The Deer Park
Red deer and fallow deer can now be seen in what is termed The Wilderness, a lightly wooded area, the remains of the East Wilderness laid out in the 17th century and now enclosed as the Deer Park.
Deer are said to have been introduced by Henry VIII in 1515 for hunting in a park that was then rough and full of trees and scrub. His hunting dogs were kept across the river on the Isle of Dogs. The deer roamed freely in Greenwich Park until 1927 when the increase in motor traffic and many more visitors led to them being shut in at weekends and then moved permanently to the Deer Park in the south east corner of the Park.
The two small herds of red and fallow deer now live and breed in the Deer Park and can be seen from several viewing points in the Flower Gardens. One of these, in the Secret Garden Wildlife Centre, has one-way glass and backs into their enclosure so the deer can come close enough to touch the glass; they tend to come to this area in the afternoons. There is also the deer hide, right in the heart of the Deer Park, accessible via the WC and nature trail. The WC is open regularly on the last Wednesday of the month (see Events) and an ‘A’ board sign is put out when it is open to the public, to indicate the position of the rather concealed entrance.
Management of the Deer in Greenwich Park
The management of the deer in the enclosure differs from management of deer in the wild. A high fence has to surround the enclosure because the deer are capable of jumping up to eight feet.
In the wild, deer have different feeding patterns. Here, red and fallow have been chosen both because they are close nibblers, and because they come up close to the wire. New trees have to be protected from nibbling. Unlike those in the wild, deer in the Park are fed throughout the year, with “deer nuts”, which are a made-up food containing proteins and minerals. During October and November when they are putting on weight, root and green vegetables are added to their diet.
Whereas in the wild deer occur at two or three to the hectare, in the Park there are ten to twelve to the hectare. Numbers have to be controlled and the sex and age mixes are considered when culling. A pyramid method is used to calculate how many young there should be, and the make-up of the family groups is considered. Because of the space constraint, the agreed population is 1 buck and 16 does for the fallow deer and 1 stag and 12 hinds for the red deer.
The red and fallow deer herds remain separate, largely ignoring one another, although sometimes the red deer may push the fallow deer away to get at the best grass. They are different species and do not breed with each other. The Park’s herds are probably descended from the originals brought in by Henry VIII.
Fallow deer can vary in colour from very dark brown to white. The tail has a black stripe running along its length. A young male fallow deer is called a ‘pricket’, a mature male a ‘buck’ and a female a ‘doe’. Fallow deer live to between ten and twelve years of age, and the does can breed at 18 months of age, producing only single offspring or, very exceptionally, twins. The fallow fawns are born in May or June, weigh about 4.5kg, and are lightly spotted to provide good camouflage.
Fallow deer are smaller than red deer. The bucks measure 90 to 95 cm at the shoulder, the females 80 to 85 cm. Fallow deer bucks weigh 70kg and the females about 45kg.
Fallow deer died out in this country during the Ice Age and were probably reintroduced by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Keeping deer in parks was started by the Norman lords who wanted them for food and to look attractive.
The best fallow herd is found at Bushy Park, and sometimes young bloodstock is brought in from there. Herd composition is managed with a view to achieving the best herd. The prickets are left to develop for three or four years, then the best are picked out to stay on as bucks. If there are too many bucks they would fight, and could die from internal bleeding after being stabbed by antlers.
Red deer are dark red or brown with a cream underbelly, inner thighs and rump. The newborn calves or fawns are initially spotted, providing good camouflage in dappled woodland. They lose their spots at about two months.
A mature male is called a ‘stag’, a female a ‘hind’ and the young ‘calves’ or ‘fawns’.
Red deer are larger than fallow deer, with a stag measuring 101 to 112cm to the shoulder, and a female measuring 42 to 54cm. Red deer stags weigh 90 to 190kg and females 57 to 115kg. Calves weigh around 6kg when they are born and are suckled by their mothers every two to three hours for the first few days. When they are very small they like to hide in long grass or nettle patches, with mother keeping guard at a slight distance. Such patches are deliberately left uncut in the Wilderness until the last of the calves has progressed beyond needing this shelter. Hinds, between the ages of three and 13 years, usually produce a single calf after a gestation period of eight months, in early to mid June.
Red deer survived the last Ice Age and became an important source of food for the early people of Britain.
Antlers are made of bone not horn. They are shed and grown again every year, getting bigger as the animals mature. They start growing in June and have reached full size and hardened off by September, ahead of the rut in late October. They are cast between April and May.
The bone is quite tender when it is growing and looks as if it is covered in velvet. When the bone hardens after 12 to 16 weeks, the velvet falls off or is rubbed off on trees.
Re-growing antlers each year takes a great deal of energy so how well they grow indicates how well they have fed and their state of health.
Fallow deer have what is known as palmated antlers (they look like the palm of your hand) whereas red deer have antlers with points or tines (12 points is known as a ‘Royal’)
We have many sets of antlers in the WC, some covered in velvet and visitors can handle them and feel the weight.
In the wild, male deer want to have as many females as they can in their family group (harem). The more females in the group, the better the chance the male has of passing on his genes in his offspring. Only one male has the opportunity to breed each year and he demonstrates his prowess by fighting off other males and impressing the females with his thick neck muscles and his deep repetitive bellowing in the rutting (mating) season.