Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Never has the deer been so dear to us

Nature Studies

A A A

Our attraction to big beasts, or at least our fascination with them, is clearly a very ancient one. When you first see the great animals of Africa in the wild, the elephants, the rhinos, the buffaloes, you involuntarily draw breath; their magnificence triggers an awe deep inside us which must be thousands of generations old, dating back to the age when early man hunted these creatures, full of fear and hope, and piously painted their images on the walls of caves.

I don't think it's entirely fanciful to see some of that ancient big-beast-awe in our attitude, here in Britain, to deer. For many people, seeing a wild deer is an event of sorts – "look, a deer!" – and any encounter with our biggest native wild animals tends to be remembered, certainly for those for whom it is infrequent. After all, the British fauna is generally now pretty impoverished and on the titchy side, with our bears gone, our wolves gone and our lynxes gone; we have to make to do with otters, badgers and squirrels – estimable animals all, but you wouldn't say they were dragging magnificence in their train. Whereas a red deer stag is a creature of real splendour, and even a roebuck is a splendid animal, haughty and full of bounce.

I am attracted to deer for a further reason, which is that they are redolent of the forest. I don't mean the modern forests of dark, tightly packed conifers which we planted in the mid-20th century, the impenetrable blocks of Sitka spruce; I mean the ancient forest of oak and ash and hazel which once covered these islands, the Greenwood – half historical, half mythical, a place of trembling leaves and dappled light and shade, through which the deer move and silently graze. Deer are inseparable from the idea of the Greenwood. Or at least they are in my imagination, which is a reason to love them.

How painful then, how disquieting, to learn that today, in the woodlands of Britain, deer are causing the most terrible trouble. In a massive, unprecedented impact, unnoticed by the public and understood only by specialists, deer are destroying the undergrowth and the ground flora in a great many British woods, producing a complex cascade of damaging effects not only on the wild flowers, but also on the communities of insects, small mammals and birds which need the undergrowth to survive. The ultimate outcome of the process is, for example, that in Essex one of our loveliest wild flowers, the oxlip, has virtually disappeared, as deer have eaten all the seed heads, and right across southern England, nightingales are vanishing, having nowhere to live.

The reason is numbers: over the past 20 years, deer populations have exploded. In Britain we have six species of deer, which is unique in Europe. Red deer and roe deer, which are native, but also four more species which have been introduced: the fallow deer (introduced a comparatively long time ago) plus, more recently, the sika, the muntjac and the Chinese water deer.

A series of factors have combined to present them all with a very favourable breeding environment, including a long run of very warm winters (this last winter, of course, excepted) and the switch to autumn-sown cereals, which means more food in the winter landscape. As a result, deer numbers in Britain are now estimated at 1.5million, which is thought to be approaching the numbers present in the Stone Age, but with a fraction of the woodland cover of that era – and the expansion is likely to continue at an accelerating rate.

The effects are increasingly felt: there are now thought to be between 45,000 and 70,000 road traffic accidents caused by deer every year, with annually at least ten deaths, and deer are being seen more and more on the fringes of towns and cities, and have even become trapped in school playgrounds. But it is their grazing and browsing on woodland undergrowth which are most extensive and widespread in their impact, and these have now been detailed at great length in a disturbing paper of the current issue of the journal British Wildlife. The authors estimate that more than a third of all the woodlands with unfavourable conservation status in England are in poor condition because of deer impacts, and the problem is steadily worsening.

I have to say I feel grateful that I do not have to grapple with a problem like this – good minds are turning towards it – and I am particularly loath to draw any conclusions, moral or otherwise. I feel simply dismayed that such damage is being caused to the Greenwood, as it were, by the animals which are its very spirits, moving through their dappled light and shade.

Blossomwatch

The piece I wrote last week on the blossoming of the blackthorn seems to have struck a chord with many readers, and many thanks to all those who emailed me about it; a common theme was: "I thought I was the only one who had noticed this".

The blackthorn is pretty much over now, but we are still in the last few days of the blossoming time with other trees and shrubs, and in some places it is spectacular. In my own family's garden, just a small suburban plot in south-west London which does, however, have a handful of mature trees, the cherry blossom, the apple blossom, the lilac and the choisya are out now simultaneously, while the bluebells beneath them are in flower and so are the marsh marigolds in the pond.

It looks like the garden has been decorated for a wedding by a particularly chic and expensive florist from Notting Hill. But no bill is awaited. Thanks, Nature.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading :

"Ecological impacts of deer in lowland woodland", Paul Dolman, Rob Fuller, Robin Gill, David Hooton and Ray Tabor; British Wildlife (Vol. 21, No. 4, April 2010)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas