A Brief History of Isle of Wight Deer

Red deer hind in Isle of Wight woodland

The early ancestors of deer were found on the island* during the Oligocene epoch around 25 million years ago and resembled modern day Muntjac deer. Prior to the last Ice Age Red, Fallow and Roe may have been found there, when this glaciation ended the Red and Roe gradually re-established themselves and were hunted by Mesolithic people.

In the Neolithic Red Deer were to be found co-existing with Dormice and Red Squirrels in woodland in the Undercliff. Both Bronze Age and Roman people are thought to have hunted deer and wild boar on the island and it was the Romans who first reintroduced Fallow deer to England although DNA evidence suggests that these deer have no modern descendants. Little appears to be recorded about deer on the island during the Saxon and Jutish period although the place names of Renham Down and Rancombe respectively have their origins in the down and valley frequented by Roe deer.

The medieval definition of a forest was an unenclosed area preserved for hunting by the royal family, and the Isle of Wight was no exception. Fallow deer were released into Parkhurst Forest on the island following the Norman Conquest and were to found there for around 700 years afterwards. With the Lords of the Island enjoying from the King the right of free forest and the privilege of taking or driving stags or harts.

Three huntsmen sent by Henry III spent eighteen days in Parkhurst Forest until, with twenty hounds and twelve greyhounds, they had caught the hundred deer required to grace the young king’s table with venison. By 1279 Isabella de Fortibus had already claimed from Edward I the liberty of a free chase in the Forest, which was subsequently granted in Edward II’s reign to the royal favourite Piers Gaveston.

Edward III imposed on one John Maltravers that he should, in the season for buck-hunting, attend the king at Carisbrooke Castle; during his reign, in 1333, sundry poachers were prosecuted for entering the king’s park and taking deer, and continual prosecutions followed. Parkhurst annually provided the Lords with thirty bucks and a crop of rabbits, while 150 cattle, forty pigs and a large number of geese were also turned out onto the pastures.

Borthwood Forest also served as a hunting ground for deer, and in 1415 was granted by Henry V to Philippa, Duchess of York, with a small building called the Queen’s Bower in an eminent position, from which she would perhaps view the chase. There are at least two other claimants to this title. Queen Anne  is also said to have had a ‘bower’ or arbour here, when she came at certain seasons for the excellent hawking; an alternative tradition claims that it was Isabella herself who had a hunting-box here as far back as the 13th century, in what was then extensive forest. Sir Richard Worsley describes how “Bordwood probably obtained its name from being a large waste land belonging to the Lord, overgrown with wood and serving as a harbour for red deer”.

Birchmore also formed part of the hunting ground of the early Lords of the Island, and was another liberty granted to Isabella in 1279. Old Park within the Undercliff was a sanctuary for wild animals and reserved for hunting from the Late Middle Ages.

Early in Edward II’s reign, 1309, a charter was granted to John de Insula and his heirs of free warren, a privilege which had been granted a few years earlier to the De Insulas on the adjoining estates of Bonchurch and Rew. Old Park lay within the medieval parish of Whitwell, and an indenture as late as 1689 recites the manorial rights to the Whitwell estate, reserving the rights of fowling, hawking and hunting – and thereby re-confirming privileges conferred by the charter granted nearly four centuries earlier.

Writing in the 1st half of the 17th century the Oglander memoirs describes:-“Deer were not plentiful except in the parks of the gentry and some that run wild in Parkhurst Forest”And then recounts the tale of a stag that swam the across the Solent:-“There wase a stagge hunted out of ye Newe Fforest into ye Iland in AnoDom. 1609 and lived many years in ye Iland; he was mutch in Rowberoe and in my grounds at Artingshoote and Whitefield. Ye king had a great desyore to hunt him, but was diswaded from itt;for it wase almoste imposible to kill him, becawse on all occasions he woold take ye seae. Itt was thought he went into ye New Fforest to rutt, and retourned again.”

There were numerous medieval deer parks on the island, these were relatively small enclosures averaging about 200 acres enclosed by a bank and ditch with a deer proof paling fence. Within these the deer were bred for meat.

The Domesday Book records the creation of ‘The King’s Park’ at Watchingwell, thereby predating 1086, and one of the oldest known deer parks in England. Situated in the south-west corner of the vastly more extensive Parkhurst Forest, it was separated by the track which later became known as Betty Haunt Lane, most likely meaning ‘between the haunts’, an appropriate name for a lane dividing two ‘deer haunts’. A similar use of the word ‘haunt’ occurs in the name ‘Dogs Ant’, which is marked on an 1862 map in the north-west corner of Parkhurst Forest.

There was a deer park in the Shalfleet area by the later 13th century, for in 1278 Henry Trenchard complained that Amice, Countess of Devon, and her men had taken thirty of his oxen at Chessell and detained them at her manor at Thorley; moreover, they had broken his park of Chessell and “rescued the beasts lawfully impounded therein” and driven off the deer from his park at Shalfleet.

In 1441 Lewis and Alice Meux were given licence to create a deer park out of three hundred acres of woodland and pasture in the parishes of Kingston and Shorwell. In 1650 Watchingwell Park is recorded as having nine score deer of various sorts and in 1770 the Surveyor General had reported that Parkhurst Forest contained about 3,043 acres and about 200 head of deer. At the time of its disafforestation in 1812 it contained about 2,500 acres, including the enclosed part, 415 acres in extent. Deer were kept on various estates and released into the wild for hunting into the 1840’s and it is reported that they used to escape from Appuldurcombe Park and range throughout the island.

*The Isle of Wight did not become a separate entity from the mainland until around 7000 years ago
With thanks to all those who assisted in sourcing the original material for this article, including the IW County Archaeological Service, Maurice Paul Stafford-Bower and Alan R Phillips Extracts for this historical section have been reproduced with the author’s permission from Cock & Bull Stories : Animals in Isle of Wight Folklore, Dialect and Cultural History, by Alan R Phillips (Newport, IOW:2008).
For periodic updates please visit Isle of Wight Deer Conservation or email deerwight@gmail.com
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