X Close

Humans are born to hunt The Deer Man identifies with the wrong animal

Deer Man: Geoffroy Delorme


April 28, 2022   5 mins

You are never closer to nature than when you pick it or kill it. I once spent a year living wild, eating only what I could hunt and gather on 40 acres of remote Herefordshire, where England ends in Wales. In retrospect, my Palaeolithic sojourn was an indulgence, propped up by a publishing contract for The Wild Life. But it was also revelatory. Animals, I learned, defy Linnean classification, and reduce to prey or rival.

My time living wild also means I am one of few people qualified by experience to assess the French publishing phenomenon Deer Man, Geoffroy Delorme’s account of seven “wild man” years in the ForĂȘt de Bord, Normandy, living among a herd of roe deer. And, as it happens, I am writing this in France, next door to a 3,000-acre forest. With roe deer.

Delorme declares he adjourned to the forest following a chance meeting with a Capreolus capreolus buck. It inspired him to seek “the nobility of life in the wild” and “my true place in the order of things”. A drop-out — Delorme was home-schooled and solitary and there are darkly hinted-at problems with his family — his choice to be adopted by roe deer is instructive, a prime case of “elective affinity”. Vulnerable young man identifies with an animal species regarded as vulnerable. (I mean, consider Bambi’s childhood.)

Delorme is hardly the first to go off the civilised script. For centuries, misfitting men have been compelled to venture into the backwoods and the boondocks, starting with Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, followed by Christ in the wilderness. (Women rarely do wilding.) The imperatives are obvious: the search for self-awareness, the sense of suffocation from human rules, the belief that we are truer to our original selves in a state of nature, the concern that civilisation despoils the landscape. The Americans even constructed an original national art form from this quartet of anxieties: The Western.

But nobility in the wild is hard to do. I nearly totalled myself by consuming a poisonous mushroom; Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze is fun jacked up on the party stereo, not when you are paralysed and your ability to detect colour is limited to 50 shades of mauve, and you are praying for the psychedelic madness to end.

And every day there are half-moons of dirt under the fingernails. And every day the pathetic anxiety of: “Will there be enough to eat?”

Delorme suffers bouts of hypothermia, doesn’t comb his hair and washes in rainwater trapped in a tree trunk. (Spoiler alert: this does not preclude a love interest, a woman.) Although he tries to “live of the forest” rather than “in it”, there are only so many berries and bramble leaves — the latter a roe deer staple — he can bear, and he “borrows” the food set out by hunters to tempt wild boar, and sometimes buys tins and pasta. On occasion, he nips off home for a bowl of fromage blanc, and a hot shower.

Mind you, Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of us latter day wild men, used to go home for cookies with Mom; he just omitted to mention this in Walden. Ditto the soirees in the cabin. Imagine my surprise to find that Bear ‘Born Survivor’ Grylls avails himself of hotels when roughing it. In case you are wondering, my downfall, my apple in Eden, was a cheese and tomato sandwich; then again, I was on bedside duty, my father in intensive care following a heart attack. You don’t get much wild duck on the menu at Hereford County Hospital.

Even with cheats, Delorme finds himself changed. Forest living improves his senses, and he loses the cultured taste for carbohydrate. I lived near carb-less on my Paleo diet, and was heroin chic skinny — but never quicker in body or mind. Tested, I had faster reflexes than a striking cobra.

Seven years with the herd, and Delorme emerges from the forest an advocate for his deer “family”. His understanding of the deer mind is impressive. The book, now translated into 11 languages, is recounted in fragmentary, vivid episodes. Rightly, Delorme accords the beasts agency and personality, and tells us a great, humbling truth: despite our self-congratulatory self-labelling as homo sapiens sapiens (“doubly wise humans”) we are still animals, and the species barrier can be membrane thin. Humans and animals alike seek social contact. In a key moment, Daguet, a young buck, lies on Delorme’s lap like a dog; Daguet wants to be petted. This is not a given in the animal kingdom: the forest foxes remain aloof from Delorme’s charms.

Understandably so. There is competition down in the woods, as well as co-operation. In my year wilding I had an intensely rivalrous relationship with a buzzard, since we both had our eyes on the rabbits. For all Delorme’s pretence of being a deer, humans are not ruminant herbivores. They are omnivores, with canine teeth for tearing meat, and have a digestive system similar to a dog’s. In other words, foxes and humans occupy the same ecological niche, and like a bit of venison on the menu.

By identifying with doe-eyed roe deer rather than going properly hunter-gatherer Paleo, Delorme comes askew on his own key question, of how to preserve the ForĂȘt de Bord’s roe deer — and by extension, deer and wildlife elsewhere in over-populated Europe. His proposed solution is to “make these marvellous animals responsible for their own management”. This is a Pan pipe dream. Self-regulating deer, as per the pre-anthropogenic wilderness, would also require, for instance, herds of aurochs (wild cattle) to establish and maintain grassy glades. And lynx and wolves to keep the auroch and deer numbers in check.

