Deer Diary

PUBLISHED: 14:02 14 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Red deer stags during the rutting season

Red deer stags during the rutting season

Deer might be one of the wonders of Exmoor, but their population also needs managing. The National Trust has a very clear policy on deer management on the 20 square miles of its Holnicote Estate. Its objectives in managing wild deer are to protect...

Those people who are brave enough to forgo their warm beds before sunrise on a frosty morning in mid-October and venture onto the wild moorland of Exmoor will stand a good chance of witnessing one of nature's most magical spectacles. This is the mating time or 'rut' of Britain's largest land mammal, the red deer (Cervus elaphus). Standing quietly in the gloom, to hear the sudden sound of a stag roaring or 'balving' is to experience the timeless spirit of Exmoor.

On a cool morning at this time of year, however, it is the large groups of hinds on Ley Hill or on the land above Cloutsham Farm on Dunkery Beacon that offer the spectacle. The stags will be leaving the groups now and will soon be about to lose their antlers as well. These large groups offer a good chance to assess the health and size of the herd and our annual deer census provides very useful information on which to base deer-management decisions.

Stretching from the sea at Porlock Bay to Dunkery Beacon the highest point of Exmoor, the Holnicote Estate, owned by the National Trust since 1944, is the ideal location to watch red deer. The ancient oak woodland of Horner Wood provides plentiful cover for the deer, particularly during stormy weather, but, for much of the year, the deer can be seen browsing the vegetation on the heather-clad uplands.

To hear the sudden sound of a stag roaring or 'balving' is to experience the timeless spirit of Exmoor

Red deer have been present in the Westcountry since the last Ice Age. It is estimated that during the Mesolithic period (middle Stone Age), some 1.5 million red deer lived in Britain beneath the woodland canopy that cloaked most of the land. On Exmoor, records show that the deer thrived until the 17th century when, during the Civil War, they were almost driven to extinction. Numbers slowly increased, augmented by imported animals from Germany, until 1855, when, with the founding of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, the management of deer numbers for the pursuit of hunting ensured that the species thrived. By the end of the 20th century the population exceeded 2,500. Today, this figure probably exceeds 3,000 and the range of the deer continues to spread westwards into Cornwall where some were recorded on The Lizard in 2007.

In Britain, the large carnivores, such as lynx and wolves, which contributed to regulating the population levels of deer, were persecuted to extinction. Without management, the number of deer in any area is limited largely by the availability of food. Extreme conditions can cause high mortality in deer but this is insufficient to prevent population growth. An increase in deer numbers and in their range can result in environmental or commercial damage. To minimise this damage, deer management is required and this usually means culling.

Any culling on its land is carried out in a safe and humane manner by experienced, trained stalkers and the Trust doesn't permit any commercial stalking. Deer move over large areas of land with no regard for boundaries and, therefore, it is important for the Trust to work with neighbouring landowners in developing effective deer management.

Deer in the south-west of England live in a relatively mild climate and have an abundance of available food. Their growth rate and fertility is much higher than the red deer of Scotland. On the Holnicote Estate, the deer population is in excess of 300 and approximately 25-30% is culled annually to maintain the herd. The Trust employs a stalker warden who has responsibility for deer management, including the use of deterrents to protect habitats and crops and the implementation of the annual cull programme. Most culling takes place in the early hours of the morning before walkers are out on the hills. The safety of visitors to the Estate is paramount and stalking often has to be curtailed because of early morning dog-walkers or joggers.

At Holnicote, the Trust has a purpose-built game larder for preparing deer carcasses before storage in a refrigerated chill room prior to collection by a licensed game dealer. Venison is a low-fat, healthy meat that is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to meat from farmed animals. All deer that are culled on National Trust land are individually tagged so that the origins of the animal can be traced. A detailed cull record is maintained by the stalker, which provides information on age, sex and carcass weight. In addition, each animal is thoroughly inspected for signs of disease, in particular for any symptoms of bovine TB, which needs to be reported to DEFRA. To date, no clinical signs of TB have been detected in any deer culled at Holnicote.

Deer management can only be effective if landowners work in partnership to co-ordinate activities over large areas. The Trust is a founder member of the Exmoor and District Deer Management Society. This group, comprising landowners, farmers and the hunts, was set up in 1993 to co-ordinate management of the red deer herd across the whole of Exmoor National Park. One of its most valuable achievements is the annual deer census, which is carried out in mid-February. Farmers, hunt members, deer enthusiasts and staff from Exmoor National Park Authority and the National Trust volunteer to count deer in a specific area on each morning of a weekend. Whilst not every individual deer will be counted, the census over the last 13 years has provided very useful information on population trends, sex ratios and deer range. Without the annual count it would be very difficult to determine the health of the herd and to set the annual cull programme.

Red deer have an almost iconic status on Exmoor and, although their numbers require control, we must realise that they are a major attraction for visitors to the wild expanse of moorland around Dunkery and elsewhere within the National Park. When I took a group of people to see the deer during the rut last October, one woman told me that whilst she had experienced lions in the Serengeti, whales off the Canadian coast and giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands, nothing had given her such a thrill as the stags 'balving' and clashing antlers on Dunkery Hill.

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