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Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer, Whitworth © Terry Coult

Fallow Dama dama are the only British deer where the male (buck) has palmate (hand-like) antlers, which are cast and renewed annually each summer. Fallow Deer are intermediate in size between Red Deer Cervus elaphus and Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, with males standing around 93 cm at the withers. Typical summer pelage is a pale rusty, fawn background (fallow) with white spots on the back and flanks; the winter coat is dull brown with the spots either indistinct or missing. The rump is white edged with black, and the tail is white with a black dorsal stripe. As a decorative, semi-domestic park animal, artificial selection of colour has taken place and white and black deer are found in some herds (Harris and Yalden, 2008).

Fallow are a herding species living for the most part in sexually segregated groups for most of the year, coming together in the autumn for a few weeks to mate during the rut. After the rut mixed groups disperse with females (does) forming hierarchical groups led by a dominant doe and males establishing bachelor groups or remaining solitary. Most commonly, single fawns are born in June or July of the following year. Fallow are non-territorial and home ranges overlap extensively. Preferentially a grazer, Fallow Deer also browse various broad-leaved trees and shrubs and will take tree fruits such as acorns, beech mast and chestnuts in the autumn (Harris and Yalden, 2008). Natural predators for Fallow Deer are long extinct at the hand of man but young fawns may be taken by Foxes Vulpes vulpes.

Fallow Deer existed in Britain in previous interglacials but did not return naturally to the British Isles after the last glaciation, they were deliberately introduced by the Normans. Rackham (1986) speculates that the early 12th century would have been an appropriate time for an introduction into England of deer from the Normans of Sicily who had inherited Classical and Islamic traditions of keeping exotic park animals. He also states that by the 13th century the fashion for Fallow Deer had spread to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Early introductions were into “forests” which were large areas of land often wooded or, in Durham, moorland, which were set aside as hunting preserves, originally for royalty and latterly for the nobility, including in Durham the Prince Bishops, the latter’s hunting park in Weardale being second only in size to the New Forest. The 1538-39 Return of royal game north of the Trent recorded 210 head of Fallow Deer in Teesdale forest (Whitehead, 1964). In 1647 it is recorded that Weardale forest had neither Red nor Fallow Deer, implying that Fallow had previously been present (Stephens, 1907), and Whitehead (1964) concludes that by the end of the 16th century Fallow Deer were extinct in the wild in Durham. By this time however deer from Marwood and Langley Chases in Teesdale had been emparked, including the ancestors of those still in the Raby Castle herd at Staindrop (Whitehead, 1964).

Fallow Deer by Thomas Bewick

Huntley and Stallibrass (1995) record the presence of Fallow Deer bones in the excavation of a 15th century drain in the castle at Barnard Castle, in 13th/14th century material excavated at the Prior of Durham’s rural residence at Beaurepaire, Bearpark near Durham City, and in medieval material excavated at Jarrow. They consider the presence of Fallow bones to indicate that the settlement, including ecclesiastical settlements, was of a high social status. The Bishops of Durham established hunting parks during Norman times at their country retreat of Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, in Weardale and at Bishop Middleham, along with the Prior of Durham’s park at Beaurepaire; these would all supply meat for the ecclesiastical table.

Wallis (1769) states that there were forests in Northumberland at Cheviot, Rothbury, Reedsdale [sic], Eresdon [sic], Lowes, Allendale and Knarsdale, which were all formerly well stocked with deer, and that in the time of Henry VIII “There were 6000 head of deer, red, roe and fallow, in the forests and parks of the right honourable the Earl of Northumberland”.

Over time, with changing fortunes and fashions, the larger hunting “forests” and parks disappeared and Fallow Deer became the archetypal decorative deer of the country house estate whilst still providing a useful supply of protein. In Durham, parks known to have held Fallow Deer at one time or another include Auckland Castle Park, Beaurepaire, Raby Castle at Staindrop, Streatham Castle Park near Barnard Castle, Wynyard Hall Park near Stockton on Tees, Ravensworth and Axwell Parks near Gateshead, Beamish Park near Stanley and Brancepeth and Whitworth Parks near Spennymoor (Whitehead, 1964). Of these only Raby and Whitworth still have Fallow Deer.

Apperley (1924) records hunting the Wynyard Hall deer in 1883 and 1885, with beagles, harriers and foxhounds, or by driving them to guns with deer-hounds. This herd was disposed of by the end of the 19th century (Whitehead, 1964).

Fallow deer small

In Northumberland herds of Fallow Deer were kept in the ancient parks of Warkworth Castle and Acklington prior to the Restoration. Near Alnwick are Hulne Park and Cawledge/Callie Park, both of which in the 16th century were stocked with Fallow. In 1512 the former was said to contain 879 deer and the latter 586. Both parks were destroyed after the Restoration of Charles II and the deer were confiscated to the Royal Parks (Whitehead, 1964). In 1824 Hulne Park was restocked with Fallow and Red Deer; Lunn (2004) noted that they were still present and the park still holds good numbers of Fallow today. Eslington Park near Whittingham west of Alnwick had Fallow Deer until about 1900 and Carham Park near Coldstream once had a Fallow herd (Whitehead, 1964). There is a still extant herd of Fallow Deer in and around Billsmoor Park in the Simonside Hills, the park being created in the early 19th century by Mr Orde of Nunnykirk (Hodgson, 1832), reputedly on the winnings from the famous racehorse Beeswing which he owned. Chillingham Park near Wooler still has Fallow Deer and Sir Humphry Wakefield (pers. comm., 2012) reports that: “there must be 100-200 Fallow in the woods around, and they come and go in the Wild Cattle park”.

All of the parks record Fallow escaping at various times, sometimes travelling long distances and turning up in unexpected places; the deer at Chillingham are free to come and go as they please into and out of the park. Our post-2000 distribution map records Fallow associated with the known parkland animals and the occasional vagrants from the parks. Vagrant animals are subject to unregulated hunting and shooting and it would therefore be difficult for viable feral populations to become permanently established.


Written by Terry Coult (last updated Nov 12)