly than words.

Note: This is one of a series of articles written about the thirty-five acres of land my wife and I own in southeast Iowa. To read all the articles, go to the label link aggregate provided here: Landowner.  

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