Exmoor Red Deer
Exmoor Red Deer
Exmoor is unique in England as red deer have lived here since prehistoric times. There are several thousand red deer in North Devon and West Somerset, living on the moor and using the woods as places of safety. Adult males (or stags) stand at around 115cm at the shoulder and are the largest wild land mammal in England with no natural predators.
Red Deer (Cervus elephus) is the largest of the UK's wild deer with a reddish-brown summer coat and found often in large herds, in woodland and on open moorland throughout Exmoor. The male stags carry large antlers, which are shed after the autumn 'rut' (breeding season) re-growing again before the following spring. The female (hinds) have their calves in June.
The Red deer on Exmoor form the largest concentration of red deer in Britain, living in the only place where they have roamed truly wild since pre-historic times, surviving here through their protection as Royal Game in Exmoor Forest. Descriptions by the naturalist and writer Richard Jeffries, from his book Red Deer, published in 1884, are still as fitting today. 'There is no more beautiful creature than a stag in his pride of antler, his coat of ruddy gold, his grace of form and motion... The branching antlers accord so well with the deep shadowy boughs and the broad fronds of the brake; the golden red of his coat fits to the foxglove, the purple heather, and later on to the orange and red of the beech; his easy bounding motion springs from the elastic sward; his limbs climb the steep hill as if it were level; his speed covers the distances, and he goes from place to place as the wind. He not only lives in the wild, wild woods and moors - he grows out of them, as the oak grows from the ground. The noble stag in his pride of antler is lord and monarch of all the creatures left to us in English forests and on English hills.' Catch a glimpse of these wild and shy creatures in the early morning or at dusk in wooded areas; in summer grazing on the moors; in October when the rutting season starts and stags compete for the control of a group of hinds, this is the time to watch out for them bolting across the open roads. After the stags shed their antlers in March - April and the hinds start to have their calves, they hide away, and will be hard to spot. Join one of the deer walks with a National Park Ranger or take an Exmoor 4x4 Safari with its-knowledgeable guide, to spot this wonderful creature.
There are red deer in many places on Exmoor, but seeing them is another matter. Be patient and keep your eyes open as there are often deer in view, but can be difficult to see until they move. Watching the deer is one of the joys of Exmoor, for locals and visitors alike and there are a limited number of deer walks on offer in the diary pages The Porlock Visitor Centre organise 'Rutting Weekends' in autumn giving visitors a chance to see the deer in rut, booking is essential and places are limited so if you are interested please contact the Centre direct on 01643 865150.
Autumn is the time when the deer are in their best condition due to the good summer feed and early autumn harvest. The months of October and November are when mating takes place for the deer and it is this time of year deer are in 'rut'. The largest stags 'round up' hinds and use their physical size to show superiority and keep other stags away, fights may occur with the stags interlocking antlers. They also roar loudly (known as called belling or bolving) and throughout this period challenge and counter-challenge can sometimes be heard across the moors. By mid-November the rut has died down and by the start of December there is a general mixing of the herds again.
Exmoor has herds of Red Deer, Fallow Deer and Roe Deer. The best time to see and hear a red stag in his full rutting majesty is in October and November, the months when he is most concerned with attracting mates and intimidating love rivals.
Red Deer are often seen in large herds on the open moor and heathland of Exmoor and The Quantocks throughout the year.
The Red Deer is Britain's largest native land mam and the South West is the best place for them outside Scotland. They are a beautiful russet colour to match the autumnal beech and bracken. During the rut, the stags bellow as they seek females.
Their sight, hearing and sense of smell are excellent so it is quite difficult to get close to them. Exmoor is unique in England in that red deer have lived here since pre-historic times; elsewhere they became extinct. Except during the autumn rut (or mating period), red deer normally form separate stag and hind herds, though you may see mixed herds. They are mainly silent animals, but hinds will bark at intruders especially if their young are about or as a warning to the herd. During the rut in October and November you can hear the stags belling or roaring.
