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.
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.
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)