Whenever I get the Norwich train out of Ely I always make sure that I take a seat facing forward and positioned on the left hand side of the carriage. This enables me to get a view of the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen Reserve and some of the damp grazing land that lies outside of its borders. More often than not this choice of seat will afford views of Marsh Harrier and Roe Deer, not to mention the very occasional glimpse of the Cranes which breed on the reserve. The Roe seem to prosper on the fen and whenever I visit I invariably see more Roe than Muntjac, anything up to five or six different individuals.
Interestingly, last week’s train journey brought with it a surprisingly large group of Roe, with 14 individuals feeding together in a field just to the east of the reserve. Looking back through my records it seems that this is the largest number that I have ever seen together, underlining the fact that Roe are usually solitary during the summer months and only form small groups in winter, the latter typically numbering between two and five individuals. Studies of the social organisation of Roe Deer have noted groups of up to eight within woodland and, amazingly, in excess of 60 in some open agricultural areas. Of course, the size of these winter groups is related to the size of the local population and the resources available to them within the local landscape.
In many ways the Roe has been ‘my’ deer since childhood, the species I most often encountered when growing up on the edge of the Weald, a mixed habitat of small woodlots, well-hedged fields and rotational coppice. It is only since moving to Norfolk that I have really ‘experienced’ living alongside our other deer – the Red Deer of Thetford Forest, the expanding population of Muntjac, the Broadland Chinese Water Deer and the mobile and elusive Fallow. For this, and other reasons (such as the Roe not being kept within deer parks), I have always regarded the Roe as being a true native but it turns out this is not entirely the case.
The fossil record shows the presence of Roe in Britain from the Middle Pleistocene but their presence here will have waxed and waned through a succession of ice ages. While Roe have been continuously present within the UK for the last 10,000 years, populations in southern England became extinct by the 18th Century, if not significantly earlier, because of hunting pressure. Reintroductions into East Anglia in the 1880s used German individuals and those present here today are likely to be their descendents. It appears that this most English of deer is not all it seems.