Why are English deer bigger than Welsh deer?

This is the Arne nature reserve near Wareham in Dorset.

It’s a different world, the south coast of England. The roads are heaving with expensive vehicles, the villages full of gorgeous old houses worth a lifetime’s income, the carefully preserved old towns full of expensive foodie and craft shops. There are millions of people in a string of towns and cities from Brighton to Bournemouth, and they all have easy access to some of the most ecologically rich and outstandingly beautiful countryside.

I have spent a week  walking round some of these places and it’s been fascinating. The two best were very different, but to explain I have to back-track to those easy pre-Covid days last winter. I wrote to Penny Green who is the staff Ecologist at the Knepp Estate in Sussex, asking if I could spend up to a week studying the Fallow Deer there. For three years I have been watching and photographing the deer at Dinefwr Park here in Carmarthenshire, and on a previous trip to Knepp had noticed that the English deer are bigger than the Welsh ones! Cultural Superiority raising its ugly head again? My planned trip in June to find out was of course cancelled, but I had a positive response again from Penny when I suggested October – the rutting season. Would I be able to get my iconic picture of bucks clashing those fabulous antlers?

To be honest I didn’t give much thought to the idea that  English deer made better lifestyle choices than Welsh ones. It had to be down to environment. Knepp is famous as a pioneer of the controversial concept of “re-wilding” and I was keen to observe how a herd of similar size to the Dinefwr herd would behave with unrestricted access to ten times the space, and it’s not the sort of forest space we normally associate with deer. This is heavy clay soil which until 10 years ago had been conventional farmland, oozing artificial fertilizer, sprayed with pesticides and heavily impacted. The story of how the aristocratic owners of the 3500 acre estate transformed unprofitable farmland into a beacon of biodiversity is told in Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” and lots of material online: Knepp Wildlands. The estate is split into 3 roughly equal blocks, of which my temporary territory was the wildest and roughest. Since the last field was ploughed, the only management has been at the mouths of grazing animals and the snouts of pigs. The old hedge lines are still there as mature trees but the rest is a mixture of grassland and scrub and “noxious weeds”. It’s exactly the sort of thing countless generations of farmers and gardeners have spent their lives battling against.

From a purely aesthetic view the heathland nature reserve at Arne in the north-west corner of Poole harbour is gorgeous. What creature would not rather live in a place like the first picture than one like this

(These gorgeous creatures – Tamworth pigs –  being the culprit)

And their work has made Knepp the ideal host location for these magnificant birds:

The story of the re-establishment of White Storks at Knepp is told here :http://Storks at Knepp

My cherished older cousin Jill lives near Knepp so I decided to start at dawn, get in 4 or 5 hours stalking the deer and then spend the afternoon helping Thelma to sort out all the muddles and decay which had settled around my cousin as she lost mobility – another strange contrast!

I soon found, as expected, that I was too early for the rut proper. In the absence of top predators such as wolves and lynxes, the job of keeping the balance of animals to plants right falls to the topmost predator – us – and that costs money, large amounts of which come from people who pay to go on safari tours in butch-looking trucks around the southern block. The “Rutting Safaris” were about to start and they didn’t want me peering out from behind a bush while that was going on!

Before actual mating takes place, the behaviour of the deer will change. From spending the summer in all-male boys groups, the bucks now  split up and begin to establish territories. I noted the position of every solo buck I saw. One of the early signs of this is the thrashing of bushes with the antlers and I carefully noted the positions of all signs of this. Bucks often establish a “rutting stand” where they have been thrashing, trampling, pissing and churning up the soil. These too I noted. Finally I recorded where I had seen does. The relative absence of does was one of the most striking differences with Dinefwr, where large groups of does occupy familiar zones. Here the groups were mostly in single figures.  Whereas Dinefwr has around 20 bucks to 130 does (7:1), Knepp has around 180 to 350 (2:1).

I will write about Arne in the next post. Meanwhile here is one of the Knepp Fallow does:


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