I’m James, a volunteer ranger working with the Fingle Woods ranger team in the Teign Valley. I love nature! Yes, its true, I can’t help myself. Like so many of you out there I love every aspect from the plants and trees to the amazing wildlife and stunning landscapes. It never ceases to amaze me and never fails to stir an emotion.
This week my volunteering took a change from usual proceedings, as I would be undertaking an assessment on deer activity. Surprisingly (to me at least) nothing like this has been undertaken in the Teign Valley before and although many of us may regularly see our local Fallow and Sika deer we have no idea of population size. Is it 40, 400 or 4000? The eagle eyed of us may spot indications of deer activity across the woods but we don’t have any hard evidence to truly understand their numbers or the extent of their impact on the local habitat.
Why are we undertaking this exercise?
The National Trust working in partnership with the Woodland Trust secured ownership and responsibility for the 825 acre Fingle Woods in 2013. A challenging and ambitious 200 year project was set in motion. And while there are many work streams to this, such as removal of non-native tree species like the conifer, it’s also important to monitor the wildlife to ensure it is healthy, thriving and in balance with its environment.
Deer are not only beautiful creatures to see living in our woodlands but they also play an important part in the biodiversity. However, the population of deer species across the UK has been increasing and if it is not monitored, understood and managed is highly likely to have a devastating impact on our woodland habitats. Overgrazing and browsing on seedlings and saplings impacts tree regeneration, leads to a reduction or loss of vegetation and indirectly can then lead to a decline in the population of other wildlife such as birds and invertebrates.
How is the monitoring carried out?
Basically – a walk in the woods. Following my training with an expert from the ‘Deer Initiative’ I’d armed myself with pencil and paper and was ready to go! Five different locations had been agreed for deer monitoring and within each a 1 kilometre transect identified where the assessment would be completed (for some pictures see above). My job was to walk the transect and look for signs of deer. Some of the key activity indicators I would be looking for were:
- Couches (beds) – areas where deer have lain down
- Fraying – a rub line on trees or bushes. Male deer use these rubs in two instances: territorial markings; or to rub off the velvet on their new set of antlers.
- Scrape – deer scrape the ground with their hooves
- Racks – tracks or paths used by the deer
- Scat – deer droppings
- Browsing and Grazing – signs of seedlings, saplings, plants being eaten
- Browse line – a noticeable line where vegetation has been eaten-back indicating the height reached in feeding
- Oh yes ……. deer – we can’t forget them!
I soon realised and appreciated this wasn’t as straightforward as I initially thought it would be, especially to the untrained eye. For example……
- Feeding – has the plant been nibbled by a deer, hare or rabbit?
- Is that deer, rabbit or sheep scat? Okay, I’ve not seen a sheep in Fingle either!
- Is that stripped bark from a deer or a felled tree scraping the bark of another tree on its journey down?
From the initial findings I can report “there are deer in them there woods”. I even got to see a deer running through the woods. Although there were similarities between sites such as a strong browse line on the Ivy and Holly being nibbled I was also interested to find a high number of couches in one site with little evidence of scat, while another site identified a higher level of scat and no couches.
In combination with the assessments each transect has a small area of woodland sectioned off with fencing. This will serve two purposes: to protect newly planted trees from grazing animals; but also demonstrate how the flora & trees will develop without interference from the deer. In fact while completing the survey there was a very visible grazing on bramble outside the enclosure while that protected inside the fence remained untouched.
It’s very early days and the information recorded from this first assessment certainly won’t identify the population size, however, we do know deer are moving through these sites and we can now start to build a picture of their impact on the woodland. The value of these assessments will become apparent with time as we build up more data from each annual survey. At this point it’s also worth mentioning the importance of working with local landowners and sharing knowledge and information so that we get a much broader understanding of deer population, movement, activity and impact.
Nature in balance.
I hope this gives you a sense of some of the work being undertaken here in Fingle and the reasons why. In writing this, I’ve not covered the possible deer management actions that may have to be taken if the population is deemed too high. While I fully appreciate it is a sensitive and sometimes divisive topic I also believe we need to acknowledge there is more at stake than only one species.
As custodians of this natural world it is extremely important we do everything we can to protect our fragile and amazing environment. If we don’t take action when and where it’s needed or we only focus on one aspect alone, such as felling conifer, we’d create an imbalance and are unlikely to achieve our long term goal of restoring this ancient woodland and the abundance of flora and fauna it supports ……… including a healthy deer population.
Text and images by James Holden