Once upon a time, if you had a country house, you had to have deer too. At Studley Royal, part of the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal World Heritage Site, there are deer and a deer park….. but no country house.
There was a medieval manor house once. That burnt down in 1716. John Aislabie, who inherited the site, and was responsible for the magnificent water gardens here, rebuilt the site as a Palladian mansion. That burnt down too, in 1946. There is no house any more. But there are some 350 deer.
And on Saturday afternoon, we went to see them, and to find out more. We’d been promised a grey but tolerable day. In fact, it was grey and intolerable, with drizzle turning to driving rain. But if the deer – some 350 of them – could manage, so could we.
Some of them are red deer, the native species of the British Isles, and the largest.
Some are fallow deer. These were introduced to Britain by the Normans, and became prized as ornamental animals, and for hunting. They’re smaller than red deer, and perhaps seen as prettier. They can come in two shades of tan with spotted coats, or in some cases black, or even white. Look at their antlers: quite different from those of the red deer.
And some are sika. They look a little like darker versions of fallow deer (not the antlers though), and were introduced from China and Japan in the 19th century.
We learnt to distinguish one from the other by looking at their size, their antlers, their coats, their markings, their tails. We learnt that deer are responsible for the very neat way in which the trees in the park are finished off. Deer graze the leaves they can reach, thus leaving all the lowest branches and twigs at exactly the same height. They’ll all happily munch bramble, gorse and nettles too: stinging leaves and prickly thorns don’t worry them at all.
At this time of year the males are losing their antlers. They lose and re-grow them every year, which is a terrific drain on their energy, so they tend to take things fairly easy while this is happening in the early summer. Each year until they’re aged 10 or so, they’ll grow larger antlers than the year before, and with more points. New antlers are velvety, so stags will spend time rubbing this soft coating off by scraping their new accessories against the dead wood that’s deliberately left lying in the deer park. They’ll want them to be good and ready for the rutting season when they’ll wrestle other males in the quest to be the females’ Top Stag.
They’ll also enjoy a wallow. We saw muddy depressions here and there where deer have lain down to have a good old scratch and bathe in thick oozy mud. At this time of year it’s to help free themselves of their winter coat as they moult. But it’s a different story in the breeding season. Males urinate into the earth to make it even muddier. Then they’ll roll round in the resulting muddy soup. Their splendid appearance and smell as they rise up, magnificently coated in sticky earth and bits of vegetation makes them thoroughly alluring to the females they hope to attract.
On Saturday, the deer were edgy, a little spooked. Nobody knew why. The large groups we saw were always at a distance, always ready to bolt away. The three varieties of deer don’t really mix, but neither do they feel the need to place real distance between themselves. We didn’t get to see them at close quarters. But we saw them well enough to distinguish one species from another with increasing confidence. A good day then, despite the increasingly dirty weather. We’ll be back when the sun shines, to visit the deer again.
Thanks to members of the volunteer Wildlife Team at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal for our afternoon with the deer.