Uncertain Origins

Roe doe: The fairy of the woods

Editor Pete Carr charts the history of the roe deer in the UK, from the rapid post-war population explosion back to near extinction at the turn of the 19th century

The roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) must be the mainstay quarry species for most British stalking enthusiasts. I have been fortunate enough to hunt a great variety of animals worldwide, but my personal favourite species is still the roebuck. The excitement when I take to the field in pursuit of this quarry remains as strong as it was the first day I weaved through a hawthorn hedge and grassed my debut buck with an inferior calibre. Thankfully, I soon progressed to a more suitable choice of rifle and fell under the wing of such stalkers as Stuart Donald, Steve Kershaw and Mark Brackstone, who showed me the error of my ways.

A damaged willow wand frayed by a buck

For reasons mostly unknown, the species enjoyed a huge population explosion during the second half of the 20th century. Modern forestry and farming have suited the roe deer well and have definitely contributed to its expansion in both numbers and range. During the 1970s in my part of East Yorkshire, I remember the sighting of a roe deer as a very rare occurrence, but today it is commonplace.

The mostly indigenous northern population is spreading rapidly southwards, with roe now beginning to become established in the Midlands – the last tract of England yet to be colonised by this deer other than Kent. The Midlands will be, without doubt, where the northern and southern populations of roe deer will coexist in the near future. Roe deer are extremely common today throughout Scotland and England (except for the two areas just noted), and are currently expanding into Wales at an astonishing rate.

This, however, hasn’t always been the case, and many readers may be surprised to learn that less than a century ago the roe deer was rare in our Isles. Interestingly, the indigenous English population had all but died out at the beginning of the 19th century. Even as early as the reign of Charles I, roe were extremely scarce in the southern counties. Records show that Charles bought 31 roe kids for £7 12s 6d from Naworth Castle, Cumberland, to turn out in Half-Moon Park, Wimbledon, Surrey.

Forest clearance and excessive persecution in the early 19th century led to the extinction of roe deer across pretty much all of England, with just a few surviving in the Lake District and possibly two remnant populations at Cannock Chase and Petworth Park. Even in Scotland, this species was at one point restricted to the Highlands and a few sporadic populations further south.

During research for my latest book, I charted the remarkable reintroduction of this species and its subsequent spread back into its former range, and also turned up some interesting anomalies. It is commonly believed that the roe was completely absent in the south of England at the turn of the 19th century, but this may not be quite true. The Normans introduced some roe from the northern counties to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. These were thought to have gone by the turn of the 20th century, but it appears that they had not. These forgotten roe have slowly populated the surrounding area in more recent times and will shortly be joined by the two separate British populations as they colonise the Midlands from both the north and the south.

Roebuck: Still Britain’s most sought-after deer

Further introductions to Sussex and Dorset were possibly made by the Earl of Egremont with roe from Scandinavian stock bought at Brook’s Menagerie, London, in the 1780s. Others at Milton Abbas, Dorset, were presented to Lord Dorchester, again by Lord Egremont and probably Lord Portarlington in the early 1800s. The latter’s stock was said to be sourced from Perthshire – though this has been disputed. These animals were initially introduced to provide sport for the local buckhounds, which hunted them up to 1829. A number of these roe were later moved to Charborough Park, where conditions obviously suited them. This population thrived, and soon expanded eastwards into the New Forest and westwards to colonise Dartmoor, Exmoor and as far north as the Marquis of Bath’s woodlands at Longleat in Wiltshire.

Thetford Forest is the stronghold of the species in the east of England. This thriving population owes its establishment to William Dalziel Mackenzie, who released a number of German roe imported from Württemberg on to his Santon Downham Estate, Norfolk in 1884. Within 20 years these roe had spread more than 15 miles from their original release site and were well established in the surrounding countryside.

In 1897 and again in 1910, the then Duke of Bedford released a few of the largest of the three roe sub-species, the Siberian roe (Capreolus capreolus pygargus) to run freely at Woburn Park, Bedfordshire. This sub-species is much bigger in both body weight and antler than the European roe (Capreolus capreolus), and as such quite easily identifiable. These animals quickly established themselves in the estate woodlands, and at the nearby Ampthill Forest. By 1938, Siberian roe were reported across the Northamptonshire border, in both Hazelborough and Yardley forests some 20 miles away. Other sightings from Salcey Forest on the Buckinghamshire border told of a definite expansion.

Unfortunately, during and immediately after World War Two, the Woburn population had declined to no more than three or four individuals because of poaching, no doubt due to wartime rationing restrictions. This decline was echoed elsewhere, and only a few lingered on in Salcey and Ampthill forests. During the next decade, sporadic sightings attributed to the Siberian sub-species came in from the East Midlands, Oxfordshire and the Home Counties. The only definite record of a Siberian being shot more than 20 miles from Woburn was the beast taken by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald at Inkpen, Berkshire, in March 1948. However, it would be fair to say that any roe sighted in the Midlands before their extinction by 1960 would probably be of the Siberian sub-species.

Scottish roe have mostly increased from native stock, although the south-west population was mainly achieved by introduction (this is disputed by Whitehead, who believed the eastern lowlands were mainly colonised by surviving native roe still living in Lanarkshire woodlands). However, it is known that the Marquis of Bute introduced some roe to his Culzean Estate in Ayrshire at the beginning of the 19th century. Finding conditions extremely favourable, these roe quickly spread eastwards and eventually met another expanding population, introduced to Nithsdale around 1860 by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry at his Drumlanrig Castle Estate.

Wales has recently seen the return of the roe deer, where it has been extinct for centuries. In the mid-1980s the species pushed across the English border into Wales in the Mortimer Forest area. Roe now occupy much of the land from the English border westwards to the Cardigan area, stopping just short of the coast and as far north as Bangor.

A red-letter outing at the bucks. Photos above and below: Sean Scott

In Ireland, roe deer have a brief but illustrious history. The species was never indigenous to the country, but a few were liberated at Lissadell, Co Sligo, and appeared initially to do quite well. Some of these bucks later produced enormous multipoint heads, which are still the talk of trophy enthusiasts. These roe originated from Dupplin Castle, Perthshire (an area that continues to produce quality trophies today), and were liberated at Lissadell Estate in the early 1870s by Sir Henry Gore-Booth Bt. These roe survived for half a century and a few spread into Co Mayo, but they were never very numerous despite a later attempt to supplement stock. After the area was planted with forestry, the deer damage wasn’t tolerated, and the species was quickly shot out of existence and disappeared from Ireland completely.

There is no doubt that the fate of this species has been reversed in a dramatic manner. Many reasons are probably responsible for this, but there can be little doubt that all the reasons originate at the hand of man.

As sporting a quarry as the species is, it mustn’t be forgotten that roe deer can unfortunately cause significant damage to forestry by reducing tree regeneration, browsing saplings, and fraying intensively. Actual economic losses in forestry due to roe deer are hard to quantify, but overall management costs are much more easily assessed. The amount spent by the Forestry Commission in Scotland alone runs into millions of pounds a year.

As stalkers both amateur and professional, we have a duty to manage our burgeoning roe population and do our best to prevent damage to forestry and farming interests. There are already murmurs from the unenlightened who would press for unethical forms of control and unnecessary shooting season extensions to halt the spread of all UK deer. It would certainly be a very sad day indeed to see the status of the roe deer downgraded to that of a pest species – it is up to us to ensure that never happens.

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