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Exmoor Stag & Red Deer

Deer species

There are six species of deer established in the wild in the u.k. They are the red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer. Only the red deer and roe are truly native but fallow were resident but died out and were reintroduced by either the Romans or Normans. Of the six species all except the chinese water deer and sika have been seen within Exmoor National Park during the last ten years. Red deer are the most common on Exmoor with an annual count recording around 2,500 – 3,000 on central Exmoor. Numbers of other species can only be guessed at but roe deer are common across all Exmoor although at lower densities and may be around 1,000 in number. Fallow deer are mainly in the east of Exmoor but expanding and spreading and are likely to be under 1,000 in number. Muntjac deer numbers are small again mainly in the east but expanding and increasing. No recent validated sightings of sika deer have been reported but validated sightings of Sika have recently been made within 10k of the ENP boundary. Sika are known to breed with the red deer resulting in fertile hybrids and this will dilute the purity of the native red deer and threaten their genetic integrity. On our Exmoor safari we will explain the differences between the deer breeds and where you are most likely to see them.

Exmoor red deer

The male red deer are called stags, the females hinds and the young calves. Stags are around four feet high at the shoulder and weigh about 300lbs while hinds are about three and a half feet at the shoulder and weigh around 200lbs. Only the stags have horns and these are unique to each deer. On Exmoor it is traditional to call the antlers horns even though they are not a horn but bone. The horns are cast every year and regrow. We will explain this process and how the horns change with age. In the wild it is unlikely many red deer live beyond 13 -14 years. The wild exmoor red deer eat a wide variety of food including heather, whortleberry, shrubs, saplings, fruits, moss, rushes and grasses. The red deer mating season is called the rut and this is a good time to see the Exmoor red deer especially the big old stags. In the rut we will try to find these stags for you and we will explain what happens during the rut . After around an eight month gestation period the red deer calves are born, most in June and July with white spots for camouflage. The red deer calves can stand and feed within the hour, at four days they can outrun a man and after seven to ten days they can run with their mother. We will explain the habits and life cycle of the Exmoor red deer on our Exmoor safari.

History of the Exmoor red deer

Red deer have lived on Exmoor for thousands of years. They used to be widespread across the whole British Isles but as the woodland which once covered our island was cut down and turned into farm land along with rapidly expanding towns and cities they lost their habitat and were exploited extensively being shot for meat and to reduce damage to crops. The end result was that the red deer disappeared from most of the British Isles except for Scotland and the south west of England. One of the main reasons the red deer survived on Exmoor was because they were protected for hunting, something which continues up to the present day. The Saxon kings hunted the wild red deer on Exmoor over 1000 years ago. When William the Conqueror took the crown he was keen on hunting and created the Royal Forest of Exmoor to protect the red deer. Exmoor was then under forest law which meant severe punishments such as blinding for those who killed exmoor red deer without authority. Dogs kept in the boundaries of the forest had to be lawed which involved cutting off three front toes so they could not be used to pursue game. Also no bows arrows or hounds could be kept within the forest. Despite these harsh laws people still killed the exmoor red deer and if caught would be punished by the local swainmote court which met at Landacre Bridge and Hawkridge churchyard or the higher court of the Forest Eyre held at Ilchester every three years. In 1508 Henry VII leased the forest to Sir Edmund Carew who had a licence to hunt the red deer. Up until the sale of the Royal forest in 1818 the forest wardens had authority to hunt the red deer, the last being Sir Thomas Ackland who was master of the North Devon staghounds. In 1811 exmoor red deer numbers were estimated at 200 by Lord Graves who was master of the Staghounds. In 1825 the last pack of thoroughbred Staghounds was sold to a German Baron and hunting of the Exmoor red deer stopped. In the following years without the protection of the hunts, the red deer numbers plummeted to below 100 due to poaching and shooting and the herd was in danger of extinction. In an attempt to save the exmoor red deer, the Devon and Somerset Staghounds were formed in1855 and gradually the exmoor red deer numbers recovered because the local people along with land owners and farmers who supported the hunt created safe areas and cover for the red deer and effectively helped to reduce shooting and poaching to save the deer for hunting. In 1881 exmoor red deer numbers had recovered to about 500. By 1900 there were around 1,500 red deer on Exmoor but during the first world war they fell back to around 700. In 1980 exmoor red deer numbers were estimated at 1,000, 1990 1,500 and today between 2,500 – 3,000.

