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The impact of deer on Fingle Woods

In the midst of all this grey and dreary weather I thought I would write a reflective blog, taking you back to a moment of spring chill in sunnier weather.

Currently we have  two species of deer that reside in the Teign Valley, using the woods as a giant pick and mix; the Fallow and the Roe. We often see the deer on our rounds either on the steep slopes under Prestonbury Hillfort or hiding in the cover of the fir and spruce in the quieter parts of the woods.  The numbers are there but what impact do they have on our woods and especially in Fingle?

If you walk around the woods regularly you might come across one of our exclosures; a fenced off area about 25 metres by 10 metres which we use to keep the deer out. The reason for this? Annually we undertake a Deer Impact Assessment that encompasses the exclosure and the surrounding area in order to ascertain the impact that the deer are having. If we are lucky enough to see Fallow or Roe deer then that is an added bonus but normally we look for signs and presence of deer.

These include: droppings, couches, scrapes, wallows, racks and the all-important signs of browsing. Droppings can allow us to see which species of deer are in the area, with a difference in Roe and Fallow dung. The couches are where the deer lie up either to chew the cud or sleep. Scrapes however are where Roe lie on the bare ground having scraped the vegetation away to rest. Wallows are where deer will come to the muddier parts of stream edges to drink, the area spattered with hoof prints with flatter areas where the beast has laid down to cool itself. Racks are the well-trodden paths used to navigate their way through the undergrowth, often extremely distinct across a bracken clad hill side like arterial veins covering the steep slopes.  These signs can be vague and indistinct depending on the numbers moving through the area, however browsing is the obvious sign that we can all see.

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The first thing to look for is the browse line on the trees or even better the ivy. The distinct shorn level up to approximately 4 feet high is the first obvious sign of the presence of deer with different heights of browsing denoting different species of deer. Should ivy come down from a fallen tree or we take ivy off the tree once felled, deer will preferentially browse it often within 24 hours. Look closer to the ground and look for the signs of bramble browsing. The way to differentiate between rabbit and deer is the nipped off ends of deer compared to the clean incisor cut of the rabbit. Shifting down towards the ground bilberry, grasses all get mown in certain areas.

It’s the trees we have the issues with. Deer browse heavily on regeneration, anything coppiced struggles to regain any height and trees in tubes can also feel the pressure of deer, with tubes being taken down or lifted off and bark stripped or just the top of the tree taken off if they can reach them.

At the moment we are in the second year of carrying out our Deer Impact Assessments so we are building a baseline picture to start off with and we have to marry this into the overall vision of the woods to make a more informed decision to of what we have to do in order manage our deer numbers in Fingle going into the future.

By Fred Hutt, Fingle Woods Ranger

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