BACKGROUND & HISTORY
The New Forest and deer are synonymous with each other – deer are the reason the Forest was claimed and named by William the Conqueror in 1079. Red Deer and Roe Deer are believed to have roamed the Forest in varying numbers since pre-historic times and early man used their skins for clothing, their antlers as rudimentary tools and ate their meat. Historically, Red Deer numbers fluctuated widely and by 1828 they were being sent to stock Windsor Great Park. Roe Deer became extinct in the Forest by 1800 but following their re-introduction to Dorset they gradually found their way back into the New Forest. The Normans are credited with the wide scale introduction of Fallow Deer into the area and they remain the most common variety on the Forest today. Much more recent arrivals are the herd of Sika Deer which are the result of a few escapees from a private collection on the Beaulieu Estate in the early 1900s. The latest to arrive in the Forest is the Muntjac which is spreading rapidly across the UK, having originally escaped from a collection at Woburn.
The New Forest was made a Royal Forest by William I and deer were hunted here by Kings of England for many centuries from William to James II. The Normans were great hunters and declared large areas of the country to be subject to their “Forest Law”. By the early 13th century almost one third of the country was designated as Royal Forest of which the New Forest was pre-eminent. These Forest Laws applied to any area that was exclusively set aside for the King’s hunting pleasure – not forests as we understand them today.
During the medieval period royal hunting lodges were created around the Forest for use by the Monarch and his companions during their hunts. Excavations have revealed that these lodges were normally sited on an embankment and would have been of a modest timber frame and plaster construction and were thought to have been used for the accommodation overnight of hunting parties. These lodges would have been manned by New Forest Keepers, a role that still exists in the Forest today.
By the end of the 1600s the English monarchs became less interested in hunting and more interested in timber production in order to build ships for the Royal Navy. Whilst James II is the last monarch to have hunted in the Forest, during the early 1800s the Royal Buckhounds were sent into the New Forest from Windsor and this is the first record of hunting deer with packs of hounds. These hounds visited several times and on one occasion in the 1830s it is reported that a “couple of thousand people” attended.
Gradually the deer on the Forest became more of a nuisance than an asset in view of the damage they caused to growing timber crops. This became a concern of national proportions when it started to impact on the ability to supply timber to build ships for our rapidly expanding naval fleet. As a consequence, the UK Parliament passed the Deer Removal Act in 1851 sanctioning the complete removal of deer from the New Forest.
The clearance of deer was not entirely successful and a few Fallow remained on the Forest. Within a few decades of the Act, iron warships were being built and the demand for timber was no longer as great. Deer gradually migrated back into the Forest to the extent that their numbers had to be controlled. Around this time the New Forest Buckhounds were formed and by the end of the 19th century they were based in kennels at New Park. The hounds hunted mainly fallow bucks but it was more sport than serious culling to control numbers and this latter activity was undertaken by a team of New Forest Keepers in much the same way as they do today. Gradually, the hunting of deer with hounds became more publicly unacceptable and the buckhounds were disbanded in July 1997.
At their peak, it is estimated that there would have been as many as 10,000 deer on the Forest and for long periods the deer population was around 6,000 but nowadays they are kept at around 2,000 although this will fluctuate upwards in the Spring as the females give birth.
DEER SPECIES FOUND IN THE NEW FOREST
The following varieties of deer can be found in the New Forest – click on each for more information specific to that species together with images :-
Deer are naturally timid creatures who have been hunted by man for centuries so it is not surprising if their reaction to the presence of humans is to run for cover. Some days they may appear more tolerant of the presence of humans but they will never knowingly let you get close to them. Their primary senses are smell and hearing which are many times greater than our ability with these senses so if you are downwind of them they are much less likely to detect your smell or hear you. The deer’s eyes are situated on the side of their head, unlike ours, which gives them good all round vision. However, their sight is not particularly sharp but is mainly used to detect motion and they will quickly pick up movement around them. Dark clothing is advisable as bright colours are more easily detected by deer. Deer are more active at dawn and dusk and these are the best times to view them as they tend to lie up for long periods during the day. Above all find a good position to watch deer where they are unlikely to detect your presence and they are quite likely to move closer to you. If they detect you, stand still and don’t try and follow them if they start to move away as they can move far more quickly through the woods than you can, jumping fences with ease.
Be especially careful during their rut in the autumn. At this time male deer are fueled with testosterone and are quite bold compared to other times of the year. If you take advantage of this and get too close to them they can become aggressive and charge so keep your distance for your own safety and also to avoid disrupting the rut. Sika deer can be particularly dangerous at this time.
All species of deer eat tender tree and plant shoots and leaves. Most trees are eaten but broadleaves are especially favoured as is holly, particularly in the winter when other food is scarce. This is one of the reasons for the distinctive browse line of the trees around the Forest.
Male deer mark their territories and also clean the velvet off their newly-grown antlers by rubbing or “fraying” them on young trees. This damages the bark and can even kill the tree. Roe usually fray in spring or summer whereas red, fallow, sika and mature muntjac deer usually do this in the autumn. High densities of deer, particularly in the presence of commoners’ stock, prevent woodland regeneration and destroy the shrub layer (especially freshly cut coppice) and flowering plants.
ROAD TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS
Road traffic accidents involving deer occur throughout the year but the risk is much higher during the main rutting period in the Autumn. In the UK around 74,000 deer are injured on roads each year and the New Forest is a high risk zone. In addition to causing considerable damage to vehicles, these accidents result in several hundred human injuries and several human fatalities across the country annually. Unlike ponies, deer are very unpredictable when crossing roads – always be aware that further deer may well cross after the ones you have noticed.
