For many autumn conjures up thoughts of deciduous woodlands transformed into a splendid array of mellow colours, wind-swept days, and acorns and conkers falling to the ground. As a wildlife enthusiast, for me equally evocative of autumn are the sound of clashing antlers and roars of stags that signal the on-set of the rut for the three largest (Red, Sika and Fallow) among the six species of deer living wild in Britain.
The mating season for red, sika and fallow deer may stretch out over eight weeks, but for all reaches its peak (the rut) sometime during October. Having lived placidly together in all male bachelor groups over the summer (first clip below) , …..
…by September the mature males develop thickened necks and manes, become increasingly aggressive to one another, and set off in search of female groups and mating grounds (see second video clip)
The ensuing spectacle of the rut has all the ingredients of a cinema blockbuster, as high-ranking males lock antlers in fierce battles for supremacy and access to females, which can lead to injuries and sometimes death for the looser. Such battles are preceded by a wide range of ritualistic displays including thrashing of vegetation, wallowing in mud, and parallel walking to suss out the opposition, all backed by a soundtrack of the loud roaring of red stags, the deep belching groans of fallow bucks, or eerie high-pitched whistling of the sika. The prize at stake is to be one of the small proportion of sexually mature males to dominate the great majority of matings that season, either by gathering a large harem of females that a stag will repeatedly chivvy to keep them together, or defending a prime mating territory (or stand) that he will guard fiercely against any other male.
WHEN GOING TO OBSERVE THE RUT HOWEVER PLEASE arm yourself with binoculars or camera with a long zoom lens, don’t be tempted to approach the deer closer than about 150 metres and avoid the deer becoming surrounded by people on several sides, so as not to disrupt the natural behaviour of the deer as well as for your personal safety.
One other consequence of the heightened movement of deer during the mating season, is that they may run blindly across roads with other things than traffic foremost on their mind (!) leading to an annual spike in fallow, red and sika deer road casualties from early October through into November. With clocks then going back for daylight saving, this also brings rush hour traffic in line with dawn and dusk and the early part of the night – when deer crossings and near misses are most likely. So as nights draw in, Take care – Be DeerAware !
During early August most mature red deer stags will have completed regrowth of their antlers. The protective highly vascular velvety skin that supplied oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone over the past months now starts to dry out and decay, attracting numerous flies. Stags may become more difficult to spot at this time as they lie up in high cover, such as reed beds, bracken and cereal fields for much of the day, to get away from pesky flies. More unusually some stags may seek out shade in a secluded garden, as shown in the clip below of a stag that came right up close to my garden trail camera last year, and shows swarms of flies surrounding his antlers during mid-August.
By the end of August mature stags will ‘clean’ their antlers of the remaining velvet skin that is now ‘in tatters’, to reveal their shiny new antler tips, ready to do battle in the autumn rut.
“My legs are getting so long now I have to kneel down to suckle”.
See below for previous Month:
The Red deer Year: July
Velvet Stags and Spotted Calves.
In July red deer stags are at their most tolerant of each other. Many join all-male bachelor groups, commonly 5 to 15 strong, though occasionally as in the clip below much larger aggregations may be seen even in the wild. Meanwhile, young red deer calves born during May and early June, which had been hiding away in dense cover most of the day for the first few weeks of their lives, become easier to see out in the open in July. They now start to join female herds for at least part of the day, and may form ‘nursery groups’ of several calves together, looked out for by one or two mature hinds. This often leads people to think they are seeing twin calves, though twins are actually quite rare among red deer. Hinds with young calves nearby are especially vigilant and will bark loudly at any sign of perceived danger, …. such as an amateur cameraman hiding in the bushes!
When researching and filming red deer in the urban fringe over the past two years (see my previous blog) one particular stag always stood out for his intelligence, dexterity and constant twinkle in his eye !
In one video clip featured widely on BBC TV and other media during March, I’d filmed him dislodging bird feeders in gardens on the edge of the Exmoor National Park in Somerset. The intriguing thing about this however is not merely to have a stag in a garden pinching food from a bird feeder, but the very intricate way this stag gradually ‘learned’ to use his antlers to unhook the feeders. Not least as hoofed animals (ungulates) are not generally regarded as the brainiest among mammals. I’d observed a number of other stags in the past simply thrashing their antlers against bird feeders, scattering a few seeds on the ground now and again. But in the amusing trimmed version of my clip with audio as used by the BBC Instagram it shows this old wily stag actually using the tip of his antlers to lift feeders off the tree branches they were hooked on to. In the first part of the clearer full size youtube clip (below) you can see the feeder being seen to smash open on the deer’s back, though this was far from a one off.
“Wily old stag uses antlers to dislodge bird feeders”
Having set up cameras by several bird feeders in nearby gardens. the wily old stag i named ‘Cedar’ managed the trick increasingly quickly; but normally once dislodged the he would paw at the feeder on the ground until the lid snapped off and then ate the contents.
One of the first occasions I noted him and another stag feeding from bird feeders was two year’s earlier in spring, soon after the stags had cast their previous antlers to start to re-grow a new set (see antler growth blog). Even then ‘Cedar’, aged at least 12 to 15 years old at the time, showed he was much more adept than the other deer. Above he is seen reaching with his tongue right into a bird table, while the others just waited for the occasional tit-bit to fall on the ground. Sadly due to an infected injury sustained in the rut this stag did not make it through yet another winter, though he’d lived far longer than most wild stags ever reach on Exmoor. It will be interesting to see if some of his many offspring turn out to be just as clever.
To see some of the other antics this wild stag got up to when visiting various gardens I’d been filming in, click on the thumbnails below to link to short video clips, ranging from some where he uses his antlers as backscratchers, to others where he raids the washing line to dress up for Halloween :-). Click on thumbnails below to play clips.
As some red deer gradually adapt to living amongst us in suburbia – can we too adapt to accommodate our largest terrestrial mammal living on our doorstep?
Some 35 years ago, when I began to undertake research into the behaviour and ecology of Britain’s deer, residents in the suburbs and in city centres were only slowly getting accustomed to the colonisation of their residential gardens and parks by ever increasing numbers of ‘Urban foxes’. Deer back then in the 1980s were still regarded by the majority of people as shy, elusive creatures who were rarely seen near built up areas unless enclosed in a deer park.
Red deer watch as diggers develop land for housing. Click youtube icon for full HD version
However since the 1960’s, the six species of deer living wild in Britain have greatly increased in numbers and distribution. At the same time, urban sprawl has expanded even further into areas of former deer habitat. Roe, our smallest native deer, weighing in at not much more than 20 to 25 kg, were the first to become a regular sight on the urban fringe, especially in southern England and the Scottish lowlands. During this time whilst in the ungulate research group at Southampton University my colleagues and I were increasingly called upon to catch and remove roe deer trapped in local residential gardens.
Roe buck and Red Stag caught on camera in the same small Somerset garden
Tolerated and indeed enjoyed by many who like seeing deer in their gardens, media reports about urban roe – and now also the smaller introduced muntjac deer – are unexceptional nowadays. While some relate to irate residents complaining about roe munching their roses and shrubs in gardens and city cemeteries, more often they concern deer in need of rescue after falling into steep sided canals, stuck in garden railings, or attacked by dogs. Higher numbers of deer-vehicle collisions have inevitably been another consequence, nowadays no longer just a rural issue, but equally frequent in peri-urban areas, where traffic volumes are often greatest.
While the smaller deer species, and in some cases also fallow deer have been living in suburban areas and some cities for many years now, how about our largest British wild land mammals – The Red deer. Will they too start to appear in our suburbs and gardens? Well – in actual fact red deer are already established on the edge and indeed now within some towns in England.
