Richly coloured, erect, huge antlers branching from their stately heads, red deer (Cervus elephus) are forest royalty. Majestic and aloof, red deer share a long history with the nobility of Britain. In the Middle Ages, monarchs restricted large land areas as royal hunting ‘forest’. In modern times, deer stalking is a hobby associated with the gentry and in Scotland large areas of land are managed purely for this pastime. Deer are significant in British and Irish folklore. In the opening passages of the Mabinogion, Pwyll is hunting in the forest when he becomes separated from his companions. Finding some hounds feasting on a white hart, he drives them off, allowing his own hounds to feed instead, a break of etiquette that incites the challenge of their owner, Arawn, Lord of Annwn. This tale is in keeping with Celtic folkloric tradition, where the appearance of a white hart signifies a transgression, and the colour white has symbolic links with the Underworld. In English folklore, the white hart is associated with Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt. The formidable horned horseman, Herne, careens over the land on dark and forsaken nights, gathering any lost souls he encounters. Arthurian legend present white harts allegorically, its capricious avoidance of capture an analogy of humanity’s spiritual quest.
Red deer are the largest mammals in the UK. They roam on moor and mountainside, in woodland and grassland. In rutting season stags’ guttural roars lacerate the autumn countryside, the hills ringing with the clashing of antlers as battle is done over territory and hinds. Outside the rut, deer live in same-sex herds, wandering through the countryside feeding on grass, shrubs, and woodland browse. Mature males, whose dominance peaks at around eight years of age, can hold harems of up to twenty hinds, which give birth in late spring after an eight-month gestation period. Hind breeding ages and cycles vary between woodland and hill-dwelling deer, with woodland deer maturing more quickly. Fawns have the famous Bambi-like spotted fur, which rusts to a reddish brown as they age. Stags’ antlers continue to grow, and mature males can have sixteen points in their antlers; formidable weapons in the territorial fights of the rut.
Red deer are native to Wales but the native population has long since died out. They were hunted by Mesolithic man as a food source, and for their skin and bones, which were made into clothes and tools. Deer declined rapidly as Neolithic man cleared land for agriculture, and so dwindled to a few scattered populations, mainly in the Scottish Highlands, which is still a stronghold for them today. Welsh feral populations have increased in recent decades as escapees from parks have naturally spread to create wild populations. Little is known about the red deer of Wales and they are seldom seen; naturally elusive and cautious of open land, they favour the safety of the depths of dense woodland. They are active all day but tend to be crepuscular, active mainly at dawn and dusk.
Large browsers like red deer impact our ecosystems with their behaviour. They disturb soil and vegetation with their rootling, trampling and feeding habits, and as roaming nomads they also help transfer seeds and nutrients. Deer, and other mega fauna of old with similar behaviours, like bison, wild boar and wild horses are lacking or missing entirely from most of the British landscape. Out of control deer populations can cause problems through their tree and shrub eating behaviour, damaging trees and preventing saplings from reaching maturity, but of course, in the UK they are without the native predators that keep check of their numbers, like wolves, bears and lynx. However, well balanced populations can help create healthy ecosystems and it is thought that deer behaviour helps maintain a mosaic of habitats, such as forest, grassland and woodland glades. What’s more, they belong here, whether grazing in the misty haze of an early spring dawn, or whispering through the winter fog of the uplands, they are an iconic part of our landscape and an enchanting part of our history.