As a lifelong Isle of Wight resident I first encountered wild deer here around 20 years ago. I sought to discover the local history of these fascinating creatures and their role in our woodland ecosystems.
Deer have long been associated with the Isle of Wight, Red and Roe re-established their presence here after the last Ice Age and in the Neolithic they were to be found co-existing with Dormice and Red Squirrels in woodland in the Undercliff, whilst in the medieval period the nobility hunted deer in Parkhurst Forest and Borthwood Copse.
In common with much of southern England the fortunes of our deer declined during the 18th century leading to their eventual disappearance around the 1840’s. It is only within the past 60 years that deer have gradually started to re-establish on the island with evidence of Red, Roe, Fallow and Muntjac all being seen.
This expansion of the deer population back onto the Isle of Wight appears to have varying origins. Red, Fallow and Muntjac have all been found in commercial deer farms, parks and tourist attractions here, all of which may have experienced their share of escapees. Roe however do not appear to have ever been kept in captivity on the Isle of Wight.
But this is not the only source of deer on the island.
Deer are very athletic creatures on land but what is less well known is that they are strong swimmers that will readily take to the water, especially if they have been disturbed. It is within the normal habits of males of the herding deer, Red stags and Fallow bucks, to travel great distances around the time of the rut in the autumn. With Roe deer the situation is slightly different as both sexes may travel significant distances to set up new territories, usually in the spring.
Even as long ago as the early 17thcentury Sir John Oglander remarked on the presence on his land of a stag that had swum across from the New Forest whilst being hunted and in the modern era deer have been observed swimming in the Solent and Southampton Water. This was probably how the Roe deer whose tracks were seen on the island in 2013 got here.
It is also evident that whatever their origin at least some of these deer are now breeding in the wild. In late May 2013 I had the pleasure of observing a mature hind accompanied by a yearling, I followed these animals over a few weeks and in early June I noticed a change in demeanour of the older animal, she started to behave aggressively towards the younger one and chased her off with her neck outstretched.
Close observation also revealed that she would then head for a particular area of long grasses and overhanging brambles. This is typical behaviour of a maternal hind with a new born calf. By discretely following these deer over the next few weeks I was able to see from some distance through binoculars that this was the typical Red deer maternal group of mature hind, yearling and calf.
The Isle of Wight has long suffered from a lack of sufficient deer grazing, wood pasture habitats are threatened along with the Bats that use these areas as feeding grounds, the loss of Lichens due to overgrowths of Bramble has been noted in Parkhurst Forest. The Wood Calamint, the only native plant unique to the Isle of Wight has also been threatened by more vigorous vegetation. Browsing and grazing by deer are part of the essential natural processes by which these detrimental effects are prevented.
So what of the future 60 years, particularly for our native Red and Roe?
Defra have said that there are plans to draw up a deer policy statement for the island, and the Deer Initiative publishes “Best Practice” guidelines on which these policies are based.
If a responsible and positive attitude is shown by both private and public woodland managers alike, there is every reason to suppose that these deer will play their part in enriching biodiversity on the Isle of Wight and prove to be an attraction for our tourist based economy.
This blog first appeared as one of a series on the Mammal Society’s 60for60 page and was written by Tim Brayford
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