Since the Middle Ages right up until the 1950’s these majestic animals were largely restricted to remote upland areas, in particular the Scottish Highlands, south-west England and the Lake District, with just a few smaller scattered populations elsewhere. Several of the latter small pockets of feral red deer, usually derived from just a few animals that escaped from deer farms or were reintroduced deliberately by various ‘deer enthusiasts’ over the past 30 years, have expanded very significantly in the last decade, leading to increased reports of red deer sightings right across England. Standing at up to 140 cm at the shoulder, even red deer females commonly weigh in at near 100 kg, while fully grown stags may exceed over twice that weight.
A full grown wild red stag in Somerset visits one of his favourite secluded gardens
Over the last two years I have been observing and filming a number of different groups of red and fallow deer in Somerset, Essex and Staffordshire. These deer all, for a large part of the year, frequent residential gardens, derelict industrial sites or housing developments. Initially in a tiny private garden where the owners had reported seeing deer droppings, I was astonished during the first night to catch on my wildlife trail cameras not only a Roe buck, but a day later, a large red deer stag (photos above). Understandably – I was hooked! Since then in addition to the use of trail cams I now venture out regularly to catalogue and film them through the seasons. In observing the spread of deer into residential areas in England and Scotland, one of the things I have found most fascinating is that although red deer are perhaps the most recent species to do so, they appear to adapt and start to trust people much more quickly and completely than other deer species.
Red stag in spring joins squirrel in raiding wild bird feeder in Somerset
When I first observed red deer in gardens where the residents fed them, I thought they had learnt to recognise and trust particular individuals (and at times their dogs!), as at first they remained wary of me and others. More recently, as wild red deer in several areas have started to tolerate me approaching them, sometimes as close as 8 metres (25ft) away, they appear probably more so to sense how I behave and react to their own movements than recognising me personally. Deer in most situations will seek to avoid being surprised by a potential threat close-by. This is due to an innate defence response against their past natural predators such as lynx or wolves. I have changed my behaviour so that when watching deer I now often find myself not crouching and hiding behind bushes, as a typical camouflage clad stalker or wildlife photographer might do. Instead, once within their normal flight distance I make a point of letting the deer know where I am, talking quietly to them and at times turning as if about to leave – though more often than not, I stay. Wild red deer waiting by school gates in Staffordshire
On one recent occasion when I was filming near a building site, just as I thought I had got too close to a group of deer, I knelt down to adjust settings on my video camera. When I looked back up the deer had come even closer and several had started to sit down within 8 metres in front of me on a pile of wood shavings. This was clearly a regular favourite resting place for them. After sitting with them for some time, watching as they chewed the cud, I retreated slowly so I could film myself in front of the video camera, before leaving them in peace (see video at top).
The film clips and photos below and above are all of entirely ‘wild’ red deer in England. They show how at ease the deer appear in their favourite garden haunts where they feel safe, or even on land being developed for housing that deer have used historically and still continue to do so whilst builders and noisy diggers go about their work.
It is evident that red deer, can and in some areas already have adapted to living in amongst our urban sprawl and industrial developments. In case of the deer in the clip above expansion of their population has in fact benefited and numbers increased over the past twenty years as brownfield sites on former coal mining land were reclaimed and developed into heath and scrub, while only some other parts are now developed for housing. However, whilst deer of all species have gradually adapted to living close to us, many people often remain blissfully unware of their nightly garden visitors until the deer become so bold as to stay during daylight as well.
Inevitably there are consequences and challenges ahead, both for deer health and welfare on the one hand and public safety on the other. Deer in suburban areas are prone to getting wire or rope that has been left lying around, caught up in their antlers, to eating inappropriate low fibre feed (white bread / burgers!) given to them by well-meaning members of the public, as well as to eating discarded plastic bags or yoghurt containers and the like, or getting stuck in park railings. Supplementary feeding of wild deer is generally best avoided in any case, not least where this may lead to large groups of deer congregating closely in one place, increasing the risk of picking up and onward transmission of parasites and diseases such as TB. For residents in areas with urban deer some further increase in deer damage to flowers and other unprotected garden produce as well as amenity tree planting is likely. A higher risk of road traffic collisions with deer in suburban areas may also be predicted throughout the UK, unless steps are taken to calm traffic and deter deer from crossing highest risk road sections, and if possible provide relatively safer wildlife crossing structures (underpasses) elsewhere. Collisions with the large deer species can be particularly serious, although thankfully red deer do appear to have somewhat better road sense and awareness of traffic compared to their smaller more flighty cousins – fallow, roe and muntjac deer.
