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The policy of reforestation will help to protect Britain’s red deer

Posted in Animals, Conservation, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 26 November 2013

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This edited article about animals first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 462 published on 21 November 1970.

Red deer stags, picture, image, illustration

Red deer stags lock antlers in a fight for supremacy

It is the largest wild animal left in the British Isles, and certainly one of the most romantic-looking. In spite of every hazard, past and present, and the disappearance of so many of the forests that are its home, the red deer still manages to survive in fair numbers and with reasonable hopes for its future.

The policy of reforestation – growing new forests – has helped improve the red deer’s chances. Animals from herds kept in private parks, which were disbanded by the iron hand of taxation, have either been re-instated in national forests or have simply arrived in these welcome sanctuaries, for it must be stressed that the red deer is a forest animal.

The term “deer-forest,” when applied to large moorland areas is incorrect, because moors are not the natural habitat of these creatures. They require space, and when Britain was covered with forests, space is what they had.

Deer enjoyed Royal protection and were hunted for both food and sport. But with the spread of agriculture, and the widespread destruction of woodland and forest, not to mention the damage done by deer to crops, they would long ago have disappeared had they not been kept for sport and the highly prized wide-spreading antlers sought as trophies.

The red deer calf is born most frequently, in June, that is, eight months after the rutting season. Twins may occur if conditions are favourable, or the hind might suckle an orphan, bereft of its dam, thereby giving an impression that she is the parent of two calves.

A well-sheltered spot with ample cover is favoured as a birthplace, where the newly born calf, with its red coat, dappled with white spots, will be completely hidden in heather and bracken. Although the calf can stand within a few minutes of birth, the hind presses it down into the cover if it attempts to follow her, and will keep it there for some hours, mounting guard nearby, before suckling the calf for the first time.

Soon it will follow her, and when a few days old it can run well enough, if it has to. The care of the hind for her calf is proverbial, and she is prepared to face great danger in searching for it if it should be lost or strayed.

The calf grows fast. At eight to ten weeks it is able to fend for itself. However, it is threatened with many dangers, according to the locality.

These dangers include eagles, wild cats, foxes, and the rigours of its first winter. The herd to which it belongs must forage over a wide area, if in a part of the country where the winter is severe. And often the search for food and shelter is restricted by areas fenced off for agriculture. This is yet another example of the competition between the wild and the urban for space.

The hinds and the stags form separate herds for most of the year, these herds taking to different territory. The stags favour higher ground, the hinds stay together in larger groups, with “teenage” hinds and stags which are not as yet at the breeding stage, and these all seek more sheltered ground.

Such herds are led by an old hind, a “grandma” who knows her way about – where the best grazing is to be found and so on – and will keep an eye on the youngsters.

They in turn show much attention to “grandma”, grooming her coat with their tongues until she becomes quite sleek. However, the calves are taught from birth of ever-present danger, and will come by a kick from their mothers if danger signs go unheeded.

Then comes “the day of the roaring,” when the stags, in prime condition and “clean” – that is, with the antlers free of velvet – arrive on the scene looking for a harem of hinds, and roar out their challenge. Their necks are extended, their heads are thrust back to defy those who would rob them of their choice, or to defy those already in possession.

Fights take place. The hills resound with the roars of defiance and the clash of antlers, though these dramatic encounters are rarely fatal. The one bested makes off, hoping for better luck next time no doubt! Like the thwarted villain of the piece in an old-time stage melodrama, his time will come, all being well. In other words, if a sportsman’s bullet, or a poacher’s, does not end his career, as it might well do if he has a head worth having.

The taking of the best heads, meaning those with the best antlers, involves the sacrifice of the best animals, which does nothing to help the standard of red deer as a whole. Of course, with the red deer in private parks, well fed, and not subject to the rigours of life in the open deer forest, such animals grow to great size and are the proud possessors of magnificent antlers. The process of growing a new set every year is a drain on the animal’s strength.

Some of the finest heads are found among these more favoured of the deer species, including the red deer of Exmoor, though this deer reserve cannot be described as a private park. The conditions there are favourable, however, both as to climate and food.

To illustrate the distance travelled in the rutting season in search of a herd of hinds, one fine-looking stag once journeyed by night from its usual habitat in the park of the Duke of Bedford’s estate at Endsleigh, in Cornwall, to Warrington Park, a distance of 12 miles across country. The stag encountered more than one obstacle on the way, including a river, to say nothing of roads and railways.

On reaching Warrington Park, it jumped the wall, took charge of a herd of hinds, and returned the way it had come to Endsleigh when the rutting season was over! Unfortunately, it lost its life in the course of one of its nocturnal rambles.

This occurred in 1950 in the midst of modern conditions. But it was not these conditions that caused the stag’s death. A jump into an enclosure ended the career of the Endsleigh Stag, as it came to be known.

When a stag becomes old, it retires from herd activities, and lives out the rest of its life on the hillsides. Perhaps it has a young stag, of, say, about two or three years, to act as a scout for it, or a “fag,” as it is sometimes called. The youngster keeps a lookout while “grandpa” takes life easy somewhere in the background.

The travelling feats of red deer stags are not confined to the land. Some have been reported swimming between off-shore islands off the West Coast of Scotland, and one is actually reputed to have swum across the Bristol Channel from the coast of Somersetshire to Glamorganshire.

The only time a red deer ceases to be correctly named is in the winter when its fine red summer coat of reddish-brown becomes long and greyish. It is in the winter that she stag’s antlers drop off, to grow again in all their glory the following summer.

It would be a sad day if red deer ever disappeared from Britain, but, in fact, the new national forests will ensure that these beautiful animals will continue to live as true creatures of the wild.

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