This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

At home in the forest

Posted in Nature on Saturday, 28 April 2007

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

Young fallow deer

There are now more wild deer in Britain than at any time since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite their size, deer are remarkably good at keeping out of sight, and many people live close to deer but are unaware of their existence. To the practised eye, the signs deer leave behind them are easy to see: the well-marked paths, with the familiar cloven-hoofed footprints (known as slots); the deer jumps, where the animals regularly jump fences, leaving behind perhaps a tuft of hair on barbed wire; even shed antlers can betray their presence. To see the deer themselves can take greater skill, for after centuries of persecution most of our deer are nocturnal, leaving the sanctuary of their home wood to come out and feed at night.

Here in Britain we have three native species of deer: red, roe and fallow. It is often suggested that the fallow was brought here by the Romans, but it has certainly been here long enough to be treated as a true native. Fallow deer make decorative park animals, and being fairly docile and easy to keep they have long been favourites with the owners of country parks, such as Knole in Kent, Richmond in Surrey and Petworth in Sussex. However, fallow are great jumpers, and over the years many have escaped to colonise the surrounding countryside.

Fallow deer are easy to recognise, for they are medium-sized animals, usually with a spotted coat in summer, which helps them blend with the dappled light of sunshine through leaves. There is a dark, unspotted race of fallow, and some populations (such as those in Epping Forest) consist almost entirely of these.

Red deer are the largest wild mammals to be found in the British countryside, and a big stag can weigh up to 190 kilos, or as much as a good bullock. The biggest population of red deer in Britain is found in the Highlands of Scotland, where they manage to survive in harsh conditions. Because of the poor food, Highland red deer usually weigh much less than their relations which live in the wooded coombes of Exmoor, or in the forest of Thetford, in East Anglia. The poor diet is also reflected in their antler growth, for the woodland or lowland deer produce much more impressive antlers, with many more points (or tines), than the Highland deer.

Deer are the only animals to grow antlers, which are unique in that they are grown, and later shed, every year, unlike the horns of cattle or sheep, which the animal retains throughout its life. In the case of the red deer, the stag starts growing its new pair of antlers in May, when the velvet-covered bumps, which will be the antlers, appear for the first time. These grow quickly, and will be almost fully formed by the end of August, when the stag will clean them of the velvet — the soft, sensitive skin that covers them during the growing period.

The last traces of velvet will have gone by mid-September, and the stag will be equipped for the rut — the mating season — which takes place in early autumn. He will keep the antlers throughout the winter, shedding them in March or early April. It is rare for both antlers to fall off at the same time, so you often see the strange sight of a one-antlered deer. Only the stags grow antlers, never the females. Incidentally, there are strict terms for the male, female and young of each species. A male red deer is called a stag, its female a hind, which gives birth to calves. A male fallow deer is always known as a buck, the female a doe, and the young a fawn. The same terms apply to the roe, except for the young, which is known as a kid. Roe deer are our smallest native species, but an adult doe is little larger than a German shepherd dog, or Alsatian. Enlightened attitudes to deer management have allowed roe deer to re-colonise much of southern England, and they are very common in Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex. The buck’s antlers are much simpler than those of the red deer, and seldom carry more than six points, three on each antler. Roe are particularly secretive, but they often reveal their presence in suburban Surrey by their passion for roses, creeping into gardens at night to eat this prickly delicacy. In addition to our three native species, a number of exotic deer are now well established in our countryside. The most widespread of these is the Japanese sika, which looks much like a smaller version of the red deer, of which it is a close relative and with which it will interbreed.

Two very small species from China have also become part of our fauna: the muntjac (now quite numerous in Bedfordshire and neighbouring counties) and the water deer. Both were originally introduced by the Duke of Bedford to his estate at Woburn, and most of our wild muntjac and water deer are descended from these animals.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.