Walking in Fingle Woods you are often lucky enough to have deer cross your path. This Saturday, Mick Jones (National Trust Countryside Manager for Dartmoor) led a walk on Fallow Deer in Fingle Woods, enabling us to learn so much more about these elusive animals and the active management that is ensuring they will continue to thrive as Fingle evolves.
The first thing that struck me was the realisation that no-one knows how many deer live in these woods – and no-one needs to know. The deer are managed on the basis of their environmental impact. The expert eye looks for signs of browsing (and over-browsing). Like all of us they have their preferences: brambles; hazel; lime; and acorns are apparently all favourites (as are roses if they get into your garden) whereas they are not so keen on bracken or sycamore. They also like to have access to deep cover, mature trees providing good shelter from the rain.
All of this is obviously a challenge as you seek to maintain a healthy population (there are 4 varieties of fallow deer in the woods, including a large population of Melanistic deer, which are almost entirely black, as well as the smaller roe deer). We believe the Fallow originated from Whiddon deer Park which was built as a ‘Gentleman’s Larder’ in the early 16th Century. And at Fingle this is further complicated by the fact that we are also trying to nurture the regeneration of the deciduous woodland (all those little trees make good deer snacks) and increase public access.
The main reason we were there though was because this is the rutting season. Best observed (and heard) at dawn, our afternoon walk showed us the rutting stands. Here the stags, pumped full of testosterone, stake their claim by pawing and marking the ground and announcing their presence to the waiting does. These stands are often under trees.
A chance to see their coats, antlers and skulls on display in the sawmill shed allowed us not only to tell them apart but to understand more about their grazing habits and behaviour. The real deer obliged too by resting on the hillside opposite, including a very obvious white variety. Tea and cakes at the Fingle Inn closed an excellent afternoon. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes and ears open for the sights and sounds of the rut over the coming weeks.