Management of the Exmoor red deer

The Exmoor red deer cause a great deal of damage eating saplings root crops and grass. If numbers were not controlled it would be impossible to farm large areas of Exmoor. Without their natural predator the wolf their numbers would increase rapidly leading to an unnatural high density which would cause considerable damage to their habitat. If not culled by man their fate in the wild is usually death by starvation as their teeth fall out when they get older and they can’t eat or death by parasites, disease or injury, none of which are quick or painless.

On Exmoor the exmoor red red deer are culled in two ways, firstly by rifle. Culling by rifle is the most common way to cull deer for much of the British Isles as it is the only practical way. It does have its problems though. Many people think that the trigger is pulled and the deer falls down dead but this is often not the case. Red deer have acute senses. They can scent a human up to a mile away and hear them from about a quarter of a mile away if the wind is in the right direction. They also have good eyesight but only see black and white. This makes it difficult to get close to the red deer especially on open moorland where there is no cover. When shooting with a rifle in open country they are often shot from a distance of around 100 yards. When shooting red deer outdoors on uneven ground with the wind blowing aiming at a moving target it is impossible to clean kill every time. If the gun is moved a millimetre or two then over the shooting distance the bullet will be several inches away from the killing zone which is quite small, usually the brain or heart. Many people who shoot exmoor red dear are not marksman and there is no test of your ability to shoot when you apply for a licence. Some deer are clean killed by a rifle bullet, others are hit and die within a few minutes but a number are injured and escape, usually to dense undergrowth or woodland where they cannot be found. They then die slowly and painfully from loss of blood or infection sometimes over many days or even weeks. Most of us who have lived on Exmoor have seen the casualties which occur during poaching and legitimate shooting. Rifle bullets will travel several miles so if the shooter misses there is a risk to other users of the moor. There are numerous bridleways footpaths and areas of open access on Exmoor so this is a real risk. The other problem with rifle shooting is that the majority of shooters only have access to relatively small areas of land and cannot operate a managed culling policy of the red deer across the whole of Exmoor. Many of them only want to shoot young red deer so they can sell the carcass for meat or the big stags so they can sell the heads or mount them on their wall. They are not generally interested in culling sick, injured or diseased animals as they would have to pay to dispose of the carcass at a licensed premises. Shooting alone on Exmoor is therefore unlikely to lead to a balanced cull of the exmoor red dear and can lead to one type of deer being exploited such as the big stags. This has happened already on parts of Exmoor and the Quantock Hills and in these areas it is almost impossible to find a good quality mature stag today.

As well as legitimate shooting poaching of the red dear also goes on but it is the presence of the hunts which has historically limited poaching. The hunting people, the landowners and farmers actively monitor and protect the red dear herds from poachers and exert pressure on suspects to refrain. This is a far more effective method than any other. The police have little time to spend chasing poachers and there are not enough officers to be effective. Passing further laws to stop red dear poaching will not work as the culprits are fully aware the laws are almost impossible to enforce. Ironically in the 1800s hunting of the red deer stopped for several years and rather than prosper the deer numbers plummeted to below 100 and they were in danger of extinction. This shows what happens when the wild exmoor red deer lose the protection given to them by the local hunting people with large scale persecution of the red deer from indiscriminate shooting and poaching as many people try to make money out of the deer. Hunting was restarted in an attempt to save the red deer of Exmoor and gradually over many years numbers steadily increased up to their current levels. This is a prime example of how to preserve a species.

Firstly you have to work with the local population and get them on side rather than dictate to or oppose them. When they have an interest in protecting the species, such as for hunting on Exmoor they will. They will also be able to operate far more effectively in providing that protection than people from outside the area who have no or little experience and no local knowledge or contacts. Impose laws on local people banning what they do and dictating to them from afar as has been done by the urban politicians acting on politically correct motives without any understand of what happens on the ground and this usually leads to disaster. The current hunting act allows flushing of wild mammals to guns and hunting for observation and study using two hounds only and the red deer hunts use these exemptions to continue. As is often the case when legislation is brought by people who have not been brought up in the countryside, not been involved in wildlife management and have no knowledge on the subject based on real experience the end result has the opposite effect than that intended.

This hunting ban has lead to increased suffering of the wild red deer as it is very difficult to locate sick, injured and diseased red deer in the hundreds of acres of dense woodland that exists on Exmoor using only two hounds. This is because sick or injured red deer often with bullet wounds will sit tight and be very difficult to locate and flush out. Pre ban, when the pack could be used (30 hounds) these red deer were usually found and dispatched quickly. Using hounds is the only way these red deer can be located. The hunts are the only organisation to offer this casualty service and it is free of charge. Without the hunts the suffering of these exmoor red deer would be severe and protracted.