No prizes for guessing who has been at the strawberries!
As red deer spread into further peri-urban areas in future, I am keen to continue to track and film this developing issue in different parts of the country. I’ll be interested to hear from any readers who have red or fallow deer coming into their gardens and their experiences with them; and better still if you might consider allowing me to set up some trail cameras to observe them where feasible. [To contact me please DM via Facebook, Twitter or email via LangbeinWildlife web-site, or use the reply link on this blog to comment]
Click youtube icon for full HD version
[Addendum – While the deer seen at a building site in the video clip at the top of this blog may appear to be restricted to living in and around built up areas, it is interesting to note that I filmed this second deer clip of a rutting stag and hinds dashing through water within just 1/2 a mile from that building development and saw the same stag at both sites.]
The spectacular rate at which red deer antlers regrow year on year never ceases to amaze and fascinate me. For the past 18 months I have been fortunate enough to observe and film two particular wild Exmoor stags closely, using a number of wildlife trail cameras that I set up at some of their favourite haunts. In addition to this, I also ventured out at least once every ten days or so with a video and stills camera in hope of viewing them again. In some weeks one or both stags would pass the cameras several times a day. In this first photo blog about them – where for ease of identification I have named the two stags ‘Cedar’ and ‘Ash’- I want to look mainly at the time of antler casting and re-growth through the spring months.
First, however, a bit of background on the antler cycle. With the exception of the introduced Chinese Water Deer, males in each of the other five deer species living in the wild in Britain (Red, Roe, Sika, Fallow and Muntjac deer) shed their antlers annually and regrow a complete new set every year. Whilst roe and muntjac antlers are only of fairly modest size in relation to their body, in the case of red deer stags each antler may be up to – or sometimes even exceed – 1 metre long. For red stags in their prime, this may amount to regrowth of around 5 kg to 9 kg of new bone in less than 4 months, and add up to 7 cm to the overall length of each antler per week. In moose (European Elk) the growth is even more amazing, with growth of up to 419 grams of antler recorded in a single day.
In Britain, the first set of antlers does not usually develop at before they are 10 months old in free-living red deer, although with supplementary feed first antlers may already develop in calves on some deer farms and parks. In good habitats the first antlers in the wild will commonly be an unbranched pair of spikes 5 to 35 cm in length, while in prickets in poorer condition only partially developed pedicles may barely break through the skin. Red deer prickets 9mth old with a) average and b) poor 1st head of antlers
After annual casting of their antlers in spring, each new set grown by red deer then tends to become progressively more branched, increasing the number and length of tines and the weight of the antlers year on year, up until around the age of eleven. Depending on physical condition of the animal, new antlers in later years may be found to be ‘going back’ – that is, not growing to the same length or amount of branching of past years, though even then will often still show thicker beams.
Stag ‘Ash’ (left) & ‘Cedar’ (right) on 11/03/2016 with their 12 point and 16 points set of antlers.
Antler size or numbers of tines per se is, however, at best an imprecise indicator of age, with beam width, breadth of coronet and height of coronet above the skull much better indicators. Commonly, each red deer antler consists of points (tines) on a main beam -not unlike a tree branch- with a fork and cup of points at the top. In the closely related Wapiti from North America the top tines are not generally cupped, and some tines are directed backwards. This characteristic may also be seen in some red deer, quite possibly as result of previous hybridisation with cross-bred park deer.
