Posted 7th Aug 2014
Across the hillsides and woodlands of Britain this autumn normally quiet and timid stags let our their haunting bellows and lock antlers to win the hearts of the hinds
On a hillside above Ullswater, on a chilly autumn morning, the deer are rutting. The sky is overcast and there’s an icy drizzle to accompany a biting wind, but the sight, albeit distant, of the red deer striding the hillside is stirring. Their red/brown coats gleam with the rain and their tall antlers stand proud.
If you’ve taken one of the RSPB red deer cruises from Glenridding (with Ullswater Steamers), you’ll be carried by a vessel to Howtown and then by coach to Martindale, the upper part of which, around The Nab, is home to the oldest native red deer herd in England. In October, they’ll be elusive and good binoculars are vital. But it all repays the time and (small) effort, because while the stags appear scarce, their calls and grunts and bellowing are not, carrying easily across the clear air.
‘Being some distance from the rutting stags (or harts, if they’re more than five-years-old) is a wise precaution,’ says Derek Stimpson, chairman of the south-east England branch of the British Deer Society. ‘It’s not advisable to approach rutting stags that are fired up on testosterone. Last year a fellow got ‘treed’ in Bushy Park (the royal park near Hampton Court Palace) by a red stag,’ he explains, ‘and I was contacted by a woman who was attacked in the car park by a stag that came up behind her, knocked her down and stabbed her in the leg.’
The timid hinds aren’t so backward, either, when it comes to protecting the calves. Derek explains ‘Hinds and the young usually move away when people are about but, for instance, if there was a new-born calf in the grass that remained hidden, the mother would chase people away. I once watched a female roe deer chase a fox away from her two new fawns.’
Red deer and their rutting – in September and October, their annual tussle for which stag gets the pick of the hinds – have been a feature of the British countryside for more than 11,000 years, when they migrated over from Europe. Our Mesolithic forebears didn’t just admire the red deer (rutting or not), they made full use of all its talents: eating the meat, using the hide and coat for clothing, and the antlers and bones for tools.
Mesolithic man’s successor, Neolithic, wasn’t so amenable, being more into agriculture and clearing much of the red deer’s natural habitat (woodland and the like – happily, the deer have adapted long since). Since Victorian times, when the dwindled herds where fortified by an injection of new blood by crossing them with (almost certainly) the larger wapiti (Canadian red deer), the number of deer has steadily grown to the point that, according to the Deer Initiative, there may now be around two million of the six species – the red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and the Chinese water deer – that occupy the British Isles.
David Hooton, south-east liaison officer for the Deer Initiative, is less certain, believing the figure to be much higher.
‘At the moment the deer population is abundant,’ says David. ‘More so than for a long time.’ His own estimate tops the Initiative’s figures by around 50 per cent.
The European Journal of Wildlife Research seems to support this, reporting that the UK’s two native species, the red and the roe, have increased over the past two decades by 71 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. Numbers for other deer that arrived here more recently than the red and the roe are up by 181 per cent (the muntjac) and 89 per cent (fallow).
‘One of the reasons that deer flourish here is because there are no natural predators and’, says Derek Stimpson, ‘the country and the climate suit them.’ It may also be because the red deer is this country’s largest indigenous mammal – indeed, in worldwide deer terms, they come in at a creditable fourth, behind only moose, elk and sambar deer (to be found in southeast Asia).
Typically, a red deer stag can grow up to 98ins long in the body, 54ins tall at the shoulder and its antlers have been known – very much exceptionally – to measure 45ins. They weigh in, too, at up to 400lbs. The hinds are smaller and weigh less. Again exceptionally, red deer can live for up to 18 years though there is a heavy infant mortality rate, particularly in winter in Highland hill populations.
‘Like human beings,’ says Derek, ‘they don’t like being cold and wet, so they will often come down off the hills in winter to feed.’ Which is why you will see them at times by the shores of Ullswater or river banks in England or close to the lochs in Scotland. Red deer are herbivores and will eat a wide range of plants including grass, which they prefer, heather and shrubs and will have a go at young trees. Which is where the Deer Initiative – a broad partnership of statutory, voluntary and private interests dedicated to ‘ensuring the delivery of a sustainable, well-managed deer population in England and Wales – comes in.
David Hooton explains: ‘We work with others across England and Wales and look at the impact to landowners’ objectives…how many deer their land can support without too much damage being done.’
Control of the deer population is a part of the Initiative’s plan, including culling, but while David reckoned their effect can at times be quite costly (‘the economic impact of deer in 2005 in the east of England was around £5 million’), it’s also true that deer can help the environment, encouraging new growth among some vegetation.