The Adaptable Fallow Deer
Charles Smith-Jones is Technical Adviser to the British Deer Society (BDS). A regular writer on matters concerning deer, his latest book is A Guide to the Deer of the World which will be published by Quiller Publishing in July 2022. All photos in this blog are Charles’.
The fallow deer Dama dama is not a true native of the British Isles. Its natural origins lie in the Mediterranean region of southern Europe but it has been transplanted around the world by humans since Roman times if not even earlier, and it has adapted readily to many new habitats and climates. Today it can be found across much of Europe and as far afield as the Americas, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa.
Although there is archaeological evidence that some fallow were brought to Britain by the Romans, it is generally accepted that really large-scale introductions were made by the Normans following their arrival in 1066. The fallow quickly became an important feature of many medieval deer parks and enclosures where it was kept, firstly as a food resource and then as a status symbol prized for its looks. Many wild fallow populations today have their origins in escapes from these early deer parks. Elsewhere it was also once an important beast of the chase, the right to hunt it being jealously guarded by the nobility of the time and surrounded by a chivalric language of its own.
The fallow is an attractive and graceful medium-sized deer, a mature buck standing about a metre high at the shoulder while does are somewhat smaller at around 80 cm. The long tail is active and frequently twitched from side to side. Disturbed animals have a characteristic pronking or stotting gait in which the deer departs with a bouncing motion in which all four feet leave the ground at the same time.
The antlers of bucks are typically complex, broad and palmate (spade-shaped) with rear protrusions (spellers) and prominent brow and secondary tines. Yearling bucks usually just have simple spike antlers, but these develop over subsequent annual casting and regrowth until they reach full adult dimensions by around the sixth or seventh year. In some places palmation is not universal, and antlers may have no more than flattened tips even on mature animals.
The fallow is unusual among deer in that it exists in at least four recognised colour varieties, most probably as a result of selective breeding in deer parks. The common is probably the most familiar with its spotted red-brown summer coat which becomes an unspotted ‘two tone’ of dark brown upper body with a lighter grey below in winter. The menil is similar to the common, though somewhat paler; spotting remains visible on the lighter but coarser winter coat. The coat of the melanistic fallow is a glossy black with dark grey underparts, changing to a more matt black in winter. Finally, there is a white variety which remains white or cream-coloured throughout the year. These animals have normal dark eyes and hooves and are not albino.
A unique long-haired variety of fallow can be found in the vicinity of Ludlow, England, the only place in the world where they are known to exist. The coat of the long-haired fallow can be as much as three times longer in places, particularly the crown of the head, ears and tail, than that of a normal specimen.
The annual rut of the fallow takes place around October and is one nature’s most impressive spectacles, with the master bucks parading on their rutting stands as they utter loud belching groans and display to attract the attention of watching does. Fights between bucks can be frequent and intense. The single fawn is usually born the following June or July.
The fallow is a social deer and occasionally herds numbering over a hundred animals, and sometimes many more, might be encountered where population densities are high. Although deer are undeniably important and attractive members of our fauna, excessive numbers can cause significant ecological problems with some herds seriously impacting on the habitat they frequent through excessive browsing which stifles regeneration.
Human activities can also be seriously affected. Precise figures are difficult to come by, but one Defra report estimated the cost of agricultural damage caused by deer at around £4.4 million a year. By far the greatest damage appears to be suffered by high-value vegetable crops in the east and southwest of England. Another report has put the overall annual cost to the economy of eastern England alone at between £7 million and £10 million. Road traffic accidents are also an increasing cause for concern with as many as 74,000 deer/vehicle collisions every year across the UK. The effect of a speeding motor vehicle hitting an animal that might weigh over 100 kg can be catastrophic for both deer and driver.
To end on a more positive note, fears that deer might be vectors for the tick-borne Borrelia virus which causes Lyme disease now seem to be unfounded. Rather than passing on the virus, current research suggests that, while deer are but one of many end-hosts for the ticks responsible for carrying Lyme, there is no confirmed link between deer densities and tick burdens. Indeed, it appears that some bird species are far more significant carriers, and that the natural antibodies carried by deer may actually cleanse a feeding tick of the Borrelia bacteria.
We need to establish the spread and current presence of the fallow deer across the UK so that we can fully understand its impact on the countryside. You can help us to do this by recording your sightings on the Mammal Society’s Mammal Mapper.
Illustration – BDS 216 Deer Distribution Survey map for fallow
Key to colour codes:
Dark brown – confirmed only in 2016
Brown – reconfirmed in 2016 (recorded in 2007 and/or 2011)
Orange – unconfirmed in 2016 (recorded in 2007 and/or 2011)