Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 4.5.16

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Across Britain, there is, they say, a plague of deer. There are two native deer, the red, in many minds, ‘Monarch of the glen’, our largest deer of course and synonymous with the Highlands. However, if you are familiar with the south west of England, the stags of Exmoor and Dartmoor perhaps also spring to mind. And even if your home is the ‘smoke’ of London, there are parkland based red deer there too. The other truly native deer is of course the roe, an animal almost exclusively to be found in woodland albeit that these days they seem almost equally at home in city cemeteries!

The problem, according to some, is that there are effectively no longer any natural predators roaming the British landscape to control the currently rapidly growing populations of deer, which nowadays are further swollen by the introduction over the years of different types of deer from other parts of the world. Of these, the longest established is the fallow deer, said to have been first brought here by the Romans but there are also sika deer and the tiny muntjacs, both brought here as decorative additions to the parklands of some of our grander houses and both originating on the other side of the world in the Far East. They all, by the way, share one passion … for roses!

Hence, there is a growing clamour for ‘re-wilding’ with lynx and wolves currently being advocated for re-introduction. The lynx disappeared from Britain in the region of a thousand years ago whilst the wolf survived until sometime around three hundred years ago. The advocates of such re-introductions of course cite the recent release of beavers in Argyll (a ‘controlled’ release, and thus carefully monitored) but some of them without the authorisation of officialdom in Perthshire and therefore definitely not monitored, as well as another well watched group in south west England.

As many will know, there is already controversy raging in Perthshire with some farmers and landowners resorting to the gun to ‘control’ these ‘unwanted’ animals.  But the main arguments are that deer numbers must be brought under control in order to protect our woodlands. This week I read that the Woodland Trust plans to begin a nation-wide scheme to augment current tree stocks with the planting over a period of time, of a further sixty four million trees – one for each UK citizen. Scotland, indeed Britain, is a very different place from when wolves and especially lynx were present in our landscape, a fact very publicly recognised by none other than Sir David Attenborough who has firmly come out against such re-wilding.

Britain, in the wake of the last Great Ice Age, was quickly colonised by trees and was in effect largely covered by natural forest. Then, along came our distant ancestors, including the first Neolithic farmers, who of course, as a means of utilising their newly developed husbandry skills, immediately began to clear trees to grow crops and graze their livestock. Of course, those early settlers made little impact and the deer, including incidentally, those Monarchs of the Glen, prospered in such a friendly, wooded environment, despite the predation of the said wolves and lynx.

The gradual disappearance of our natural woodlands had initially a slow, almost imperceptible impact but improving knowledge and technology as the centuries passed, accelerated the process. By the nineteenth century, driven by a combination of successive wars and the rapid development of all consuming industry, followed by the ‘sheepification’ of the uplands, those natural forests had all but disappeared. Our two native deer coped in entirely different ways to the disappearance of their natural habitat. Red deer relocated to the hills and glens – they are incidentally far smaller and lighter than their European cousins still located in forests - but roe found such a transition beyond them and they accordingly, came perilously close to dying out altogether.

The saving grace for roe was the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919 which began a programme of woodland planting albeit largely of non-native trees. These new forests however, proved ideal for roe and their numbers immediately began to recover until almost a hundred years on, they have reportedly reached those so-called plague proportions.

Roe deer are not large animals, an individual standing little more than two feet high at the shoulder. They are wonderfully athletic, capable of clearing quite high fences, fleet of foot and extremely alert. Our sightings of roe often amount to little more than fleeting glimpses of fast retreating, bobbing white posteriors. But, roe deer are unquestionably extremely attractive animals, often referred to as ‘the gentle roe’. And May is of course, a big month for them. Most roe deer kids come into the world during this ‘merry month’. And roe deer kids – they usually come in twos – are the absolute epitome of ‘Bambi’, tiny, spotted and well, simply adorable. However, be warned; should you stumble across one during a woodland walk, please do not touch it!  Your scent upon that tiny creature may cause it to be abandoned and thus, condemned to an early death.

But there is another side to the ‘gentle roe’ for during May the buck displays hardly any awareness, let alone a sense of care or responsibility towards his newly born progeny. Instead, he is fast becoming the very antithesis of gentle for the sap is rising within his veins as he seeks to establish or re-establish his territory and prepares if necessary to do battle to that end. I came across one such buck a day or two ago. His quite recently ‘cleaned’ antlers fairly gleamed in the sun as he quite deliberately, if from a respectable distance, investigated my presence. No bobbing white posterior here … at least till he was satisfied that I posed no problem to his territorial integrity. Foresters get quite peeved with roebuck because they can do serious damage to trees at this time of the year as they thrash them with their antlers to leave their mark for other bucks to see and smell. “This is my patch, invade at your own risk!” is the message conveyed.

I have frequently heard the coarse barking of competing bucks, emanating from somewhere deep in our nearby forests and several times have witnessed the sheer terror of a fleeing buck, expelled from a wood by a stronger rival. If initially there is face to face confrontation, it isn’t usually long before the psychological advantage held by the ‘master’ buck, cracks the fighting spirit of a weaker rival. Panic instantly sets in and then oh boy, the loser is certainly put to flight in no uncertain terms. Not gentle then!

The dander that infests a roebuck simmers from now until August by which time territorial integrity is established and the culmination of the whole process comes with mating. Roe are not herding animals like their larger red cousins. They usually can be seen in small family groups yet occasionally you do see surprisingly large gatherings. A week or so ago, on the very edge of the city almost below the castle walls, a dozen or so roe could be seen browsing, apparently with utter indifference to the nearby traffic!

As one who has had the privilege of rearing a roe kid to adulthood, I have always been thankful she was a doe for I have heard disturbing tales of hand reared roebuck, when the sap has risen in May, turning on their carers with a vengeance. With those sharp little antlers at that height, they can literally ‘gralloch’ such a person. So is ‘gentle’ roe appropriate? For the most part, and randy bucks apart … yes!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods