Exmoor echoes to the sounds of the world’s strangest competition
Meet an undisputed world champion… His name is Elvis Afanasenko and on four occasions now he has conquered all to be named king in a sport that exudes the kind of testosterone you only find in the depths of the wilderness.
On Saturday evening Mr Afanasenko once again reigned victorious as he grunted and hollered into the Exmoor gloaming, only to have his mating calls returned by jealous four-legged lovers out there somewhere in the darkening Barle valley.
If Elvis Afanasenko is the world champion bolver – then he is also the sport’s only title holder. Nowhere else on the planet do they set out to emulate the mating calls of wild red stags on a point-scoring basis – and if there was a competition to find the world’s most unique sporting event, then the annual rutting competition above Dulverton might just take that title too.
Bolving is the roaring that wild red stags make when filled with testosterone during the annual rut – and the world’s only official bolving competition is all about finding the human who can emulate the sound so closely that the big jealous males out in the wild roar defiantly back.
It’s not a sport for the faint-hearted. The sounds bolvers deliver must echo through miles of Exmoor coombes, and at times stags have been known to gallop in rage towards the source.
The best bolvers, like Mr Afanasenko, tend to go for three long roars – each slightly shorter than the other – followed by a series of startling and rib-shaking grunts.
To imagine the first roar you need to envisage the sort of reaction a large male opera singer might have to the news that his partner had just been eaten by a crocodile. It is a cry of such pained anguish that no sound in an otherwise civilised world comes close to its bewildering melancholy.
The second roar might be imagined by conjuring an image of someone suffering the world’s worst stomach ache, somewhere far beneath a long-lost manhole cover.
As for the grunts, there is nothing that can describe them that would be printable in a family newspaper.
It takes time to speak the real language of a rampant stag in rut. “I went out listening to stags when I was young,” commented Elvis, who was warming up for Saturday’s event at Blaydon Rails by collecting donations for the event charity, the Devon Air Ambulance. “The judges are looking for the best talent – when the stag answers back, that’s when you score points.
“I’ve cornered the market, in some ways,” he shrugged, confident that he could take the shield for a fourth time. “But it all depends on the stag, at the end of the day.
“I don’t have to practise – I knows it off by heart – I know how a stag bolves. And that’s me.”
Richard Eales, organiser of the ninth World Bolving Champioship, told the Western Morning News: “Obviously we will be pushing for a big one next year because we raise money for the Devon Air Ambulance – being up here on Exmoor we get quite a lot of use out of it.”
As some 150 spectators and around 35 competitors gathered, I asked if anyone could turn up and have a go: “You’ve got to start somewhere, so why not turn up?” replied Mr Eales. “You don’t have to be an expert.
“The 2005 competition was won by a girl called Briony – so it’s not all about testosterone.”
It is, though, a lot to do with humour. One of the many laughs raised at Blaydon Rails on Saturday night occurred when a group of girls from London announced they’d only come because they’d been promised a stag party.