Encounters with deer in the New Forest

In which I meet a little Roe doe and glimpse a tall Fallow buck

Their coats were neither grey nor spotted, but a rich, dark dun against which their raised tails fanned out whitely. They looked very beautiful stealing away through the gloomy pine trunks, now shadowy as a myth, now brightly barred with gold as they passed through the shafts of sunlight.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934 

I was walking in the New Forest woods recently – in a proper plantation of serried ranks of conifers – feeling a little downheartened. The working forestry conifer plantations can do that to me – no fault of theirs, but the straight rows of tall, thin trees have an air of melancholy, as if they know their life will be short (for a tree). This is not helped by them often having to overlook piles of felled logs, daubed with paint on the cut end and accompanied by signs warning humans of danger. I realise this is a fanciful description, and that the trees cannot see the logs with human eyes, but from what we now know of tree communication, I wonder if there is some level on which they know of the death of their companions. Of course, I’m not advocating against well-managed and sustainable forestry, far from it – I’m just describing the mood that often descends on me in a working conifer plantation. 

The serried ranks of a conifer plantation in the New Forest

My walk, however, ended in a far more upbeat and exciting way. Firstly, walking along a narrow ride, I heard some pulling of branches and chomping to my right. There, only a few metres away, was a pair of Fallow deer antlers swinging up and down left to right. They blended in so well with the Bracken that at first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, until the deer sensed me, lifted his head, stared me out boldly and then scarpered quickly out of sight. There was no time for a photograph, but the moment is imprinted on my mind’s eye just as clearly as a digital copy – more so, in fact.

Then, a little later and back on the main track, out from between the thin pillar shapes of the trees, a Roe deer – a dainty doe – sprang from the shadows and onto the gravel path just ahead. She paused, gave me a look, and then leaped into a large patch of ferns and thorns nearby, where she started to browse. While keeping a careful eye on me, she quite clearly felt herself in no danger, and went on feasting while I watched her from a respectful distance, completely enchanted by her clear-faced features, delicate movements, and rust-coloured coat already turning to winter grey, and then took some photographs. I was as quiet as possible, but she lifted her head at every small noise, though not in any real alarm: she was just checking, and went straight back to eating. Nonetheless, so as not to disturb her too much, I said farewell after a few all-too-short minutes and walked on, feeling much happier than before we’d met.

The Roe doe peeked at me from among the Bracken

Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon), in whose boot- and paw-steps I have now journeyed on several walks in the New Forest, loved deer. Mr. Bundy was interested but too polite to do anything about it; Bill was wont to get over-excited and attempt to give chase, much to Joan’s despair; while Joan herself was always completely thrilled to see them. I have sometimes wondered at this, as they are not uncommon in our time. Joan, of course, was writing in the 1930s, some eighty years after the New Forest Deer Removal Act of 1851 legislated to exterminate all deer from the Forest. It wasn’t completely successful, and deer soon began to wander back, but maybe it was still the case that numbers were lower than today.

There are five species of deer in the New Forest: Fallow (the most numerous, at around 1,300 individuals), Roe (300 to 400 individuals), and then some Red (c. 90), a few Sika (established after escaping from the Beaulieu Estate in the early 1900s) and very small numbers of Muntjac. 

Fallow deer are therefore those you are most likely to encounter, but you might well see Roe. Here are some ways to tell them apart:

  • Roes are smaller than Fallows (think goat or sheep-sized).
  • Roes tend to be solitary, except during the rut, but you may see a doe still accompanied by last year’s young. Fallows are usually in herds. I was taught a saying to tell Rooks and Crows apart: “If you see one Rook, it’s a Crow; if you see lots of Crows, they’re Rooks”, i.e. Rooks are gregarious and Crows are not, on the whole. You could apply the same to Roe and Fallow Deer: “If you see one or two Fallows, then they’re probably Roes, but see a herd of Roes, and they’re Fallows.”
  • The Roe has a lovely russet coloured summer coat which turns grey-brown in winter, but has no spots, though the fawns have a few markings (think Bambi, who was a Roe). Fallow adults retain spotted markings (though there is a lot of colour variation).
  • Male Roes have small pointy antlers with up to three prongs, whereas male Fallows have branching palmate antlers.
  • Fallows have a white rump outlined in black and a black-and-white tail, while Roes have a buff-coloured rump but no tail (though females have a tuft of white-ish hair that doubles as a tail). 
  • Fallows rut in the early autumn, whereas Roes rut in mid-July to mid-August. They give birth to young at the same time (around May), though, as Roes employ a nifty trick. Development of the fertilised egg doesn’t begin for four months or so, in a process called delayed implantation. Roes are the only ruminant that does this. Clever Roes. 
This is a herd of Fallows I saw in the distance by Islands Thorns Inclosure a few months ago. You can just about make out their distinctive black and white rumps, and the spreading palmate antlers of the buck (left of centre).

Joan never says in Walking in the New Forest which species she is seeing, but she describes them so well, in her usual observant and engaging style, that it’s usually possible to make a pretty good guess. 

Up the curve of the knoll she went, rapping the hollow-sounding ground with her hard little hoofs, at each lengthening leap flipping her legs close to her golden-brown body, ears cocked forward, head stretched towards the trees, snowy tail spread like a tiny triangular sail.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

The coat colour of the deer described here strongly suggests a Roe, assuming the ‘tail’ is the hair tuft.

…We were completely taken by surprise when a quick movement against some hollies discovered a small herd of deer affrightedly gazing at us…Away they went like lightning, snaking in and out of the trunks of hollies and beeches with such bewildering pace that they were swallowed up before we had quite taken in what we had seen, or had time to count them.

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest

In the second quotation, I’d assume Fallows, mainly because they are in a herd.

The things I love best about Roe deer are their white chins, shiny noses, and general daintiness.

Joan is much more likely to have seen Fallow than Roe Deer. Her own little line drawings of deer in Walking in the New Forest are of the former (you can tell from the shape of the antlers). At the time of the 1851 Deer Removal Act, there would have been no Roes in the New Forest at all. They had already become extinct in England by 1800, due to forest clearance (these are mainly a species of woodland edges, clearings and fields) and over-hunting. However, the Victorians made a few Roe Deer reintroductions, including in next-door Dorset, and some of these made their way into the Forest during the later parts of the nineteenth century, though it took until the 1920s for them to be fully re-established. Heywood Sumner comments in the early years of the twentieth century:

I have never seen roe-deer in the Forest, but there are said to be some occasionally – strayed from Dorset where they are fairly plentiful, especially on the wooded slopes & combes of Bulbarrow, where I have twice seen them.

Heywood Sumner, The Book of Gorley, 1905

Roe and Red Deer are our only native species of deer, arriving here with the retreat of the glaciers in c. 10,000 BCE. Prehistoric peoples of Britain hunted them to use their meat for food, skin for clothing, and bones for tools. Fallows, on the other hand, are a Norman introduction (or possibly Roman, but that’s disputed, apparently). It’s good to know that Roes are once again widely distributed across most of the UK (including in Scotland, from where they never became extinct, and from where the Victorians took Roe for their reintroductions over the border).

I wonder if the brave little Roe Deer I met in the woods was descended from Scottish deer brought down to Dorset from Scotland. Whether that’s so or not, I was glad to meet her.

Here’s a list of website and books I used to find out about Roe and Fallow Deer in the New Forest:

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