FALLOW DEER-GRACEFUL GRAZERS
By the early summer the male fallow deer is growing a new set of impressive and distinctive antlers in readiness for the autumn rutting season. After this mating period, the female deer gives birth to a single fawn in the following June.
Fallow deer existed in the British Isles more than a million years ago, but died out during the Ice Age. The Normans reintroduced them to Ireland in 1244, and almost certainly to England before that date. Since then fallow deer have been widely kept in special deer parks-of which there are currently just over 100 — partly for their attractive appearance and also for their venison. You have a good chance of seeing these deer at close quarters in many town parks, such as Richmond Park in London, as well as zoos; in both locations they have learned to tolerate humans.
Wild herds that are found in areas such as Epping Forest, The Forest of Dean, Cannock Chase and the New Forest are descendants of those deer reintroduced by the Normans; but many wild herds have a closer ancestry to park deer which escaped during the two World Wars. Deer parks were neglected and fences fell into disrepair at these periods, and this enabled large numbers of deer to escape. Left alone in the wild, these herds flourished and multiplied.
Signs and tracks
In the wild, fallow deer are shy and elusive creatures. Unless you move very quietly, they will take fright and you will catch only a fleeting glimpse of them as they run away, so it is best to look for signs which give away their presence in a wood; these are provided by the outline of the trees.
Fallow deer feed on leaves and twigs. The branches of the trees are cropped off in a straight line about two metres above the ground-the highest the deer can reach-giving them a flat-bottomed shape. In muddy ground you may see cloven hoofmarks; these are, however, similar to those of sika, roe and red deer and even sheep, so you will find it difficult to tell them apart.
The droppings of these deer species are also alike, with some variations in size between the species and the sexes. Fallows’ are glossy, black, striped cylindrical pellets, pointed at one end. The pellets of an adult male (buck) are about 12mm (1/2in) square; those of the female (doe) are slightly smaller.
Although fallow deer vary considerably in colour, you will most likely see the dark-dappled ‘Bambi’ coat. This summer coat is a rich, glossy brown with white spots. Before winter it changes to grey-brown with barely discernible spots. The white rump patch is edged by a black horseshoe-shaped line. The tail, which is about 18cm (7in) long, is white below and black on top-a continuation of the black stripe that runs down the mid-line of the back. The deer shows its white scut with a flip of the tail to warn other members of the herd of any danger.
There is a paler variety, with black markings replaced by brown and the main body colour a lighter fawn. In winter the spots remain distinct. The so-called black variety has a glossy jet-black coat in summer, with elephant-grey belly and legs; the spots are indistinct and dappled. The coat becomes duller in winter.
The other main variety you are likely to see is white or pale ginger; these deer are partial albinos and have orange hooves and a pale nose. They are sandy coloured at birth, becoming gradually whiter during their first few months. You will see many intermediate shades, since deer of different colour varieties can interbreed, and the offspring are not necessarily the colour of either parent.
Both the buck and doe fallow deer have a gracefully curving neck. Their brown eyes are set in the side of the head to give wide-angled vision and the large ears can be swivelled in the direction of the slightest sound. The deer’s acute sight and sensitive hearing, alert them to any hint of danger.
From late summer through to spring the bucks sport magnificent antlers which they later shed. These can measure up to 80cm (31 in). The long spikes growing from the broad, flat palms distinguish these deer from all other British species.
During the long days of summer, while food is plentiful, the deer eat well and build up reserves of fat to stand them in good stead for the leaner days ahead. They not only have the rigours of winter to face, but also the rut or mating season-a time of intense activity for the bucks.
Having spent the summer away from the does and their fawns, the bucks return before the rut starts in October. They parade around their territories and advertise their presence to other bucks by groaning loudly and thrashing bushes and trees with their antlers. Sometimes they will strip the bark of older trees, rub the trunk smooth and anoint it with secretions from glands below the corners of the eyes.
They also scrape the ground with their forefeet, and at this time of year you will often come across bare patches of muddy ground with hoofmarks, hairs and the unmistakeable pungent smell of rutty urine. On a still night the deep belching noise of the rutting cry can carry a long way. With their massive antlers, enlarged necks and prominent Adam’s apples, the bucks are an impressive sight.
Does are attracted into a buck’s territory, where he chivvies and herds them. He defends them fiercely and will fight off any rivals, groaning at and chasing them. Well-matched rival bucks size each other up and often pace the ground shoulder-to-shoulder before wheeling to meet with a tremendous clashing of antlers. Very occasionally antlers may become inextricably entangled-leading to the death of both animals.
Eight months after mating the doe seeks out a quiet place well away from other deer to give birth to her fawn. This is usually in June, when the bracken and long grasses of the woodland floor provide good cover. After licking the fawn clean and suckling it for the first time, she will move back to the doe herd or feed alone, returning a number of times each day to feed her youngster.
Does and fawns spend the summer in a separate part of the wood from the bucks. The does and their offspring often form herds after the fawns are a few weeks old, when the youngsters will gambol about, chasing one another playfully.
When the fawns are about three months old, the first difference between the sexes becomes apparent: a tuft of hairs growing from the male’s penis sheath. This brush becomes a characteristic of mature bucks. By the time they are six months old. Some of the male fawns have quite noticeable bumps on their foreheads. These are pedicles, from which the antlers will grow. When the fawns are about one year old their first antlers-stubs or slender 15cm (6in) spikes – will have formed on top of the pedicles. In the second year the young bucks leave the doe herd and join the older bucks, to whom they are subordinate. The youngest does to be mated are about 16 months old; they will give birth to their first fawn by their second birthday.
Diet and feeding
During the summer fallow deer eat the grasses and herbs in woodland glades and rides or in open pastures. You are most likely to see them feeding at dawn or dusk, although in undisturbed areas they may spend much of the day lying in a sunny field chewing the cud. Usually they choose a spot with woodland nearby. If danger threatens they will quickly run for cover, led in single file by a doe. Sometimes when they are alarmed they adopt a strange gait – the pronk – in which they bound stiff-legged on all four feet, stop, stare around them and run off again.
Come autumn the deer move into the wood-land and seek out acorns, beech mast and sweet and horse chestnuts. A good crop will help the bucks regain condition after the rut. If there is heather available on adjacent heathland, as in the New Forest, they will often move out into the open to eat that in winter.
The bear and the wolf-once the two great natural predators-have been extinct in the British Isles for centuries. So adult deer have little to fear today except Man, who hunts them for sport and venison. However if a fallow deer herd were left alone in the wild, it would increase by about a third every year. So selective culling is sometimes necessary to protect both the deer population and the valuable woodland timber.