Deer in Rockingham Forest
Fallow Deer in December: Photo Bob Bullock
The deer problem
including contributions from David Hooton and Wendy Brooks.
There is little doubt that for many people catching a glimpse of deer through the woodland can be wonderful experience. Seeing any large wild animal in our increasingly tamed landscape can be a thrill, but seeing a female deer with its fawn can give particular pleasure. Sometimes our reaction to seeing deer can verge on the sentimental - Walt Disney and Bambi have a lot to answer for!
But there are real problems caused by too many deer roaming wild in the UK - problems for the landscape, for biodiversity and for people. On these pages we describe the deer and the problems they cause in Rockingham Forest, as well as the means that are being tried to address those problems.
About the deer
The problems they cause
Dealing with the problems
Deer species in Rockingham Forest
There are now six species of deer living wild in the UK. Two of these are truly native species - Red and Roe Deer and four others that have been introduced - Fallow, Reeve's Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer. Five of these now live in the Northamptonshire countryside and can be found in (or within 10 miles or so of) Rockingham Forest but you have to go a little further to find Red Deer. However, it is Fallow and Muntjac that are here in the greatest numbers, causing the greatest problems and that are most often seen. The two species differ widely in appearance and behaviour and some of the key points of difference are below.
Often a dark brown colour with white spots, though some can be white or black.
Bucks have spreading palmate antlers.
Bucks groan loudly during the breeding season (known as 'rutting').
The rut takes place in October or early November and single young born in June-July.
Large hoof prints (or 'slots') about 6cm long.
Wild populations descended from escapees brought here in Norman times.
Large herds of mixed sexes can be seen throughout the year. Often mature bucks form bachelor groups after the rut, and those that remain with the large herds are younger less-mature males.
For both species males are called 'bucks' (not stags - that's Red Deer!).
Females are 'does' and the young are 'fawns'.
Small, stocky and dark brown with a hunched appearance and facial stripes.
Bucks have small unbranched antlers.
Also known as 'barking deer' they bark repeatedly at all times of the year.
No set breeding cycle and occurs all year round - females come into season almost immediately after giving birth, gestation is 7 months.
Very small slots about 2.5cm long.
Escaped, released and moved from Woburn across South and Eastern England from the early 20th century.
Usually solitary or in pairs using a wide variety of habitats including gardens and built up areas as they are less timid than other species.
Far left is a young Fallow buck of typical colour. Notice its antlers have not yet developed their flat palms
(Photo: Gordon Worsley)
The doe with two fawns were part of a larger group seen in Fineshade in 2016 by Kurt Helwing - notice the difference in colouring of the two young.
Kurt also photographed this dark-coloured buck with full palmate antlers. This beast rutted in Fineshade for several years and perhaps he had fathered the dark coloured fawn above
The first picture of a Reeve's Muntjac buck was taken by Bob Bullock and shows the typical facial patterns very clearly.
Males shed their short, slightly hooked antlers in late spring and the picture oshows a re-growing pair of antlers which are covered in "velvet".
The second picture shows a doe with her fawn and is copied with permission from here www.moorhen.me.uk
The third picture shows two bucks and a doe feeding in the open and totally oblivious to the close proximity of a dog and its owner. The bucks' antlers have lost their velvet.
This picture shows a native Roe Deer. This is the third most populous species in Rockingham Forest and may be seen particularly in the east of the area along the Nene Valley. The forked antlers on the male are very clear on this photo by Richard Chandler.
Signs of deer in the forest
Everyone likes to spot deer in the forest but it is certainly not easy to see them during daylight hours. Most of the thousands of people who visit Fineshade Wood on a busy weekend do not see deer at all, but the signs of their presence are everywhere - slots, dung and 'racks" can be seen. There is a very good guide entitled Deer Signs available for download from the Deer Initiative website.
Taking the initiative
The Deer Initiative is a partnership of organisations that is dedicated to "ensuring the delivery of a sustainable, well-managed wild deer population in England and Wales".
On their website there is a wide range of detailed Best Practice guides which aim to ensure that deer management is carried out humanely, responsibly and effectively. The guides are primarily aimed at active practioners, but of interest to anyone interested in finding out more about deer management.
However, as the guide makes clear, the most obvious sign of presence of large numbers of deer in our woodlands is a very clear horizontal browse-line as shown here.
It is not only the low-growing leaves on established trees that have been eaten, but also the new young saplings on the forest floor. Woodland like this with very little naturally regenerating growth can be found right across the forest area.
Sounds of deer
It is sometimes easier to hear deer in Rockingham Forest than to see them.
Deer-browsed woodland in Fineshade
History of Fallow Deer in Rockingham Forest
It is believed that the Romans were the first to bring Fallow Deer here but they became extinct once their occupation ended. No doubt native Red and Roe Deer remained, their numbers held in check by natural predators, particularly the wolves that were common in Britain in Saxon times.
