I had been back from Zambia only a few days when I put up a Chinese water deer. I was on horseback at the time, riding through one of those low, almost subterranean Broadlands fields when the deer broke cover. They like to do this pretty late in the day. It always makes you jump, but then that’s precisely what they’re trying to do. What they want is a startle-response from the predator, one that freezes the body for half an instant while the deer gains the priceless advantage.
My horse, who learning to be a country girl, was startled ma non troppo, and we watched the deer’s retreat in reasonable comfort. Every dozen or so strides she — I think it was a female, no prominent canine teeth that I noticed, anyway — threw in a big one, an extravagant leap rather than a business-like runner’s stride, one that momentarily caused her back to go concave, to make a shallow U.
It’s a response you see all the time on the African savannah. When impalas run away, they throw in huge virtuoso leaps. These may look like extravagant decoration, but not so: they tell the predator how fit the impala is, how useless it would be to continue chasing so athletic a beast – and along with it, the more sinister message that any pursuer would be better advised to chase a less able member of the same herd.
With a largely solitary creature like Chinese water deer – introduced to this country in the 19th century, escaped or released from deer-parks – the safety-in-numbers ploy is not a factor. All the same, the deer’s statement – look at me, I’m far too great for little old you – is clearly worth making.
The deer vanished from our sight, though I’m sure we didn’t vanish from hers. She held still, and stillness is the best start to invisibility. From her place of hiding she unquestionably kept us in view as we completed our circuit, showing a nice turn of foot ourselves… though we refrained from putting in a shallow U.