And unfortunately, wild animals have the bad habit of not staying put, and wandering into human habitation and farmland, often wreaking havoc. Thus the wild things either need to be fenced in (resulting not in a Wilderness but a safari park.) Or culled.

Delorme’s idea for self-regulating deer, like other forms of rewilding, springs from an anti-human source. He confesses to being “disgusted by my own species”. But if you treat humans as the problem, they will be. Rewilding, which is predicated on no or little human presence in vast tracts of land, philosophically forecloses the possibility of humans living in harmony with nature.

Alas for rewilders, humans have been intertwined in the West’s ecosystems for so long that journeying back into a pristine wilderness is not an option — even in France, where the population density is 11 persons per kmÂČ (about a quarter that of England). The land is finite and the demands upon it — of economics, services, sport — are a real and growing danger. Management may be a dirty word in contemporary conservation, but without management, settling the competing claims to land for the good of all — deer included — is impossible.

Ironically, Delorme’s ForĂȘt de Bord has, for millennia, been managed. Formerly it was the property of the Dukes of Normandy and later it became a royal forest of the Kingdom of France.  It has been managed for timber, for houses and for fuel. Oh, and for deer-hunting.

Delorme rails against deer-hunting. Is this wise or logical? After all, deer-hunting as a form of forest-management merely inserts the human predator into the woody ecosystem rather than the lynx or the wolf. Like them, humans are born hunters, and our brains are wired to pursue game. Writing a CV, getting a job, going shopping: these are merely substitute activities for tracking a deer, and putting a spear through its heart, and taking home the flesh to the family cave.

Delorme’s eschewal of hunting means he offers only a partial experience of wild living. He is aware of the dangers of the forest, but less so of the opportunities, the constant alertness for lunch, the skill required for stalking, the atavistic satisfaction of hunting for the pot, and the realisation: Venatio, ergo sum. We are animals, and hunting — if we can still find the killer within after the diverting, sapping decades of consumer society — is truer, more honest than buying meat in shrink-wrapped plastic from Sainsbury’s.

Hunters have a vested interest in bounteous habitat, and bounding deer. You cannot kill non-existent animals. In France, where la chasse remains a way of life, the million-strong FĂ©dĂ©ration National des Chasseurs (FNC) is increasingly articulating itself as pro-conservation and anti-industrialised agriculture (the real destroyer of the countryside.) The FĂ©dĂ©ration’s current TV ad runs like a promo for Friends of the Earth.

Delorme’s anti-hunt rhetoric is, then, ultimately deer-defeating. In crowded days like these, a roe deer’s salvation could just be the ethical hunter, an echo of our prehistoric self. And if you are a deer, does it really matter whether you die by a bullet or being ripped apart by a lynx?


John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.

JLewisStempel

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

20 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Interesting article and I’m in sympathy with it.
A minor point, but worth pointing out I think, the population density of France is not 11 persons per square km, it is 119. While for England it is just short of 280 persons.
I remembered this from my arguments relating to the difference between the UK and Sweden (22 persons per square km), and their different lockdown strategies.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Attention to detail! Thank you.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

He means the population in rural areas, not nationally. (A previous article when he mentioned this he specified it.)

Sam McGowan
Sam McGowan
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

And where do they live? Packed into urban areas, that’s where. They’re not in the country.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Are these per sq. km figures relating to the total land area, or to habitable land? This makes a big difference. Most of Scotland, for instance, is literally uninhabitable.

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt
Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

I agree, that would be a useful distinction to make, but I’m pretty sure that, in general, “population density” figures are calculated on total land mass.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

If so, they cease to play any part in meaningful observations on the effects of mass immigration on resident populations. The actual figures will be significantly higher. I am maybe being suspicious when I think that this might not entirely be an accident.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Not really the topic, but people in Sweden, mainly live in cities. Stockholm is pretty dense and in the 3 months i spent there in 2020 I never saw a mask. So
.strategy had very little to do with density.
oddly, it was in Norbotten
.high up north that the numbers were the highest, also, one of the least dense populated province in the country
And back to the topic
city people know squat about country life in France and we are now facing people coming to live in the country complaining from cow dung smell, church bells at 7 am and roosters chanting on their heap of manure.
Go home !!

