Exmoor's Deer Legacy
with photographs by Mike Sherwin and Basil Warren
A series of low, choking coughs echo up from the steep woods, followed by a deep guttural groan reverberating across the combe: a primeval sound from the dawn of time. The stag is answered by another from the far side of the valley and a third, deeper yet, from further up the water. Around the third week of October the rut reaches its peak on Exmoor and the stags hardly pause day or night. The normally quiet woods thunder with the affairs of the deer.
On an amber brake between the bronze oak woods a big stag stands sentinel over around 20 deer, roaring his defiance across the valley. Deep, rumbling replies echo back from at least four other stags, each unseen within the woodland and each unwilling to answer the challenge in person. The big stag roars again but he hardly has time to fight with so many deer to keep an eye on. He trots after the nearest hind who circles around the group, not going far but just keeping out of his reach. Eventually he tires of chasing her and tries the next, sniffing curiously at her tail and hoping she might be ready for him. But she is not and trots away evasively as her sister had before. The stag’s constant vigilance is important to catch each hind during her oestrous cycle, which occurs every 18 days during the rut. If another stag dares to approach the big stag will quickly chase him off and if he doesn’t leave promptly there will be a fight.
Injuries from fighting are not uncommon at this time of year, and are occasionally fatal. With so many deer to hold, and challengers on every hand, the stag is constantly busy and will hardly rest or eat throughout the rut. The condition he has put on over summer in corn and mowing grass will be exhausted by the end of October, and he will finish the rut quite run up and lean. But his exertions will have achieved the goal of passing on his genes to the next generation. The ritual of the rut ensures that generally only the biggest, fittest stags carrying the finest weaponry on their heads are able to do this.
The Exmoor and District Deer Management Society has organised a co-ordinated deer count annually for the past 16 years. Each year, in early spring, a team of knowledgeable local people from all across Exmoor venture out before dawn to count the deer in their home area. The aim is that every covert, every combe, every brake where deer may be found will have someone watching from first light for an hour-and-a-half on two consecutive mornings. This co-ordinated approach ensures that deer are not counted twice and the specialist local knowledge of the counters helps to contrive that few deer are missed. This count has produced fairly consistent results over the years, revealing an average of almost 3,000 deer living on Exmoor. The ratio of hinds to stags is at just under three-and-a-half to one, and of hinds to calves at around two to one.
Watching wild deer is a fascinating pastime, enjoyed by many people on Exmoor. It is the best way to develop an understanding of deer, but we can always learn more. The Exmoor National Park Authority recently commissioned a series of studies to expand our knowledge of different aspects of the deer.
One study examined the health of wild red deer on Exmoor. The herd is generally very healthy with remarkably low incidences of disease across the moor, most deer being extremely fit and well. Nevertheless, two diseases occurring at low levels are noteworthy, these being lungworm and TB. Lungworm has been found in deer from the Dulverton and East Anstey areas. TB in deer is at a very low level on Exmoor, indeed lower than the national average. However, there has been a worrying cluster of incidences around Baronsdown, just to the north-east of Dulverton, and deer of very poor condition have been noted in the same area.
Deer love the shelter and seclusion of woodlands. In summer the thick, leafy coverts provide shade from the sun and a screen from prying eyes at a time when hinds are calving and stags are growing their antlers. As winter winds blow away the autumn leaves, the naked woods turn grey and so do the deer’s coats. When snow covers the ground making grass and heather unobtainable there is always ivy to browse in the woods, and the deeper the snow the more ivy comes within reach. Deer are at home in woodland and all of Exmoor’s woods have high numbers of deer. Ancient oak woodlands are noted for their ecological value and designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, so it was considered important to investigate the impact that deer of all species are having on these woods.
Deer enjoy eating tender young shoots and seedlings of native trees and shrubs such as oak, ash, hazel and rowan but find beech and holly much less to their taste. Heavy deer browsing can reduce the regeneration of young trees and, in the long term, influence the species of trees that make up the wood. It was found that the impact of deer on woodland is minimal where the woods are frequently disturbed by people, such as around Tarr Steps and Woody Bay. It was also clear that deer have less impact on woods that are actively managed; where coppicing and thinning admit sunlight and encourage abundant regeneration protected by a vigorous growth of bracken and bramble.
Of course deer have been present in Exmoor’s ancient oak woodlands since the last ice age so one would expect the woods, and other woodland wildlife, to have adapted to tolerate them pretty well. It is believed though, that numbers and densities of deer within woodlands have increased dramatically since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, at a moderate level some deer influence is vital for a diverse woodland structure and most woods on Exmoor are actually in very good ecological order.
Another angle from which to view deer is a financial one. An assessment of the economic impact of red deer on Exmoor examined both the costs and economic benefits associated with the deer. Costs include agricultural damage, policing poaching and vehicle collisions, and benefits are mainly through sales of venison by stalkers (1% of gross income), wildlife-related tourism (18.5%) and hunting (reduced by 25% since the restrictions of the hunting ban, but still accounting for 80% of gross income). Aggregating all of the economic impacts showed a net positive value of £3.2 million per year. Relating this figure to the annual count results, and considering mature stags to be more highly valued than other deer, the study attributed an economic value of £3,750 per stag!
Whatever their economic worth, the true value of the deer can never be overestimated. To visitors and locals alike the deer are such a significant aspect of what makes Exmoor unique. Few areas in modern Britain support such numbers of large wild animals and few communities take such an interest in wild deer that notable members of the herd are recognised as individuals. At once fascinating, exciting and beautiful, though they are plentiful the deer should never be taken for granted. They are a heritage from our grandparents and they will be a legacy to our children. Exmoor’s culture is steeped in the lore of the deer.