The sight of three fallow deer in the forest the other morning was my first encounter with these elegant creatures for many months. Of the four species of deer to inhabit this part of the forest, the fallow is the one that I see least often; roe and Muntjac provide almost daily sightings and I probably stumble across the red deer once or twice a month. This suggests that the fallow either occur at low density in this particular area or, more likely, they are occasional visitors from elsewhere.
The sighting comes in the week after the launch of a report highlighting that there are too many deer in our forests, their numbers having increased to a point where they are damaging the nature of the woodland ecosystem. A particular problem comes from the browsing of the ground and shrub flora, to the extent that many of our woodlands now show a clear ‘browse line’ below which few plants are able to grow. This has knock-on effects for our insects, small mammals and ground-nesting birds. Increasing deer numbers have, for example, been linked to the loss of breeding Nightingales from many of our woods.
Fallow is the most widespread of the British deer species, being present on a number of offshore islands and most of the mainland – though it is absent from our uplands. A form of fallow deer was present in Britain historically but this became extinct following the last glaciation. The species was then introduced by the Normans and hunted in the 2,000 plus deer parks and hunting forests that were established from the 11th to 14th centuries. Over time the fallow deer colonised the wider landscape, later becoming the deer of choice in most of the landscape parks associated with our larger stately homes.
Although woodland is an important habitat for fallow deer, providing winter food and year-round cover, these particular animals tend to feed in more open situations. Forest rides, woodland edges and grassland habitats are well-used. Some populations thrive within our more arable landscapes, feeding on crops and margins and resting up in small woodlots. That fallow deer are grazers rather than browsers is very evident when you watch them in a parkland setting like Holkham.
I tend to think of the local fallow deer as being part of the forest, much like the roe and red deer that are more truly native. In reality they are the result of deliberate introduction, a species added to the landscape for our own ends. We have always managed our fallow populations and this is something that will need to continue if we are to limit their impact on the woodlands systems with which they are associated.