The maximum total number of tines a mature red deer stag attains in Britain is variable. Eight to ten points is common among fully grown adults in the wild, though up to 16 (8 per antler) are not unusual if they are allowed to reach over 7 to 10 years old, whereas 20 or more points (which would be referred to “all his rights and 7-a-top” on Exmoor) is nowadays quite exceptional in our wild populations. Nevertheless, with selective breeding and good nutrition from an early age, near 50 points have been recorded in some British parks.
The picture above (and short video clip below) shows Cedar and Ash in early March while still in hard antler.
Big stags like these are usually also the first to cast their antlers. On Exmoor this will commonly occur during the early weeks of March, though some supplementary fed stags in enclosed British park herds may cast as early as mid to late February in some years. Younger stags below 4 years old on the other hand may not shed their antlers until well into April or even early May.
Cedar (left) and Ash (right), resting on the morning after casting his antlers (inset)
It so happened this year that Cedar and Ash both completed casting on the very same day – 17th March (two days later than Cedar had cast in the previous year). On my trail-cameras I captured Cedar on the 16th with just one antler but Ash with still both. All four of their antlers were however found the next day, all having been cast within less than 100 metres of each other.
Cedar: cast antlers 15/03/2015 (left) and with re-growth nearly complete by 18th June last year. It was intriguing to observe that both these stags cast on the same day this year, as Cedar is almost certainly 5 or more years older than Ash. In autumn 2014, Ash still had only 10 points in total, and did not reach ‘3 a top’ (Royal) size until 2015. The older stag, Cedar, however was already regularly observed in the same region of Exmoor with 4 or more points a-top five years ago, and will be almost certainly be 10 years or older by now. Cedar did show some signs of reduced condition this spring, and it remains to be seen if his antlers will once more be as magnificent as they were in 2015. However, the pictures of him below taken in mid-April and mid-May this year show that even by then he was well on the way. Cedar 17th April (right) and 17th May 2016 (below) with 1 month and 2 months of regrowth. Ash on the other hand has been looking in excellent condition through the spring, but as ever is a rather curious and accident prone stag. In 2015 he managed to entangle his antlers in soft netting, presumably whilst raiding strawberries in allotments on the edge of Exmoor. This year, at end of May I filmed him while entangled in a long length of yellow rope someone had discarded, but fortunately seemed to get rid of much of this by time I next saw him in early June. Fingers crossed he will not get caught up by this or damage the soft vulnerable antlers whilst still in velvet.
Ash in March 2015 (before casting) and with new antlers in Summer 2015, having been at the strawberries!
Getting good close-up pictures of both these stags again during mid-June of this year has eluded me so far.
The picture above shows Cedar in mid-June last year (2015). To see how this year’s antlers will compare, check back in two or three weeks, when all being well I will have found Cedar and Ash again and if so shall update this blog with newer photos. Update Mid-July 2016 : Glad to report that having found Cedar again, his new set of antlers (below) look set to exceed even those from last year again. So far at least 17 points (all his rights and 5 & 6 a-top), though may well show 18 points once clean. Ash also already shows at least 14 points (3 and 5 a-top) this year (picture yet to add).
Cedar with antlers near complete mid-july 2016
Update Late August 2016 : Ash has cleaned his antlers (including the annoying rope he had tangled in them). Collage below shows progression of Ash’s clean antlers in 3 successive years.
Update mid September 2016: Finally – while seeing also Cedar close up since shedding velvet had eluded me for a while, here he is at the “Selfie cam” showing off his new tines.
Despite carrying an injury from last year that has become infected and grown into a large abscess, his antlers have grown bigger than ever (All his Rights and 6 a-top one side, 5 a-top (nearly six) the other. Bring on the rut ! Will be interesting to see (and report soon) how far he wanders.
PS. In the end in autumn 2016 neither of the two Stags travelled very far for the rut. Cedar was mostly found on a nearby hill within 2 miles throughout most of October, while Ash travelled around a bit more widely from place to place but also usually seen less than 2 – 3 miles of his winter / summer range. Picture below shows Cedar back up on the Exmoor Hills during mid-October rounding up one of his hinds.
