Roe may eat fungi, but their venison is a fantastic base for wild mushroom dishes…
Britain has six species of deer, but only two are truly native. Today red deer are effectively confined to Scotland and isolated parts of the West Country, but roe are not just common locally but positively in plague proportions in many areas.
Although most people will have seen roe grazing along a woodland edge or bounding in front of the car, they are still far more numerous than most people imagine. A couple of years ago I was driving along the M4 just before dusk. I spotted 17 roe grazing in the adjacent fields as I sped between Newbury and Bristol. At first glance this is good news for a species which was hunted to extinction across most of England by the 16th century. Their recovery began with reintroductions in the South East from Germany during the 19th century. Ironically, this was to provide quarry for the new aristocratic mania for shooting, but whatever the motive, the newcomers thrived and they are now easily our commonest deer.
Certainly the local habitat is ideal for this lover of woodland edges. This means the broken landscape of the South East is perfect and they have even taken to suburbia as a good substitute with its mix of grass, shrubs and cover. Better still from the deer’s perspective, the police frown on ownership of the high-powered firearms necessary to control them – particularly in urban areas. As a result, numbers have exploded over the past 30 years and the trend looks set to continue – so much so that some scientists are seriously proposing the reintroduction of extinct predators such as lynx and even wolves.
The smaller of our indigenous deer is a medium-sized creature, (60-75 cm at the shoulder and weighing 20 – 30 kg). The adults are generally chestnut red in summer, changing to dark brown in winter. Bucks grow short, spiky, antlers in winter. Unlike red stags which use their antlers in tests of strength, roe bucks rarely fight, but instead batter their antlers against young trees to remove the ‘velvet’ skin covering and to mark their territories in the lead to the rut. This process begins around now and peaks in June when mating takes place. Uniquely among deer, the embryo (or embryos because the doe can give birth to twins or even triplets) stays in a state of suspended animation until the New Year when it implants in the womb wall and the fawns are born in late May.
Roe feed mainly at dawn and dusk and are selective browsers, favouring leaves and shoots over grass. This leads to problems, because in woodland they prevent natural regeneration by nipping off the growing tips of saplings, while in gardens they have a taste for expensive garden shrubs (they are particularly fond of roses). In addition, the bucks’ destructive rutting behaviour can lead to serious damage to timber crops. In woodland the only real solution is to fit all saplings with tree guards, but these are expensive. Some gardeners have also experimented with buying lion dung from zoos and placing it around valuable plants – however not always with success.
Most importantly perhaps, they are a serious road traffic hazard, particularly in local leafy lanes. Indeed the problem is sufficiently severe for the Highways Agency to fund a Deer Collision Project in collaboration with interested forestry, farming and conservation bodies. This found there were as many deer accidents within 30 miles of London as in the whole of Scotland and thus roe are responsible for more of the annual 30 – 50,000 road traffic accidents than any other species. One solution is to put up deer fences, but this is costly and the scientists suspect it is often wasted effort as the creatures can slip through the smallest gap and clear six foot barriers.