Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to suddenly catch sight of a doe with usually two kids. The neat white tail of the mother is so attractive and her wonderful leaps and bounds across the difficult terrain of the fells fill me with wonder as her young follow faithfully, believing her to be their protector. She intends to be with them until they can cope on their own, and then she will chase them away to find their own territory, leaving her clear to mate again.
Some would say that Roe are probably the most fascinating and interesting species of British wild deer. Their behaviour is thoroughly individualistic. They are so elegant and graceful and seem to me to symbolise euphoric freedom as they blend into the magnificent landscape surrounding our cottage. But freedom is always an illusion.
Roe deer were originally native to Scotland since becoming marooned here when the land bridges to Europe were finally covered by water. The majority of the world’s Roe population lives within the former Eastern Bloc.
Remains identified as Roe in Britain have been found dating back to the Interglacial period (400,000 BC) along with other species now extinct in Britain. There are three subspecies and the European Roe, Capreolus capreolus stands between 60-75 cm at the shoulder with bucks weighing between 24 and 30 kg, whilst the does are 2-6 kg lighter.
The Roe feed mainly on grass, leaves, berries and young shoots. They love very young, tender grass with a high moisture content, i.e., grass that has received rain the day before. Roe deer will not generally venture into a field that has had or has livestock (sheep, cattle) in it because the livestock make the grass unclean. All year round their antlers damage saplings and the bark of young trees since they rub against them to progress the antler growth. The average length for European Roe antlers is between 20-30cm. The bucks shed their antlers between October and December, the older bucks shedding first.
Roe were numerous through Roman and Saxon times, but suffered a steady decline through the mediaeval period. A few miles from our cottage there lies a medieval deer park. This is a reserve, with an enclosing bank with a ditch within the enclosed area (designed to make it easy for deer to leap in, but difficult for them to get out). Armies would use these parks to camp on their way to battle too. The effort to build these deer parks would have been considerable and they have remained largely intact after centuries.
William the Conqueror created laws that protected his royal right to kill deer, anyone else would be penalised by death. After the Normans, Roe were later declared as being ‘beasts of the warren’ (unworthy of noble hunting) in 1338. This was great news for the expanding peasant population who were then allowed to hunt them as a food source. Medieval Scots also ate swans, peacocks, seals, lampreys and porpoises. They ate lots of birds including small wild birds as well as geese and pheasants. Fish was very popular, they ate herring, pike, salmon and bream as well as eels.
Forest clearance and over-hunting led to Roe deer becoming extinct in England by 1700 in southern and central England and all of Wales. In Scotland the Roe remained in wooded patches. Deer were still a protected species until the 19th Century, even though Henry VIII had long since abolished the law which gave the death penalty for non royals to kill deer. The ‘royal beasts of the chase’ were the red and roe deer, and to this day are still associated with royal hunting activities. It is still a class of sport for people who can afford to pay for the experience. Only gamekeepers get paid for killing deer on behalf of anxious landowners protecting their trees or crops.
Hunting obsessions in England led to several reintroductions of Roe during Victorian times and colonies were established in Dorset, Sussex and East Anglia. This, combined with woodland and forest planting in the 20th century has meant that Roe deer have become widespread and abundant today. Reintroduction spread to Northern England and Scotland. The present Roe deer population is probably at its highest since the Middle Ages. Income can be generated for landowners who can offer hunting holidays.
Even in the built up area of Gateshead where I used to live, we would often see young deer race across open fields and across a busy main road into wild grass areas. Roe deer typically occur in open, deciduous, mixed or coniferous woodlands. They also inhabit moorland, and large gardens in rural or suburban areas. They are common here in the Scottish Borders, consequently the winter kill of does will soon commence and the stealthy gamekeeper will be driving by our cottage for night hunting.
Earlier this year our dogs found heads and legs of deer scattered about the fells. Being Labradors they brought them to us proudly. Not a pretty sight for lovers of this exquisitely designed beast, especially when the dog wants to play with the limbs and crunch the heads. Not easy to bury these things successfully from the heightened sense of smell of a retriever. It did mean that as the things rotted we kept being presented with decaying items for the next few months.