Some people long to catch the merest glimpse of them, some travel many miles to see them whilst others are bent on culling them severely. Deer provoke many different emotions. I've even heard of folk buying lion dung from Safari Parks to try and deter deer from eating their roses! Yet deer are perhaps now more numerous than ever before. Nevertheless, to those who dwell within our now extremely urbanised towns and cities, seeing deer still represents something of a thrill. Indeed, the hope and perhaps expectation of many of today's burgeoning numbers of tourists to wild Scotland, is to see in particular, herds of red deer roaming across fine Highland landscapes.
Yet despite that craving, there are those who are currently calling for the restoration to these isles, of the likes of lynx and wolves as a means of controlling the ever growing populations of deer. There are also conservationists, so eager to protect our woodland areas and indeed to expand them who also wish to see deer numbers seriously reduced. Some say that the effect of over grazing by deer is seriously reducing cover for ground nesting birds and that the hunting of deer to produce venison should therefore be encouraged.
Deer then, create something of a dilemma in different folks' minds. They are seen in both good and bad lights, depending upon these different points of view. Some conservationists want them to be protected as important members of our native fauna, others want stricter culling levels and many foresters side with those who espouse more severe control than is currently practised. The erection of deer proof fences to protect young trees from browsing deer is said to represent a dangerous obstacle to our dwindling populations of capercaillie. However, we are told that those responsible for the management of deer are failing to keep numbers under control to such a degree that many deer themselves - especially our red deer - are suffering from malnutrition, due to excessive competition for diminishing food resources.
Those red deer, the Monarchs of the Glen, are our largest land mammals. In most people's minds, these days they are regarded as animals of the wild Highlands and uplands in England such as Exmoor. Yet in truth and by origin, they are really forest animals. However in recent centuries, the rapid advance of industry and the demands of successive wars stripped our landscape almost bare of its natural tree cover. Thus our red deer found their natural habitat shrinking so quickly that they had to adapt to a different and harsher lifestyle, forced to seek a living in the hills and the wilder glens and moors of the 'new' treeless landscape. But times change and there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that many red deer are finding their way back into the new Lowland forests.
Meanwhile, as natural woodland was rapidly disappearing, landowners, some of whom had been enriched by the exploitation of such resources, strove to develop their fine, manicured parklands and embellish them with herds of virtually tame deer. Whilst in some respects we might regard these parkland herds perhaps as not truly wild, more as a decoration to please the opulent eye, I'm sure they did also provide good eating when required. But by and large, these deer were and still are cosseted, living a relatively comfortable life and when facing inclement weather, freely provided with supplementary feeding. The herds of red deer in places such as London's Richmond Park are a prime example of 'not very wild' red deer, albeit that when the rut comes along, the stags quickly re-discover plenty of deep seated and wild ire and passion!
The disappearance of so much of the woodland cover of Britain, came quite close to causing the extinction of that other truly native, the smaller and very woodland orientated roe deer, which had been unable to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions. Indeed, the creation of the Forestry Commission immediately after the cessation of hostilities in 1919, probably rescued the graceful roe, from such a fate by coincidentally planting new and extensive coniferous forests which turned out to be excellent habitat for them. The recovery of the roe has since been nothing short of remarkable for these days, roe are so commonplace in certain areas to have become 'urban deer'! Locations such as cemeteries have been eagerly colonised by fast expanding communities of roe, in some cases surprisingly close to busy city centres.
Many long centuries ago reindeer were also apparently native to these shores. Certainly there are traditions in both Scotland and England which tell us of reindeer hunts. And since just after the Second World War, reindeer have been restored as Scottish animals although they are not free ranging and may perhaps therefore be regarded as domestic animals, as indeed they are across many parts of northern Europe
It also seems that a long way back in our history, recorded through the discovery of fossils rather than by tradition, giant fallow deer were once native here. However, the fallow deer now resident in various parts of Britain and most notably here in Scotland in such remarkably diverse locations as Loch Lomond side, Perthshire and the Isle of Mull, probably owe their presence here firstly to the Romans. Later, those mad keen hunt enthusiasts, the Normans also imported fallow. In addition, early in the seventeenth century, James 1 (James V1 of Scotland) imported darker coloured fallow from the Continent. Like those parkland red deer, many of our fallow deer herds might perhaps be regarded as embellishments to estate lands rather than truly wild inhabitants.
Hence, there are several variations on a spotted theme among the fallow deer to be found in Britain these days. Some are almost white, others tan and yet others of a distinctly chestnut colour. Fallow bucks are also notable for their palmate antlers, as distinct perhaps, from the more familiar adornments boasted by red deer. Not surprisingly, fallow, are nowhere near as hardy as red deer and often require extra feed in winter. It might be argued that fallow deer have been with us for long enough for them now to be classified as native animals, like for instance the rabbit.
In modern times, the dubious 'fashion' for the importation to the British landscape of what might be regarded as exotic species of animals, has resulted in the presence in these islands, of other types of deer. For instance, here in Scotland there are sika deer the origins of which are Far Eastern, from China and Japan. These animals, quite similar too but smaller than our red deer, are to be found in Argyll where, because of their close genetic relationship they are able to interbreed with red deer, thus diluting the purity of our native red deer.
If grey squirrels and American mink are rather better known animal importations, which in their own particular ways, have had a distinctly deleterious impact on our landscape, in southern Britain, two other imported deer are making something of an impact too. Chinese water deer and in particular, the tiny muntjac, originally native to China and India, are now well established with the muntjac recently widening its territorial ambitions across the Border into southern Scotland. However, it is the fast growing populations of our truly native deer, the red and the roe, that are of the greatest concern. Venison, a meat that contains relatively little fat, is perhaps more regularly finding its way on to the shelves of our supermarkets now, yet we still export most of it, even in this health conscious age!