The main national peaks in deer related traffic collisions occur during May, followed by mid October through December. The highest risk periods are from sunset to midnight followed by the hours shortly before and after sunrise.
Unlike animals with horns which are made of keratin (like our nails & hair) the deer antler is comprised of calcium. In other words, it is effectively an exposed bone – a very strong bone. Antlers are unique to deer and in the UK only male deer carry antlers and their sole purpose is to display the animal’s strength & maturity to admiring females and rival males during their annual “rut”, which only lasts a few weeks each year. Due to a hormone change each Spring the deer’s body starts to re-absorb calcium causing the antlers to fall off within a few days of each other. In this way a larger set of antlers can be grown each year until the deer reaches its prime. Antler size is dependent upon a number of factors including diet.
When the antlers are cast (fall off) the deer’s testosterone levels are minimal and within a couple of weeks the new antlers start budding from “pedicles” on the skull of the male deer. At this stage the antler is a living thing covered by a layer of skin with its own blood supply and nerve cells. The antlers soon start to branch and they grow noticeably from week to week. At this stage the bone is soft and its skin is covered with a fine hair – during this period the deer is said to be “in velvet”. The antler is tender to the touch and fragile. It can easily be damaged and the deer tries to avoid any antler contact.
Within a few months the antler is fully formed but it needs to strengthen and calcify. Once fully calcified, the blood supply cuts off at the base of the antler. Without its blood supply the velvet starts to split and shrinks. This split skin hangs “in tatters” which irritates the deer and it is quickly rubbed off against trees (fraying). The deer is ready for the rut and fueled with high levels of testosterone. By this stage the male deer’s bulk has increased considerably particularly around the neck and shoulders to equip it for the inevitable rutting battles that lie ahead.
With the exception of Muntjac, which breeds all year round, most deer have an annual mating period, known as the “Rut”, which varies in timing with species. Around this time of year male deer are fuelled with high levels of testosterone and become more aggressive towards competing males and fights between them often ensue to establish dominance.
The following short video shows the power of two Fallow bucks during a rutting fight for supremacy – ©Simon Currie.
The combination of powerful weapons in the form of antlers and the flooding of the body with testosterone is also a dangerous combination for bystanders.Unfortunately, each year in the New Forest problems are encountered with photographers and other members of the public who try to get too close to the deer during their rut. This not only disturbs their normal rutting patterns but poses a threat to the individual. It is not unknown for people, even those familiar with deer, to get injured by taking unacceptable risks to get a decent view of the rut. In one area of the New Forest, the Red deer rut is becoming an increasingly dangerous time as photographers place themselves too close to the action – in some cases, between two challenging stags!
During the Red deer rut, the Keepers have also noticed a change in deer behaviour and distribution patterns. Increased disturbance is causing these majestic animals to move out of their usual rutting area, increasing their susceptibility to traffic collisions and causing them to move onto private property where they can be shot by landowners who don’t want deer on their land. Unfortunately, too many of the mature stags have been lost in this way over recent years which may ultimately have an affect on the gene pool. During the Red deer rut, the Forestry Commission maintain “deer patrols” to ensure that disturbance by the general public is kept to a minimum.
The rut is a sensitive time of the year for New Forest deer – please respect them by keeping your distance when viewing.
When a deer is born it is extremely vulnerable and unable to follow it’s mother around for the first weeks of life. At this stage they are odourless and, in all species, their coat is dappled which helps to camouflage them. As a defensive tactic to keep nearby predators away from the newborns’ location, the mother will often leave her young animal alone for long periods of time in order not to leave her own scent which would give away it’s presence. During this crucial period the mother will visit the newborn at least twice a day to feed it.
If you find a newborn deer that appears to be abandoned, remember that deer are born with natural camouflage and a lack of scent and if you get too close, disturb or touch it there is a real possibility that its mother will detect your scent and abandon its young. If you find a newborn deer, leave it alone and retreat quickly – Mum will return.
Deer are prolific breeders and, left to their own devices, would soon increase to a population size that was unsustainable for the Forest to support. This would lead to insufficient grazing and browsing material being available to them which in turn would lead to poor health and disease. By way of example, records show that during the 18th century the Forest became so overstocked with deer that many died during the winters through lack of food – in 1787 three hundred died in one week during the winter.
Deer also need to be managed to keep them in balance with their habitat and prevent serious damage to woodlands, trees, crops, gardens and other wildlife habitats. Long ago, man exterminated wolves and other animals which once helped to control deer numbers naturally and also introduced other deer species into the country – as a consequence, the UK deer population is now spreading rapidly.
Culling together with good design and protection measures by way of high deer fences (over six feet) around young broadleaf timber crops are pre-requisites in controlling numbers and preventing deer damage. To prevent a deer population from increasing, around 25% of the adults need to be shot each year. Culling mature females is generally the key to controlling deer populations. Deer culling must be carried out safely, legally and humanely and on the Crown Land of the New Forest this is only undertaken by the Keepers who are employed by the Forestry Commission.
There are strict laws covering deer shooting and the use of firearms – only high velocity rifles are used. The New Forest Keepers are trained marksmen who know their individual beats well and carry out audits of deer each April before agreeing a cull target. The culling period during which the deer can be shot varies between species and sex. The Keepers are passionate about their deer and their welfare and it is only by selective culling that their welfare is maintained and the gene pool is kept strong – in a Keeper’s eyes a deer becomes venison as soon as it is shot. Venison is a valuable commodity and its sale proceeds help maintain the unique character of the Forest. Once shot, the deer carcass is taken to the Forestry Commission’s modern deer larder from where it is sold to licensed game dealers.