The Red Deer of the Peak District - photograph special
- Credit: Archant
A look at the issues surrounding Big Moor’s red deer population
Britain’s largest land mammal is the red deer and over the last thousand years in Derbyshire they have suffered an incredible change in fortune.
Big grazers such as deer can be thought of as walking meat counters. For a poor family in the Middle Ages, when meat was something of a luxury, a dead deer would be nothing short of manna from heaven. Unfortunately, members of the Royal Family and the landed gentry liked nothing better than to hunt deer with hounds and arrows. They took a particularly dim view of the great unwashed having their share as well. Royal deer parks such as the Peak Forest were created as havens for deer where they could be hunted. However, by the late 17th century the large royal deer parks were slowly being weakened by an increase in agriculture and an erosion of the laws protecting them. Red deer numbers plummeted in the wild and by the reign of James I deer had effectively disappeared as wild animals.
However, some reds were kept in deer parks such as those at Chatsworth and Lyme Park. Over the years individuals escaped but up until recently these were shot and a wild population didn’t take a hoof-hold. In 1940 a captive herd was released near the Goyt Valley. I can’t find out if this population survived but most authorities claim that a wild herd has existed here since 1975.
Derbyshire’s second and growing herd of reds is based on Big Moor. These deer are probable escapees from Chatsworth that have been left to do what deer like doing naturally – breeding prolifically. This population has grown from three in the 1980s to between 30 and 40 by 2000. In 2010 three separate groups of reds were seen, with each totalling at least 35 animals, and estimates in an article in British Wildlife put the extended population ranging over the larger East Moor as 400 plus.
Big Moor is managed by the Eastern Moors Partnership (RSPB and the National Trust), who are doing a brilliant job increasing the wildlife potential of this well visited but fairly new site in terms of access. In the past much of Big Moor was managed as a water catchment area for Barbrook Reservoir. However, a few years ago this ceased to be an active reservoir and now has little water present. The moor has consequently been granted a greater level of access and more of us can now get to watch one of Derbyshire’s finest mammals, the red deer.
Red deer rut during the late autumn, with October being the key month, although many stags will practise roaring and managing a harem in September. Anyone keen to watch them needs to make an early start as the deer tend to perform best at dawn. Last year I put in a considerable amount of effort visiting the moor and had some magical experiences. Perhaps the best was one clear, cold morning with the moon hanging like a gigantic pale orb on the horizon. I had waited a long time for this to happen and I was desperate to try to get a stag into the same image.
Luckily as I walked on to the moor I quickly spotted a large stag – he didn’t take much finding as his roars advertised exactly where he was. I managed to worm my way through the wet grasses and heather so that I could silhouette him on the horizon next to the moon. I took a few minutes experimenting with camera settings before I could get my exposures right but when I did I just loved the images as I watched them arrive on the back of my camera.
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Over the next month I visited many times, learning which males could hold a harem of wilful hinds and which could not. Some of the larger stags could muster up a good 15 to 20 hinds while others that looked just as impressive clearly lacked the magical touch and stood forlornly bellowing loudly and chasing (always to no avail), any lone hinds that strayed.
The population on Big Moor has now reached a critical level and last year rose from 183 to 263 animals. Red deer are grazers and strayers. They will enter woodlands and browse young trees, local gardens are plundered, and when numbers build too much they can damage the delicate moorland plant life. All deer carry ticks which sporadically drop off and can get up trouser legs and even into your most secure places. Generally this is simply a bit inconvenient but on a more sinister note they could infect you with Lyme disease which, if left untreated, can be very serious. Red deer are big and heavy and regularly walk across roads. Hitting one in a car at 60mph creates a serious accident with potentially deadly consequences for the occupants as well as the deer.
The Eastern Moors Partnership has suggested an upper limit of 200 reds on Big Moor. If numbers exceed this then culling will take place to reduce the population. I was told by a local who lives adjacent to Big Moor that this took place sometime over the winter with 60 deer being shot. Culling is an emotive concept that not everyone agrees with. A recent proposed cull of red deer in the Peak District’s Dane Valley was opposed by many with a petition against it eventually being raised.
Red deer currently have no natural predators so the argument is simple – leave them alone and accept the consequences of their increased grazing – moorland plant damage and reduction in woodland regeneration, traffic accidents and Lyme disease – or reduce the population, which keeps it healthy, by culling. Reds in Derbyshire have become iconic animals and they are loved by many, including myself. Culling is probably necessary but then we have many moorlands without herds of reds and I would love to see these large and stunning animals spread more widely across Derbyshire’s uplands.