'Talking Deer' in Britain

(from FoFD Newsletter Spring 2012)


If like the writer you’ve heard there are deer on Farthing Downs but never seen any, you will have been fascinated by the talk given by Farthing Downs Ranger, Neil Sibley earlier this month.  Neil first introduced us to all six of the free living varieties of deer currently thriving in Britain. Some, like the Chinese Water Deer, were first introduced into Britain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, however, this breed of deer has a strong preference for tall reed and grass areas in rich alluvial deltas and is unlikely to be seen around here.  Likewise, the Sika Deer was introduced from Japan in the 1880’s and the Muntjac from China in the early 20th century.  The Sika is most widespread in Scotland but the Muntjac is widespread across England and Wales with increasing feral populations probably helped by deliberate movement and release by humans. These three breeds were brought back by explorers and originally kept in parks and Zoos.  The introduction of the Fallow Deer was much earlier possibly either by the Norman French or the Romans, who may brought them along for a tasty snack.  The Fallow Deer is considered native to this country along with the Red Deer and the Roe (our most ancient deer) which has inhabited Britain since before the Mesolithic period (6000 to 10000 years BC).  Due to forest clearance and overhunting the Roe became extinct by the 19th Century but was reintroduced by the Victorians.  They are now thriving once more due to recent re-planting of woodland and forests.  


Neil explained the inbuilt survival characteristics of the deer.  For example, the Roe deer mate in August but implantation of the egg is delayed until January to avoid the harsh winters.  The Muntjac has no specific breeding season and produces all year round; they begin breeding at eight months old, have a gestation period of seven months and are able to mate again within days of giving birth.  As we know, male deer fight for supremacy over the heard of females, usually the older stronger male winning out over younger ones. Culling in deer parks, such as Richmond helps to keep the heard healthy and sustainable but this has to be carried out with care as if a master buck is taken out too early then there is always the possibility that the younger males will be too well matched and may be injure or kill each other leaving a weakened heard.  Neil showed us examples of antlers, grown by the males for the mating season, and we were able to examine these closely.  The largest, from the Red deer, was extremely heavy. The Roe deer are the only breed which has palmate antlers which again were surprisingly heavy – none of us would have liked to walk around with these on our heads, however, the antlers are shed once the rutting season is over.


Neil then talked about local deer.  Fallow deer are occasionally seen on the Downs, the Roe are the most likely to be seen and the Muntjac being smaller and shyer is rarely seen but both the Roe and the Muntjac are the likely culprits if you find your garden flowers browsed –  they like to try them out of curiosity.  They also like the young shoots of shrubs and trees.  Neil understands that deer are not welcome in local gardens particularly if they’re going to eat prize plants and vegetables but suggests that the only way to keep them out is a fence or screen so they can’t see the plants – if they can then they will do anything to get in.


Neil confirmed that the City does not have a deer management policy and, in fact, the native Roe helps wildlife by keeping down invasive scrub. Being selective feeders, Roe deer can create niches for a variety of wildlife.  The local deer population is low and deer roaming the Downs belong to a wider population covering all the local open space and there has been very little damage to habitats found on the Commons.  Neil invited local residents with concerns about deer to contact him for further advice.


An unhappy end

Finally, we were all quite shocked when Neil showed us examples extracted from the stomachs of deer which had inadvertently swallowed plastic bags.  The intestines of these unfortunate deer had clearly been full of the bags which had become entwined with grazed grass – not a pretty sight and not a happy end for the deer.  Neil’s talk was over-subscribed so we hope to be able to persuade him to repeat the talk in the not too distant future.