The hunts cull the Exmoor red deer using guns and always have done in modern times even before the ban was imposed. Hunting generally has the support of the majority of local landowner’s farmers and people who have always lived on Exmoor as they understand the importance of the hunts in protecting the red deer. Most opposition comes from people who have moved into the Exmoor area or from people outside the area who have little knowledge and no experience on the subject but very strong views. As the hunts have general support they can hunt over most of Exmoor and unlike the shooters operate a coordinated cull. They also disperse the red deer herds over a wide area reducing the damage to individual farmers. The hunts have no financial interest in culling the wild exmoor red deer and their only interest is in preserving the deer as without the red deer there would be no hunting. This leads to a more considerate and balanced management compared to shooting where the exmoor red deers survival and welfare is the top priority.

The hunts use harbourers who are local men with a lifetime’s knowledge of Exmoor and the red deer to monitor the herds. They will advise the huntsman on what red deer need to be culled. Local people will report injured, sick or diseased deer to the harbourers who will advise the huntsman where to look for them. These red deer will always get priority on any hunting day and there is nobody else who will or can deal with these red deer on Exmoor. In the autumn the hunt culls the old stags as these will be losing their teeth and find it difficult to feed. They also cull the old Exmoor stags at this time to stop them mating with their own offspring which would not be good for the genetics of the herd. In the winter they cull red deer hinds again giving priority to the old, sick or injured. In the spring they cull the young Exmoor stags which will generally be in good health so the harbourer will prioritise those with deformities, or the smaller and less good examples. This careful management has lead to the spectacular red deer herds that we now see on the moor which are the most numerous and best examples of their kind in England.

On a hunting day the right deer will be selected and the huntsman will try to find it using his two hounds. Once the right deer is found and roused it will run. The deer will be shot as soon as it is safe to do so. Red deer have evolved to outrun wolves so they have good stamina. About half the hunted exmoor red deer escape and logically they are more likely to be the fitter and healthier ones. Those red deer which cannot out run the hounds stand at bay usually in water such as a river. This is a natural instinct which has evolved because wolves will not go into the water. The hounds are trained not to attack the deer so when it stands at bay they surround it and bay at it (bark). This is usually the safest time to shoot it. The baying hounds alert the huntsman who will ride down to the river and then blow a special note on his horn to inform the men with guns that the deer is at bay. There will be several men on horseback carrying guns in saddle bags. The guns will dismount and walk up to the red deer and as it is at bay and surrounded by the hounds it will not move. The guns can then shoot the red deer from close quarters often around 10 feet away leading to a clean quick kill every time. With hunting on Exmoor there is no wounding of the red deer and hunted deer which escape don’t suffer any adverse affect from a hunt often being seen the next day back where they were found.

Evolution has provided them with speed and stamina to outrun wolves so they are well able to cope with the physical exersion of a hunt.

The hunters are often called toffs and accused of killing for fun by the animal rights groups. Those who live on Exmoor understand the reality which is that the people who hunt are from across the social spectrum. Yes, a few people are a bit posh and the media always tend to show them on the television rather than speak to the working man in the flat cap who follows in his car. For every posh person there are probably ten ordinary working folk who follow the hunts.

The accusation of killing for fun does not stand up either. The majority of people who hunt never see a kill so if that was why they went they would be very disappointed. Most people who hunt on Exmoor do so to see the exmoor red deer and follow the hounds. The challenge is to keep up with the hounds on horseback or in a vehicle as they race over all types of terrain and that is what the followers enjoy. Many times great days can be had and nothing killed at all. Replacing the hunting of a quarry with an artificial scent will not work as a man cannot run as fast nor can he cross the same terrain as a wild animal. Scent trails laid by man are limited and more predictable so the followers will not get the same unpredictable fast ride they do in a traditional hunt. Without the followers paying to hunt the hunt cannot exist and the majority of them would not pay to follow an artificial scent over Exmoor. At the end of the day the red deer have to be culled and under the current system if they can’t outrun the hounds they will be shot. This is the way it has been done on Exmoor for hundreds of years and lead to the finest red deer herds in England. If ignorant politically correct politicians are successful in stopping hunting then the red deer of Exmoor will be in the greatest peril.