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
2 years ago

If re-wilding were ever to take off in the States, the idea of vast natural areas where the only humans permitted are scientists and academics is not gonna fly. Some hybrid design is called for with room for hikers and even hunters.
A wise “method”, more neglect than method, is to limit access through the difficulty of the terrain, the lack of roads and the obscurity of the locations. In the NYC area I know of beautiful places I can go that, even in the height of summer, are empty of people. If the only way to get there is walking, and the route is hard to follow, the number of visitors falls off dramatically for every half mile or so of drudgery. If we’re talking about a very large area of widerness, simple geometry dictates that it will be a very lonely place. Which is just what we want it to be.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

If you’re ever in California you might want to drive up to the Lost Coast (about 200 miles north of the Bay Area). There are only rough, unpaved roads that are almost impassable in winter but certainly accessible in summer. Lots of hikes and even on a ‘busy’ day you’ll find yourself one of only a handful of people walking the beaches. Be careful, though, some parts of the beach completely disappear when the tide comes in. Take a tide chart.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

The author may be right about hunting. But why be another writer writing about the “membrane thin” species barrier, without pausing to consider the abyss opened by activities like writing?

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

It’s not only writing. It’s conversant language as a whole, something unavailable to animals, who can only signal.

Sam McGowan
Sam McGowan
2 years ago

Interesting article. I grew up in rural West Tennessee and although I went home at night, I spent much of my time in the woods when I wasn’t hoeing or picking cotton. In those days, there were zero deer. Since then, thanks to stocking, there are probably more deer than there were when pioneers like David O. Crockett settled there. There are also wild turkeys, which were not there when I was growing up. The author is correct about thinning. Although there were no deer where I lived, there were deer 50 miles or so away along the Tennessee River. There was one place inside a wildlife management area that was so heavily populated the deer were starting to have problems finding food. Similar situations have occurred all over the United States as large deer herds have come along. The fact is that deer and other wild animals have to be hunted or they overpopulate. There are animals and birds that have thinned but its due more to agricultural practices and the ever-increasing development than to hunting. Where I now live in Texas was rural farmland when we bought our house twenty years ago. Now it’s all houses. And new residents complain about the snakes, alligators and wild hogs that live around us.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Distinguish please between hunting with firearms and Hunting on horseback: the latter is the ultimate equestrian challenge, riding at speed in close proximity to fellow riders and horses, over daunting obstacles, and can only be done otherwise on a racecourse. It attracts as much misunderstanding as envy, as the vast majority of people who may be able to handle a rifle, shotgun, or for that matter golf club or tennis raquet, simply do not have the skills, let alone nerve and courage…. or ability to sustain and overcome physical injury, to even imagine riding, let alone riding over 4 and a half foot of hedges at 25 mph plus in blinding rain…

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

‘Re-wilding’ implies that humans and their creations are not ‘wild’ But in fact there is no difference whatsoever in relation to external behaviours and envionmental changes. ‘London’ is just as ‘wild’ as a thing as an ant-hill (which also, by the way, ‘destroys existing habitat’). It’s just that humans also live different ‘internal’ lives, which are more varied and important.

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt
ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

His Book sounds like a fascinating insight into wild life in his unique experience and the extract I read in ‘The Guardian’ confirms this.

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
2 years ago

The characterisation of rewilding here as anti-human seems disingenuous – rewilding doesn’t mean expelling humans from the area you’re rewilding or restoring a mythical pristine nature. It just means trying to restore an area to being a functional ecosystem that humans can also participate in in a sustainable way.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

Yours is is not a definition recognised by all proponents of re-wilding, sadly. As with all proposed reforms, approach and application of principle lie on a fairly broad continuum.
That said, I recognise your definition and it’s certainly one with which I can find sympathy. Indeed, in the longer term, I wonder if it’s one to which circumstances may force us, regardless of willing participation.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

“Rightly, Delorme accords the beasts agency and personality, and tells us a great, humbling truth: despite our self-congratulatory self-labelling as homo sapiens sapiens (“doubly wise humans”) we are still animals, and the species barrier can be membrane thin.”
So our language (animals cries and calls are not ‘language’, they are signals, a form of semiotics) doesn’t really affect our relations with animals or or way of life? Just remember, we are the only animal that can contradict. Achieving this (or did we bring it with us?) was the biggest event in world history. All animals are trapped in an eternal, meaningless, contextless, present, unable to choose or resist what happens to them to any marked degree. To me the ‘barrier’ is in fact a vast, uncrossable gulf.
Plus you mistake the second ‘sapiens’ for a ‘reinforcement’, but in the Linnean system it signifies merely a subspecies (which may not be any more ‘sapiens’ than any other subspecies of Homo sapiens, that might have existed in the past).

Last edited 2 years ago by Arnold Grutt
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

To me the lesser known joy of hunting is the free provision of sandaloid evo woke tree hugger quarry who one can annoy, tease and bait ad nauseam, and provide endless hours of entertainment! The ruder, more vicious and insulting they turn, the better the sport! I cannot for the life of me fathom why people dont revel in being ” trolled”? Its so rewarding!!