MAY is the PEAK MONTH for deer road casualties and related vehicle collisions across Great Britain as a whole. Over 10,000 deer are likely to be hit in May alone – that’s close to twice as many as in any other single month and makes up near 15% of the annual toll of between 60,000 to 74,000 GB deer road casualties.
This peak in Deer Vehicle Collisions (DVCs) is, as shown in the graph below, far less pronounced on minor roads that deer may cross on a daily basis when moving from cover to feeding areas, and which of course in general carry relatively modest traffic volumes. For motorways and major A-class trunk roads however, the spring peak in DVCs from April through to June makes up over 50% of the annual toll. At this time young deer coming up to one year old (especially the territorial roe deer, which are our most common and widespread UK deer species) will tend to be pushed out of their natal ranges, and as they disperse in search for new home ranges will be much more likely to attempt to cross the more substantial barriers presented by dual carriageways and motorways.
Aside from dispersing animals, adult females too will increasingly cross roads during May on their way to – or often with new fawns at heel – as they return from more secluded areas of cover that they may seek out for giving birth. Oddly enough, even though road side verges may seem rather noisy places to us, as vegetation grows denser during spring they become increasingly attractive for deer and other animals to settle within, because scrub and linear strips of woodland alongside major roads and even on roundabouts and between slip roads will often be relatively undisturbed by pedestrians and not least dog walkers.
In addition to late autumn being the rutting season for the large deer species, when adult males will often chase blindly across roads in pursuits of females or rival males, the shorter day lengths bring rush hour traffic periods in line with the peak dawn and dusk activity times of all our deer species deer, adding further to an increase in deer collision risk.
Whatever the season, one of the most important things for drivers to be aware of is that when you see one deer cross there is a high chance another will be following behind. Have a listen to the deer in the video clip above who will tell you more about this ; and please share it widely to help raise driver awareness of the very real risk of deer vehicle collisions – especially but not only – during the months of May and Oct/November. (If unable to view Youtube , a Facebook version of clip is here: https://www.facebook.com/LangbeinWildlife/videos/1720421378210744/ )
When watching the spectacle of the wild red deer rut, have you too at times wondered just how far each of the different stags that turn up at the rutting grounds have travelled in their search for females and to establish a harem to defend?
Outside of the mating season wild red deer stags tend to form loose bachelor groups, that may be composed of anything from two to ten or more males. Stags then live largely segregated from hinds and young from late winter onwards, in ranges that may be several miles from the traditional rutting areas they tend to return to every autumn. However the distance between the ranges used by stags in late winter and summer and the location of their rutting areas is very variable, and in truth is often unknown for most individual stags except within the confines of deer parks or the well studied red deer population on Rum (that however spans <10 miles in any direction). Only relatively few radio-tracking studies in the UK have looked into this, but some information is available from a number of stags collared as part of the Exmoor Deer Research project in the late 1990s. One of these – pictured below – I was able to track over three consecutive rutting seasons.
“Exmoor Red deer stag radio-collared in Horner Woods in 1995 “
During one day in late September 1996 this large stag was found to move at least 9.6 km as the crow flies. Having recorded him early in the morning in his winter & summer range (located at the time on the eastern end of North Hill), by afternoon of the same day I spotted him back in Horner Woods nr Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor), within a few hundred yards of where we had collared him in the previous year, and returned here also the following year by which time the batteries in his collar had failed. Two other mature stags radio tracked as part of the same project in the 90’s spent their summers in different ranges in Culbone Woods and out on the moorlands of the Exmoor Forest, but well within 5 to 7 km from their respective autumn rutting areas.
