Caption: Young red deer stag with velvety antlers
if you head out for a woodland walk in Cumbria you may well come face to face with one of the deer species roaming around. Although most of us know the handsome red deer, there are five species you may encounter in the Lake District.
Only two of these are natives – the red deer which stands up to 1.2 metres at the shoulder and the smaller roe deer which stands at around 75 cm at the shoulder. Sika are also found in Cumbria, they are smaller than the reds at 85 cm tall but are frequently interbreeding with them creating hybrids. Sika’s were introduced originally from Japan but escaped deer parks into the wild. Fallow deer are very common in Cumbria but are not native – they were introduced from France in Norman times and stand around 1 metre tall. Finally the diminutive montjac is also found in The Lakes – it is only 50 cm tall and is a rather odd little creature. It originates in China but if you do see one it is no cutey – the stags have extremely sharp antlers that can cause horrific puncture wounds.
Around late July the last young are being born and the stags are sporting thick antlers covered in velvet. Hormonal changes in September prompt them to shed the velvet leaving behind sharp, bony antlers ready for the battles that take place between males during the rut.
With no natural predators except man, deer numbers are on the up and the damage to trees is also increasing. Deer can fray, strip and browse on trees leaving various degrees of damage.
Fraying is a means of marking territory and happens when stags use small whippy trees to rub off the velvet covering of their antlers. Frayed trees lose their commercial value and are often killed by fraying. Roe deer fray in the spring and early summer but all others fray in the autumn driven by hormonal changes ahead of the rut.
Stripping occurs when deer use their lower teeth to strip and eat bark from trees. Sika are worst culprits but reds and fallows strip bark too. Most popular on the menu are spruce, larch, ash, willow and beech. Once stripped trees are prone to infections and growth is often retarded.
Finally browsing is simply that – browsing on the leaves of the tree. A tell tale sign of deer browsing is a ragged edged bite mark. Browsing tends to make trees grow poorly, making growth twisted and timber more prone to knots. Favourites to nibble at are cherry, ash, willow, hazel and rowan – all common in The Lakes.
Deer protection is a big issue in forestry and woodland management. There are three main methods of protecting trees from deer damage. Firstly and sometimes controversially deer can be culled. This is necessary when populations get too high and many areas now are focusing on marketing venison as a positive outcome of culling. Fencing is a good but expensive solution given the acreages to protect. Deer fencing needs to be 1.8 metres high as deer are good jumpers. Plastic tubes are used as a more affordable solution and for replanting smaller areas – but again, if red deer are around they need to be 1.8 metres high or the deer will simply browse off the tops of the new trees.