Exmoor is home to Englands largest herds of wild red deer. These roam freely over its moors and hide in its combes. The red deer is Great Britains's largest mammal. Seeing these large wild animals, especially some of the regal stags, is an exhilarating experience that captures the essence of the space and freedom of Exmoor. The West Country herd of red deer now concetrated on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills, and area 40 miles by 20 miles, is of very ancient origin although accurate records of history and numbers can only be traced to about 1750. At that time the numbers were in the low hundreds - in 1818 the total is quoted as 200 - although for reasons which are now well known the latest count has revealed about 3,000 in the area concerned, constituting therefore the largest and certainly finest herds in England. Numbers and distribution are of course hugely greater in the Scottish Highlands.
Exmoor is unique in England as red deer have lived there since prehistoric times. Elsewhere they became extinct because people killed them for meat (venison) or because they ate farmers’ crops. They have been re-introduced in some areas but Exmoor still has half of all the red deer in England. There are at least three thousand in North Devon and West Somerset, living on the moor and using the woods as a place of safety.
Red deer are the largest wild land animals in England these days. Adult stags stand 115 cm at the shoulder. Hinds are about 15 cm less. Only stags grow antlers. They shed them in April and early May and new ones start to grow immediately. As the stag gets older the antlers have more ‘points’ until they reach old age and start to ‘go back’.
Calves are born in June and July, and are usually dropped in moorland vegetation or by the edge of woodland. A single calf is normal and twins very rare. For a few days the calf will lie quietly, well-camouflaged with dappled spots on its russet coat looking like sunlight on dead bracken. Soon it is strong enough to run with its mother and join the herd. They keep together for a year or more.
Red deer eat a wide variety of food, including young shoots of heather, whortleberry, brambles, saplings and grass. They also feed on acorns, fungi, berries and ivy and can be a real pest to the farmer, raiding his fields for corn and root crops. They have eight biting teeth in front of the lower jaw, and none immediately above, biting against a hard gum pad. Footprints are called ‘slots’.
Except during the autumn rut or mating period, red deer normally form separate stag and hind herds, though you may see mixed herds or a single stag or hind and calf. They are mainly silent animals, but hinds will bark at intruders especially if their young are about or as a warning to the herd. During the rut in October and November you can hear the stags belling or roaring. Their sight, hearing and sense of smell are excellent so it is quite difficult to get close to them.
Between the years 1760 and 1825 the North Devon Staghounds were kennelled on Exmoor and regular hunting was practised but in the latter year, for reasons of finance and lack of support, the hounds were sold to Germany and for the next 30 years there was no resident pack of hounds, although there was some spasmodic hunting mainly by visiting packs from other parts of England.
In 1855 a successful attempt was made to restart the pack known as the Devon and Somerset Staghounds in new kennels at Exford where they are still today. Almost at once the deer numbers, by then reduced to the dangerously low level of double figures, started to recover and by 1900 three packs were hunting a total of 10 days a week with numbers still rising. Since that date with no interuption to the sport and with only minor reductions in the herd during the two World Wars, the deer huntinghave flourished to the satisfaction of the whole neighbourhood.
The Red Deer in an omnivorous and voracious feeder and while capable of living on the natural herbage of the open moor and woodland, in winter in particular, is a serious pest to the hill farmer whose land is interspersed with the rest of the countryside. Deer will eat as much as yearling cattle and there are now farms "host" to as many as 80 at one time, not counting the damage they do to the natural hedgebanks between the fields. History shows us that the farmers will tolerate this depredation only providing that the Hunt continues to play its part in containing numbers and providing sport for themselves, their neighbours and visitors. When this thread is broken as was shown in the last century, the priceless herd of the largest wild animal in Europe is doomed.
Exmoor, with the Scottish Highlands, is the last secure haunt of the wild red deer. They are the largest of Britain's wild mammals, holding to a stable population despite much poaching for venison and heads. The true red of the deer's summer coat looks quite splendid, but a thicker, darker coat is grown for the winter. This is impenetrable by the worst of Exmoor's storms and bitter cold.
