Why I wade through our hayfields

While Charlie cut the field for hay this week, I walked well ahead of the sickle bar mower, parting the grasses with my arms, scanning the ground. We knew it was likely that somewhere in the thickly grown field east of the farm house, a newborn fawn lay hidden. It might be old enough to sprint away from the racket on its own, but bittersweet experience had taught us that we couldn't be sure.

This is a precarious time of year for fawns. In late May and well into June, deer bed their babies down in long sheltering grasses and join them in their nests each night to nurse them and sleep. By day though, as the doe browses and feeds in the area, her fawn will lie absolutely alone and still in its hiding place. After its first few weeks of life it knows to move away from an unfamiliar noise, but until that instinct kicks in it is supremely vulnerable, and all too easy to approach.

Years ago, while cutting hay, Charlie and I injured a fawn that we could only partially rehabilitate. Because its damaged leg was too weak for life in the wild, we were privileged to raise the animal to adulthood in a large open-air pen. But as much as we cherished having a deer to brush and hand feed, we've worked hard to avoid another casualty. And so for a few hours the other day I waded through a sea of purple clover, field daisies, and orchard grass, among swallowtails, dragonflies, and buzzing cicadas. A rabbit leapt from its lair, and no doubt a snake or two slithered off as I pioneered the swathing path of the approaching mower.

I came upon a half a dozen places the fawn and deer had lain - oval beds of flattened grass, inviting enough to curl up in myself were it not for the machine at my back. But there was no speckled newborn in any of them. The fawn we had seen earlier in the week must have moved with its mother to another part of the farm. I was tired, my arms itched from endlessly brushing the grass aside, and my legs were hot in their heavy protective jeans. I'd covered every inch of the field ahead of the tractor and, pretty as it was in all that flowery fecundity, it was no stroll through the park.

As Charlie began to mow the last area I'd just crisscrossed, I made a beeline toward the house for a cooling drink, no longer even looking for the fawn. And of course that is when I found it down by the spring in the field's tree-shaded periphery. There was no need to disturb it, this being a bower that the mower would not reach. I watched a while as the fawn slept, its ears swiveling softly in the breeze.

It was about the size of the fawn we'd heard late one afternoon last year crying in vain for its mother. We never knew what became of the doe, but after two days of listening to his little bleats, we took over her duties, bottle-feeding the orphan. By then he was too hungry to be fussy or skittish about this change of parentage, and soon began meeting us at our back door.

Because he was a perfectly healthy little fellow, we refused to become attached. We took him to a wildlife center that would rear him to yearling size along with other orphans and then reintroduce them to the wild in the fall.

There are plenty of reasons not to take such pains with deer. They are not an endangered species. They invade our gardens and can be a hazard to drivers. If the local population becomes too large for its shrinking habitat, some of the animals fare poorly. But when fawns are bedded in the grass, I find such reasoning flies out the door. And so I wade the hayfields ahead of the mower, looking for newborns who just might be sleeping and need a lift out of harm's way.

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