Most visitors to Fineshade are delighted when they catch sight of deer, one of the most obvious examples of large animals running wild in the wood.
You’re walking quietly along a grassy ride in Fineshade, delighting in the fact that you’re on your own, that the wood is silent and everything motionless. Suddenly, not far ahead of you a movement, a flash of leaping grey-brown. In three bounds it crosses the ride and has disappeared. You can recall a long neck and legs – did you see ears? Suddenly there’s another following the first, exactly. This time you’re ready for it and you get a better view – yes, ears, a head held high and imperious, a white patch around the tail. They were certainly Fallow Deer, and then there’s another, then two together, one of them much smaller. More. How many is that now? eight? ten at least.
It’s a wonderful sight, and one that people have been enjoying in these ancient woods for hundreds of years. Fallow Deer were here in Roman times but may have disappeared in the Dark Ages only to be re-introduced in the 11th century. At first they were confined to deer parks but then became established in the Royal Hunting Forests such as Rockingham, providing venison for aristocratic tables and, more surreptitiously, for other country folk.
But, of course there’s a downside. Deer in the UK have no natural predators and large numbers of Fallow Deer can cause real damage to woodland and farmland alike. And there certainly are large numbers of deer in the Rockingham Forest area. The next picture was taken in April this year, from Fineshade Wood and looking out across adjacent farmland. This herd had about 70 individuals, including one with the white coloured coat variation. It was amazing to see so many beautiful creatures – unless you happen to be the farmer!
Within woodland, Fallow Deer do not just damage the economic value of the wood by harming timber production, but also they make a real difference to biodiversity by removing the habitat that other species depend upon for their survival.
For a dramatic example of the effect of deer browsing you need look no further than the recently coppiced areas in Fineshade Wood. Part of the wood near the Kings Cliffe woodyard was hand coppiced by the Fineshade community in 2010. We tried to use the traditional technques developed over centuries to provide classic “coppice with standards”. Some of the larger trees were removed by professional contractors. After timber had been removed the Forestry Commission erected simple chestnut paling around some of the plot to exclude the deer. The picture shows clearly the dramatic effect this simple fence has had during the first few years of regrowth. Within the exclosure hazel and other shrubs are doing really well. Outside, the deer have browsed off most of the regrowth and there is a much impoverished understorey.
The next picture shows a longer established deer exclosure in Dales Wood, this time a tall metal fence was used and once again you can see the effect of keeping the deer out. This exclosure formed part of the area that Forest Holidays proposed to use in their unsuccessful application for a holiday camp.
What Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission did not seem to realise was that keeping the deer out had produced superb habitat for other species, particularly Dormice and warblers. They had not surveyed the area before their doomed application but, we think, did include it in what are so far the secret surveys they carried out later, in 2015-16. (Details here)
Finally, here are pictures of recent damage caused by deer. Above there is a Silver Birch sapling, broken off about 70cm above the ground. It looked as if deer had been rubbing their antlers against the stem.
Below you can see damage that deer are causing in the unprotected newly widened rides in Westhay Wood. Lots of fresh new growth has been springing from the stumps of the trees that were felled last winter. But the lush new shoots are clearly very tempting to deer and, already, there are signs of very serious deer damage.
The shape of the cleared areas makes fencing an unrealistic option. Hundreds of years ago when coppicing was commonplace the brash (small branches) would have been piled over the stumps of felled trees and coppice stools, discouraging deer from nibbling the new shoots. However, modern industrial-scale forestry methods do not allow for brash to be piled over the stumps: instead it is shredded and taken away as wood chip. The re-growth in Westhay looks as if it will take be hit really hard this winter.
The open area in front of the wildlife hide can sometimes be a good place to see groups of Fallow Deer - the picture below was taken last March. Most of the year Fallow Deer are seldom seen and rarely heard but in October that changes and the noisy rut begins. Bucks defend a traditional rutting stand deep in the wood, groaning continuously to attract a harem of does. Sometimes, when competing bucks are engaging in competitive display and fighting for supremacy, you can even hear the clashing of antlers. It's well worth listening out for on a crisp autumnal morning.