The stags drop their antlers annually in April, though shedding may be delayed in a cold late spring, and then the process will occur in May. When new growth begins to appear, a tissue of blood vessels covers the growing horn and feeds it. The stag is said to be 'in velvet' at this time. By late August or early September the antlers are fully renewed, the velvet having dried up. An adult stag goes through this remarkable process for four months every year of its life. The main rut lasts three to four weeks, starting in late September. Larger stags round up as many hinds as they can hold and then defend them against other stags.The female red deer, the hinds, are ready to mate in their second year, and they generally produce one calf, usually in June. The gestation period is eight months. Calves are leggy, dappled creatures for the first three or four months of their lives after which their coats become unspotted and red like the adults. Most active at dawn and dusk, red deer live in a range of habitats, but they are basically woodland animals, emerging from tree cover to feed in adjacent fields in the evenings.
Grasses, sedges and rushes are their most important food throughout the year, but heather and small shrubs, ferns, mushrooms, herbs, lichens and tree bark also feature in their diet. Holly is often a popular food in hard winters when there is snow on the ground. Adult red deer have no natural predators except man, and there is ongoing controversy as to whether there is a need to cull them. There are estimated to be about 3,500 to 4000 Red Deer living on Exmoor and they are the predominant species of deer. A mature stag is about 115 centimeters at the shoulders with the hind's tending to be smaller. Only the male stags grow antlers which he sheds in the spring. In the early autum you may hear a loud bellowing noise of the Red Deer stags
The number's of Roe Deer are estimated at only 400. Fallow deer might have been introduced to this country by the 'Romans' although ther is archaeological evidence that a deer very similar to the Fallow Deer was native to these Great Britain. Exmoor is umnique in England as red deer have lived here since prehistoric times. Elsewhere in the country they have become extinct because people killed them for meat or because they damaged farmers' farm crops. There are several thousand red deer in North Devon and West Somerset, living on the moor and using the woods as places of safety. Adult males (or stags) stand at around 115cm at the shoulder and are the largest wild land mammal in England with no natural predators. Winter is the hardest time of year for red deer with a general shortage of food and the deciduous woodlands lacking their leaves and therefore affording less shelter from the strong winds. By winter the red deer are normally in separate stag and hind herds with the calves and some prickets (young stags) remaining with the hinds.
As the temperature starts to rise in spring food becomes more abundant. This is vital for the deer as most hinds are pregnant with calves and the stags are about to shed their antlers. If you are sharp-eyed and lucky you may even find one just lying on the ground. The stags with bigger antlers start to cast them first, this happens towards the end of March and into April. This is brought about by the blood supply to the antler drying up until the base is dead and brittle, then a sudden jolt or rub causes the antler to drop. As soon as this happens the new antlers start to grow. This process takes about 3 months and the new antler is covered in a thick skin known as 'velvet'. By August the cycle is complete the antler has hardened and the velvet has been rubbed off against a tree. Calves are born in June or July and for a few days the calf will lie quietly, well camouflaged with dappled spots on its russet coat. If you ever come across a young calf DO NOT TOUCH IT as this would change its smell and its mother would reject it when she returns.
The gestation period for red deer is about eight months and hinds invariably have only one calf a year. Towards the end of summer the white spots on the calf fade away, but for a couple of years they can be recognised by their smaller size. Autumn is the time when the deer are in their best condition due to the good summer feed and early autumn harvest. The months of October and November are when mating takes place for the deer and it is this time of year deer are in 'rut'. The largest stags 'round up' hinds and use their physical size to show superiority and keep other stags away, fights may occur with the stags interlocking antlers. They also roar loudly (known as called belling or belving) and throughout this period challenge and counter-challenge can be heard on Exmoor. By mid-November the rut has died down and by the start of December there is a general mixing of the herds again. There are red deer in many places on Exmoor, but seeing them is another matter. Be patient and keep your eyes open as there are often deer in view, but can be difficult to see until they move. Watching the deer is one of the joys of Exmoor, for locals and visitors alike and there are a limited number of deer walks.
Contributed by: Liam Johns, Sue Johnson, Tim Meekin, Gordon Howard