I am now once again tracking a few Exmoor stags throughout the year for a filming project (this time recognised only by their antlers and other characteristic markings rather than radio collars), but much to my surprise one 16 pointer that I have followed ever since February has moved no more than 2 to 3 miles away during the rut this year (thus far!). If anyone else has followed individual clearly recognisable stags on Exmoor and the Quantocks in more recent years and observed them both in spring and summer in areas well away from where they later turned up for the rut, I‘d be interested to hear from you what the largest recorded distances between spring/summer and autumn ranges of red deer stags are here in the Westcountry. Or indeed also for red deer populations in other parts of the country. [If commenting on this post please give approx. locations of deer only or else email me direct]
In early June this year during a walk on the edge of Exmoor I was thrilled to stumble across a newly born deer calf lying up concealed among nettles and brambles. Most deer calves hide up quietly on their own for much of the day during the first few weeks of life, and the mother returns only briefly a few times each day to suckle them.
One week old red deer calf hiding.
Newly born calves even of our largest UK species – red deer – measure barely fifty centimetres tip to tail, and their reddish brown coat flecked with small white spots provides perfect camouflage among the woodland vegetation.
Photographing young calves in the wild without disturbing them becomes easier in late summer when they start to follow their mothers and join the rest of the herd. Having had little chance to observe calves again until now – the first week in September – it is quite staggering to see how much they have grown even though most are still barely 12 weeks old.
“Barely three months old, but I’m already able to look over mum’s shoulder”.
“My legs are getting so long now I have to kneel down to suckle”.
“With my legs growing faster than my neck, grazing too is easier kneeling down”.
“The other calves say I have a face just like my mum!”
“Time for a rest …..
… before joining the herd to eat my greens”.
See below for a video clip from earlier this summer when calves were just 3 – 4 weeks old :
Meanwhile the stags have been chilling while regrowing their antlers :
Meanwhile the stags have been chilling and regrowing their antlers
Despite our ever-increasing human population, expanding road networks and urban sprawl, deer have adapted to living within major cities including the like of Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Southampton. Even more surprising is the number of deer that now inhabit London Boroughs inside the M25 orbital motorway- one of Europe’s busiest roads. How they manage to
avoid the dangers of often eight-lane wide carriageways is an intriguing question. The sad fact is that vast numbers of deer die attempting to cross Britain’s roads leading approximately to 70,000 deer casualties, many hundreds of human injuries and several fatal traffic collisions every year. On just the M25 alone these annual figures include 65 deer road kills, however from our emerging research we now know that many more do manage to cross safely by using low underpasses and bridges. First evidence of this I captured on video using CCTV ten years ago, of one fallow buck crossing a narrow concrete M25 bridge. Some years later I managed to film also larger groups of deer crossing a wider bridge, but just one using a small underpass (see Youtube playlist below).
In attempt to record these novel behaviours in greater photographic quality and thus help demonstrate the value of such structures for both animal and road safety, I recently teamed up with wildlife photographer Jamie Hall – to make use of his innovative camera trap expertise – with quite astonishing results.
Jamie staked out some of the bridges I’d previously observed over several nights, producing stunning images that capture the calm nature in which deer cross a motorway bridge overlooking the busy night-time traffic. Amazingly, Jamie has now also been able to film deer passing through a number of long M25 underpasses, of which some preliminary photos and videos are being shown on these blog pages for the first time. Recent research with other colleagues has shown that fallow, red and roe deer do regularly use the small and mostly short underpasses (up to 35m in length) beneath local roads in the New Forest (Muttock, Langbein & Diaz, in prep). The even more surprising aspect shown so clearly here for the first time in Jamie’s images, is that fallow will regularly use much longer underpasses, including some less than 3 m high and over 100 meters long. Furthermore, the footage illustrates that deer will cross these low dark structures even when they are partially flooded.
