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Fallow deer: an historic feature of the countryside

Herds of fallow deer have been a feature of the British countryside for centuries and Dama dama remains a challenge for the modern stalker, writes Graham Downing

Fallow deer

Unlike those deer species that arrived on these islands as hitch-hikers in the wake of Britain’s 19th-century trading empire, the fallow deer (Dama dama) has a much more complex history. (Read more on stalking fallow deer here.)

Present in prehistoric Britain until the onset of the last ice age, when it became confined to refugia in the eastern Mediterranean, fallow deer were reintroduced here not by the Normans, as most authorities once believed, but by the Romans. (Read our guide to British deer species.)

This was confirmed recently when archaeologists working on the Roman palace at Fishbourne, Sussex, identified a number of fallow bones, including two jaw bones. The teeth were subjected to strontium isotope analysis, which confirmed that one of the animals had started life in southern Europe before living out the remainder of its days in England. This simple bit of science extended the history of fallow in Britain back another 1,000 years.

It is doubtful, however, whether fallow survived here following the Roman departure and the ancestors of most of today’s deer were introduced as a hunting quarry by the Normans, probably from Sicily, where there was Norman control from the 11th century.

Fallow deer

Fallow favour areas where ther eis access to crops and grass, as well as woodland cove

Fallow deer in parkland

Since that time, fallow have been closely associated with the deer parks attached to large country houses as well as historic forests and chases. Here, they represented a sporting quarry for the gentry and nobility, as well as a valuable source of meat during lean winter months. Fallow were either hunted with hounds or driven past blinds, where they could be shot with bow or crossbow.

While many medieval deer parks fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and Commonwealth, allowing fallow to become widely established as a feral species, even today, local populations of fallow are often associated with the district around the country houses where their ancestors were once imparked. They still grace the grounds of many a stately home and a herd of fallow in the dappled shade of an ancient oak beside a historic house remains a quintessentially English scene.

Fallow deer are well distributed across the south of England, with their heartland south of a line from the Bristol Channel to Cambridge, including such historic areas as the New Forest, Ashdown Forest and Epping Forest. Fallow are present throughout the Midlands, but they are more sparsely distributed in the north of England and Scotland, though there are local concentrations in south-west Scotland, Argyll and the southern Highlands.

They are most at home in well-wooded farmland, where crops and grass are interspersed with deciduous woodland for cover. A herd may occupy a range of several thousand acres and fallow will coexist with other species, particularly muntjac. However, competition between fallow and roe will occasionally amount to outright aggression.

Fallow deer

As a herding species alert to danger, fallow are a challenging and worth quarry for the deerstalker

Dense fat

The mature buck stands up to about 38in (97cm) in height and may weigh upwards of 155lb (70kg), depending on the time of year. In advance of the rut, bucks will put on a thick layer of dense, white subcutaneous fat that can in some instances take them over the 200lb (90kg) mark. Does stand about 34in (85cm) at maturity, weighing some 90lb to 110lb (40kg to 50kg).

Fallow are known for a wide colour variation and the same herd may contain animals with coats in several different shades. Common fallow have a chestnut brown summer coat, dappled with white spots, and a long and well-defined tail that is white with a strong, broad black stripe. The menil fallow is similar in colouration, but the coat has more spots that do not disappear in winter and its rump patch has a brown border. Black fallow range from dark chocolate brown to dense black, while white fallow start a sandy colour, becoming progressively lighter with each moult.

In summer, fallow are principally grazing animals, feeding upon grass, herbage and agricultural crops, but in the autumn they will capitalise upon any temporary food source that might be available, such as acorns, beechmast or crab apples.

In the late summer, does and their offspring are often widely distributed in small groups, but this changes as the rut approaches in October. The principal bucks defend traditional rutting stands in and around the herd’s core area, challenging and fighting off competing bucks, while attracting does to mate with them.

When stalking during the rut, you will sometimes hear a clash of antlers as the bucks challenge each other for the right to cover the does. The bucks will make a slightly spooky belching, groaning noise as daylight fades, continuing through the night when rutting behaviour is at its peak.

For most of the year, bucks and does live separately, the does in larger mixed-age herds and bucks in smaller bachelor groups, with the older bucks living singly or with two or three other larger males. However, there can be a degree of mixing, with bucks remaining among the does for several months after the rut. In spring, the does will go to traditional locations, such as a secure bramble or bracken bank, and drop their fawns in May or June. Fawns will continue to suckle for six months or so.

Unique antlers

The antlers of the mature buck are unlike those of any other British species. They are palmate, consisting of a beam that broadens out into a flattened blade, which is scalloped at the back into a series of points or spellers. A first-season buck has only a single spike and is known as a pricket, while animals with the succeeding heads are known as a sorel, sore, bare buck, buck and great buck, though these stages do not necessarily occur in consecutive years. Antlers are cast in early spring. (Read more on finding antlers here.)

Fallow are a worthy and challenging quarry. They will generally be found in groups, with many pairs of eyes and ears alert to the slightest danger. The impact of large numbers of fallow on forestry, agriculture and nature conservation can be substantial. At high population densities are a significant cause of road accidents in southern and eastern England, so they are a prime target species for the deer manager.

To stalk fallow successfully requires skill and organisation, preferably with the support of moving and handling equipment to extract and shift large carcasses. The fact that a single herd will usually operate across several property boundaries means successful culling invariably requires cooperation between adjoining farms and estates.