The royal forest of Rockingham was established by the Norman kings as land for hunting. It was likely that Red and Roe Deer were often the quarry at first, but soon Fallow Deer were once again introduced from the eastern Mediterranean. At least 18 deer parks were established across the Forest - areas of wood-pasture surrounded by a deer-proof 'pale' designed to keep the animals inside.
As the years went by the deer parks fell into disrepair and Fallow Deer were increasingly able to spread across the whole area. At the same time their natural predators were being removed. According to Joseph Strutt (The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801)
"In the 43rd year of Edward III's rule (1350), a Thomas Engaine held lands in Pytchley in the county of Northampton, on the condition that he find special hunting dogs to kill wolves ..."
As well as at Pytchley, Engaine had land interests at Blatherwycke and Laxton.
The last wolves are thought to have have survived in England until the end of the 15th century, after which only the predations of man held deer numbers in check.
Nobody really knows how many deer there are in the UK. It is frequently said that the population is at the highest level for a thousand years, with the best estimate being two million or more - about twice the population estimate from the 1990s.
Historically, estimating deer populations has been challenging due to the secretive nature of the deer themselves, rarely being visible for long, and often only during the hours of darkness. With the advent of drones, thermal imaging and high definition cameras, counts were undertaken across the Rockingham Forest area, and evidence of high population numbers emerged. It was thought that there were over 1000 Fallow Deer in the area with probably at least that number again of Muntjac. You can see here how this technology has increased the ability to see inside woodlands and improve the accuracy of counts,
Five (?) Fallow Deer in May. Photo Bob Bullock
In parts of the Rockingham Forest area it is certainly possible to see herds of Fallow Deer numbering over one hundred, like the one below.
Problems caused by deer
Damage to crops
Newly planted grain crop trampled by a large herd of deer
It is said that an adult Fallow Deer will eat around 5kg of greenstuffs a day. Imagine you were the farmer who saw that herd of over 100 deer on their field. That's half a ton of your crop disappearing overnight! If they stay for a month that will be 15 tons gone and not much to show for all your careful crop management!
Even back in 2003, when deer numbers were much lower than now, a study estimated that the total cost of damage to cereal and root crops through eating and trampling was between £1.92 and £4.57 million, in the East of England alone.
A field of sugar beet completely destroyed
Damage to woodland
This series of photographs from a Forestry Commission blog by Ian Tubby shows very vividly the effect of heavy browsing on woodland in southeast England. With this level of grazing there is little prospect of, for example, Nightingales or Dormice using the woodland.
The first picture was taken just after the removal of a deer fence,
the middle photo 18 months later, and the final one after 6 years.
Photos by Jamie Cordery, Forestry Commission
Territorial species such as Roe and Muntjac usually occupy an area all year round, their impact being more or less constant. Herding species like Fallow can be more unpredictable, sometimes not visiting an area for months, then appearing in large numbers, causing damage.
For more information on the impact of deer on woodland habitats there is a detailed document prepared by the Deer Initiative here.
The area of woodland with Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status that is currently in ‘unfavourable’ or ‘recovering’ condition due to deer impacts is 8000 hectares. This is likely to represent a fraction of the real picture, according to the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. “Deer can affect the age diversity of a woodland, resulting in a fall in numbers of species, and strip bark off older trees, which kills them,” says Paul Wilkinson of the Wildlife Trusts.
This picture shows deer damage to coppiced woodland. Only the small central area was fenced when the area was coppiced several years previously
Road traffic accidents
Drive along the A43 or A47 through Rockingham Forest at any time of year and you are very likely to see the remains of a deer in the road. Often the Red Kites, crows and other wild scavengers will benefit from the gory remains, but sometimes there will have been a tragedy as drivers have tried to avoid colliding with the large mammals. According to the British Deer Society there are 74,000 road-traffic accidents a year involving deer, with between 10 and 20 people killed. That BDS website includes useful advice about what to do if you are involved in an accident with deer.
Large populations of deer are likely to be contributing to an abundance of ticks, which those of us living in Rockingham Forest have experienced in recent years. These parasitic insects can carry Lyme's Disease and TBE (tick-borne encephalitis) and are certainly a threat to public health. Deer themselves may also carry parasites or diseases such as foot-and-mouth and bluetongue which are a threat to livestock.
This is a typical "bulls-eye" rash after a tick-bite to a Fineshade resident in 2022. This rash is an indicator of Lyme's Disease and, fortunately, it was identified and treated early enough to prevent what can otherwise be an extremely serious condition.
There is a second webpage where we describe some of ways in which the problems caused by large deer populations are being addressed.
Click here to read about the various options for protecting trees from deer, controlling deer numbers by culling and establishing a market for deer products in Rockingham Forest.
There is also a personal account of what it means to be a deer stalker here:
About David Hooton
Since 2020 David Hooton has worked for The Forestry Commission as an area Deer Officer, providing advice on sustainable wild deer management to a wide range of stakeholders in the East and East Midlands area. His particular emphases are supporting woodland creation applications, bringing woodlands back into management and venison supply chains.
We are very grateful for David's help in compiling these webpages.