In previous research (Existing Structure study) with The Deer Initiative I’d explored the potential suitability for use by deer of numerous bridges, underpasses and culverts over and under trunk roads in Devon and Cornwall. The findings highlighted that a high proportion of existing structures of quite modest size are likely to be adopted as safer crossings by deer, given limited modifications such as short lead-in deer fencing or even merely removal of various obstacles to their direct access. High deer fencing remains one of the few well proven methods of reducing deer collisions on motorways and major trunk roads, but even this tends to be most successful where it channels animals to safer crossing points. Wide “green bridges” or landscape bridges constructed in parts of Europe and the US primarily to reduce habitat fragmentation can help also to reduce animal collisions, but their high cost tends to rule them out from widespread use for deer-vehicle collision mitigation. To some extent the recent focus on high profile green bridge projects has led to a widespread misconception that much smaller or joint use structures, such as culverts, footpath and farm accommodation structures even when carrying low levels of road traffic, have limited potential as safer crossings for deer and other large wildlife species. As the images on these pages show so very clearly, deer are however are becoming increasingly accustomed to living close to traffic and urban areas, and do use many structures of modest size not specifically constructed for wildlife.
We now hope to raise sufficient funds to allow us to extend this work to study and film deer at several other motorways and trunk roads (using both trail-cams to record detailed wildlife movement activity patterns, as well as recording higher quality footage to help demonstrate the usefulness of wildlife passages to a wider public). This will help us determine the most successful structure types and local conditions to facilitate use by deer, and which type of existing structures under and over trunk roads have greatest potential to be adapted to maximise their usefulness for prevention of animal collisions.
Last week I was asked to speak to the Quantock Deer Forum on the history and findings of the annual Quantock Red deer count, which I have now been involved with in one way or another for over two decades. Ever since 1991 this count has been organised on behalf of the Quantock Deer Management & Conservation Group (QDM&CG) with assistance of the Quantock Hills AONB service. The count is undertaken usually on a morning in early March and focusses primarily on assessing trends in Red deer numbers, although records of other deer species seen are also recorded. It is undertaken by around 50 – 60 volunteers from a very wide range of backgrounds, including wildlife watchers and photographers, hunters and deer stalkers, as well as countryside rangers from the AONB, Forestry Commission and National Trust, most importantly all of them sharing an interest in the health and sustainable management of the red deer. On the day of the count each volunteer is allocated to survey all or a part of one of 49 different count blocks covering the Quantock Hills and adjacent lower lying land. Wild deer are notoriously difficult to count accurately, not least across areas as large and diverse as the Quantocks Hills AONB, but this count is never undertaken with the expectation of obtaining a complete count of the entire Quantock red deer herd. A proportion of those deer present within the count area will always be missed in concealing cover, and others – not least some older stags – tend to move well off the hills from late winter onwards until rejoining mixed sex herds in the autumn. Instead the main value of the count – undertaken in the same way year on year – lies in identifying minimum numbers that remain and to serve as an index of long term population trends.
Changes in numbers of Red deer seen during annual counts 1991 – 2014.
The graph above shows red deer numbers seen during individual counts have fluctuated widely over the years, with around 600 noted in most years during the early 1990s but falling to below 500 later in the same decade. Thereafter counts rose steadily up until 2005 to a peak of 958, but have fallen back again steadily since, to reach a low of 386 during 2013 and recovering to 511 at the most recent count in March 2014. Multiple different reasons are likely to have contributed to the trends observed, including changes in the size, spread and manner in which deer culls have been undertaken, but also variation in farming and cropping practices off the Hills and public pressure on the Hills. Information on how many deer are culled each year by different landholders across the count region remains lacking, as to date only some regularly report their culls to the QDM&CG. However, when laying out its policies (see QDMCG leaflet) most individual landholding members and organisations of the QDM&CG group agreed that a population based on around 400 – 450 red deer noted at the annual spring count is believed to constitute a sustainable population size for the area in the long term; on the proviso that it is well distributed across the region.
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The overall and regional differences in the trends of the count are explored further in my Deer Forum presentation about the history of the Deer Count – a copy of which can be viewed here:
Most of all however the Quantock deer count demonstrates the value of such quite basic but nevertheless consistent long term monitoring of mammals over many years; and not least in areas such as this where the red deer are managed largely independently of one another by numerous different landholders, in order to provide an overview of trends across the wider area.