While Notes from the Sticks is on holiday, we are repeating some earlier articles. This was first published on May 23, 2021.
ONE my favourite YouTube clips is this one from November 2011 of a black labrador called Fenton having a great time chasing red deer in Richmond Park while his owner goes frantic trying to call him off.
(Apologies for the profanity but I think under the circumstances it is understandable.)
In passing, this highlights the fact that dogs, no matter how well trained, can never be trusted. When instinct kicks in they become deaf to any call or entreaty. That is why we have to be so careful around sheep – it can take very little to startle one, it starts to run, the rest join in and your peaceable dog simply cannot resist the thrill of the chase. If a farmer sees his flock charging along with a dog in pursuit he is fully entitled to assume that the dog intends harm and to shoot it, with the questions being asked afterwards.
Anyway, this blog is about deer. Most people will only ever see them in parks, if at all, but the countryside is stiff with them. They are just very shy and good at keeping out of the way of humans.
There are six species of deer in Britain:
Red deer (Cervus elaphus)
This is the largest deer and is native. It was close to extinction by the late 1700s but stalking revived interest and there are now probably close to half a million, mostly in Scotland.
Fallow deer (Dama dama)
Also a native which became extinct in Britain during the last Ice Age, and was re-established by the Normans for hunting in the 11th century. They are widespread, mainly in England.
Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus)
This is the smallest native deer. It was close to extinction 300 years ago and still rare a century ago. Helped by re-introductions, it has steadily increased since the 1960s and there are now well over half a million in England, Scotland and Wales.
Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis)
These come from China and Korea, and were introduced to Woburn Park, Bedfordshire, in 1896 and Whipsnade Park, also in Bedfordshire, in 1929-1930. It has been established in the wild since 1945, originally around Woburn but now also in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Neither sex has antlers.
Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)
From China and introduced to Woburn Park in 1894. Again there were escapes and releases (they really didn’t have any sense in those days, did they?) and the muntjac has been established since the 1930s throughout most of southern and eastern England, with scattered records elsewhere. They are about the size of a medium dog, say a springer spaniel.
Sika deer (Cervus nippon)
This species was introduced into British deer parks from Japan and Asia after 1860, and is now widespread across northern and western mainland Scotland, and in the Scottish Borders. There are colonies in Cumbria and Lancashire, and I have been told that there are some round here in Lancashire. In six or seven years I have seen one deer in the field opposite and a couple in woods not far away, but I could not identify them.
Although deer are so elusive we may soon be seeing them more often. According to the European Wilderness Society, there are at least 2million of them in Britain, and this population increases by 30 per cent or 600,000 every year when the young are born in May and June. Usually the numbers are brought back down by culling (the nice word for killing), and the venison goes to restaurants. Thanks to the Covid-19 restrictions closing restaurants, the market for venison has collapsed and so culling has almost stopped. This is likely to result in overgrazing and damage to woodlands, harming birds which nest on the ground and in the understory of woods. (Not to mention gardens.) The society says that deer numbers are now at their highest for a thousand years, and it advocates the reintroduction of predators, particularly the wolf. Obviously this is a highly complex subject, so let’s hope the ‘scientists’ who will be offering advice to the government have some clue about what they are doing. I’m not optimistic. [Update August 2023: All the estimates of deer numbers that I can find two years after writing this article are still stuck at 2million, but if it is correct that 600,000 are born every year there should be well over 3million by now.]
If you are a driver, it would be wise to pay attention to road signs warning of deer in the vicinity, as they have no road sense whatsoever. Here is a compilation of videos demonstrating this.
It is no joke hitting a deer, either for the animal or you, and your vehicle is likely to be a write-off. According to Autocar magazine, up to 20 drivers and passengers are killed in collisions involving deer each year with possibly 1,000 injured. As for the deer, it’s estimated that at least 40,000 are killed on UK roads each year, and possibly as many as 74,000. Peak times are the early morning, when deer go in search of a mate or new territories.