In the fading light we crouched on a rampart edge of what had once been a Roman camp. A light breeze from the south-west stirred a network of branches silhouetted against the pale lemon sunset sky. Time stood still as we waited, more in hope than in expectation, for so far we had seen only one roe ? a light- coloured doe that had swiftly vanished into the dead bracken shrouding the hill fort.
Beside me Forestry Commission (FC) ranger Colin Cresswell, aged 23, squatted behind his .308 Sauer 202 set up on tripod legs, the barrel pointing towards a grassy ride on our left. Next to him his four-year-old black Labrador, Fern, stared into the gloom.
We were close to Radnor Forest, and for the previous hour or more we had slowly and carefully stalked the steep slopes of nearby Nash Wood in the hope of seeing one of the many roe that now thrive in this well-forested region of mid-Wales. But the only incident of note was the sighting of a goshawk, so here, on the summit of Burfa Camp, it seemed that we were doomed to failure.
Then Fern?s head moved and she stared fixedly at the ride. Colin slid the rifle on to his shoulder, and as he did so I saw a roe, a dark silhouette against the grey-green grass, fitfully grazing as it moved across the open space. It was a buck, and at the muffled shot it dropped without moving. By now it was too dark for photographs so, after gralloching the two-year-old buck, it was decided that we would leave the photographic record until the morning.
We had driven to the 3,000-acre Mortimer Forest, set just below Ludlow and close to the Welsh Border. Here we were to meet David Jam, aged 43, FC wildlife manager for Wales, to discover the current status of deer in the Principality.
David, formerly from Suffolk, has spent his life working with deer. With his team of seven FC rangers based throughout Wales, he co-ordinates the management and control of deer and wildlife from his home, Hay Park Farm. The farm is an ancient former hunting lodge set in 40 acres of grassland in the centre of the vast forest, a former Norman chase and deer park. Here you will also find the long-haired fallow deer, identified in the 1960s as a genetic variation of fallow. Around 200 of these unique deer, with their long coats and furry ears, exist only in this vast forest.
David explained that the main population of roe is to be found in mid-Wales, centred in Radnorshire, which is now a part of Powys. The core area stretches from Presteigne on the Border as far as Newtown, then as far south as Builth Wells. There are also roe in the Wye Valley and in the Monmouthshire area and all the way down the M5 corridor where it seems likely that they were ntroduced artificially some time ago, though there are no clusters of roe as large as those in Radnorshire.
There have also been sightings of roe in North Wales around the Kinmel Estate, while a number of roe were seen in Hafren Forest near Llanidloes in the 1980s. However, about a score were culled in that area by an FC ranger, and none have been seen since. It seems unlikely, however, that they were all wiped out. There have been regular odd sightings of roe in other parts of Wales, but there is always the likelihood that they were confused with fallow calves.
Into the west
Roe were first seen in Radnorshire around 1972 and it?s believed that some were released in two woods close to Presteigne. No one, of course, has admitted to releasing these deer but the general consensus is that the expansion of roe into Wales stemmed from that period and region. Prior to the 1970s the nearest roe to the Border were probably in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, though there were also some roe in the Bristol area that moved into the Forest of Dean and thence into the Wye Valley.
FC rangers culled around 80 roe from 1 April 2010 to the end of the doe season this year, and in the region of 600 fallow were taken across Wales in the same period. While the FC is trying to reduce deer damage in forestry and woodland there is no intention of wiping out the deer. The plan, rather, is simply to engage in a damage limitation exercise. There are many woods that are at present devoid of deer, and roe are now taking advantage of this situation to move west and south. Naturally, under these circumstances they tend to fare extremely well. In Radnorshire, for example, the FC is able to control and co-exist with roe with minimal forestry damage but there is, of course, a great deal of private forestry and woodland where the FC has no remit, and roe are taking advantage of this situation.
However, it seems likely that the expansion of roe westwards will be halted to some extent due to the fact that in mid-Wales there is a long tradition of sheep farming and not a great deal of forestry. In addition, fox control by Gun packs is widespread and all the woods are heavily hunted, creating considerable disturbance. Furthermore, there is a lack of contiguous private woodland through which roe can travel, while long periods of wet weather, for which Wales is renowned, is also not to the liking of roe. A further factor is a lack of gameshooting to provide the benefit of gamecover to help support deer in the bleak winter months. Nevertheless, there are now roe in virtually every FC woodland and forestry area in Radnorshire, as well as throughout a number of private woodlands.
A success story?
Fallow can be found in several main clusters. In the north there are a number around the Abergele area, from the A55 along the North Wales coast down to Denbighshire, while Coed-y-Brenin Forest, Snowdonia, north of Dolgellau, holds quite a large number of these deer.
Moving south, there are two groups that have never met up: one at Powys Castle, the other on the Criggion Estate; while the next cluster is in the Lower Wye Valley in Monmouth. Moving west along the M4, there are fallow at Margam Park, Port Talbot, while the only other large group is in Llandeilo, Cardiganshire.
A few red deer are now moving into the Lower Wye Valley and there are a number of them near Cardigan that appear to have had some strong wapiti influence, as many carry huge heads. However, the main core of red deer is in the Brecon Beacons, just to the west of Brecon. Here, deer were released from a farm that went out of business and, as a result, red deer are now found in most of the conifer woodlands in this region.
As for muntjac, odd ones have been seen and it is likely that a few were released in the 1970s, around the same time as roe, but they haven?t really spread. One was found dead in the 1980s but none have been seen in the Radnorshire woodlands, though there are reports of muntjac in the area
of the M55 corridor in North Wales.
So, what of the future? David Jam believes that roe will undoubtedly be a Welsh success story over the next few decades. Adaptable and with outstanding habitat in which to expand throughout mid-Wales, there is little reason to doubt that Welsh roe must now be considered on a par with their English and Scottish counterparts.
The very fine and well-balanced Welsh head, pictured on the right, which was shot by Colin Cresswell in Nash Wood, has just been assessed under the prestigious CIC measuring system and has been awarded a silver medal with a total score of 120.52 points. This is now officially the first Welsh medal head, and could well be a sign of things to come from the Principality.