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Roe Deer

Roe Deer, GPNR © Chris Barlow

While there are currently six species of deer living wild in the UK, the Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and Red Deer Cervus elaphus are the only genuine native deer species. It is known that the Roe Deer has been with us since time immemorial. Richard Prior in his book The Roe Deer – Conservation of a Native Species (1995) stated that Roe Deer first appeared in the middle Pleistocene and that Roe remains dating back some 400,000 years BP were discovered in Norfolk. This however appeared to be an isolated finding and evidence of continuous occupation can only be traced back from the post-glacial epoch some 9,500 years BP.

In Norman times Roe were protected under the Forest Law of William I (1087), whereby those guilty of taking a stag, Roe buck or a boar were liable to judicial blinding. However by 1338 the Court of Kings Bench had ruled that Roe were not a “Beast of the Forest” (reserved for royalty and the nobility to hunt) but rather a “Beast of the Warren” (having the same status as rabbits). From that time on Roe were fair game for a population to whom meat was a treat, and a treat in short supply (Prior, 1995).

Roe were caught by a variety of means. In addition to traps (tread traps which will hold an animal by the foot) they were driven into funnels made of hedge, stone or netting to be killed by arrows or dogs (Prior, 1995).

It has generally been accepted that by 1800 Roe were extinct in England and Wales and survived only in Scotland: the websites of both the Forestry Commission (2012) and the British Deer Society (2012) shows that they hold such a view. There is however evidence that such an assumption, in relation to the northeast of England, could be wrong.

Roe Deer by Joan Holding

Peter Carne (2000) in his book Deer of Britain and Ireland – Their Origins and Distribution  sets out a range of evidence which suggest that Roe survived continuously in the northeast of England. Cowen et al, (1965) refer to the poem The Battle of Otterbourne which records Roe Deer in Northumberland in 1388 (Scottish dialect version). Cowen et al. (1965) references a footnote to the above poem in Percy (1765) which records Roe Deer in the Hexham area in the reign of George I (1714-1727). Millais (1906) in the Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland refers to the fact that a few Roe remain at Naworth and Netherby in Cumberland and Northumberland (Millais, 1906 in Carne, 2000).

In 1963, G. A. Cowan (the Master of the Braes of Derwent Foxhounds and a renowned local naturalist) together with Henry Tegner (a nationally known writer on wildlife, especially Roe) and Viscount Ridley of Blagdon (an estate with a well-established Roe population) carried out a census of Roe in the North East (Cowen et al, 1965). In doing so they were able to establish that in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were established Roe populations around Haltwhistle (Featherstone and Blenkinsopp), Castleside (Lord Bute’s Plantation), Slaley (Dukesfield, Whitley Chapel and Blanchland) and Wark (Houxty and Park End). Perhaps most importantly they established that in 1847 a pack of hounds was formed by a Mr Richardson of Woodlands Hall, Consett to hunt Roe in the Saltersgate area.

It is also interesting to note that on 2 March, 1948 there was an article in the Evening Chronicle stating that a Mr Garrie stalking Dilston, Allenheads and Minsteracres (near Slaley) had killed over 550 Roe in three years. Assuming an even cull and a stable population, this would indicate a population of over 1,000, even in these limited areas. There is some doubt however about the accuracy of this article (Tegner, 1955).

During the First World War timber supplies were decimated and subsequently vast areas of new forest appeared in the North East, including Kielder, Harwood and Kershope. In 1970, Peter Carne visited Kielder to meet the then head forester, McCavish. McCavish had started work in Kielder in 1938. At that time there was an annual cull in the forest of some 400 deer and an estimated population of 1200. Yet by 1970, six full-time rangers in Kielder were culling some 1200 Roe a year (Carne, 2000). This would indicate a resident population of some 6,000/7,000 animals, and indications are that this figure continues to rise.

In 2007, the Great British Deer Survey published by the British Deer Society (2012) shows the presence of Roe in virtually every 10 km square in the North East, including all of Northumberland, Durham and even the large conurbations of Newcastle, Gateshead and Middlesbrough. Recently, Dr Karis Baker (2011) of the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University carried out a study of the genetic history of the British Roe Deer population.

As part of that research, Dr Baker was supplied with Roe tissues from the Kielder, Hexham and Consett areas. She concluded that the deer present were very probably part of the native stock and were not descendants of introduced stock. As part of her study Dr Baker took DNA and other samples from Roe bones found in a number of locations including The Chesters on Hadrians Wall and near Stanhope. It now appears to be established that Roe from more southern areas of the UK are a mix of deer translocated from Scotland and Europe (especially Germany).

Roe Deer, being solitary animals of woodland, are notoriously difficult to count (unlike the larger herding species such as Fallow and Red). While distribution surveys can be treated as accurate, population figures are only estimates. Latest estimates indicate that the overall deer population of England, Scotland and Wales could exceed 1.5 million. It is thought that approximately one third of these, some 500,000, are Roe. How many of these are in the North East? The answer is unknown. However what is known is that the population explosion of the 1960s and 1970s has expanded south through Durham, Yorkshire and into the Midlands. In the North East the Roe is ubiquitous.

Roe deer small

In this expansion the Roe has been helped by its adaptability. Although by preference an animal of the forest and the woodland edge, they can and do survive in almost all landscapes: the forest, the open hills of the Cheviots, the sand dunes of the coast, and the suburban gardens of Darras Hall and Stocksfield. Given that they have colonised every 10 km block of the North East, an increase in numbers will surely now only be limited by the availability of habitat and disturbance.

While they are generally tolerant of non-threatening interference in their lives (the farmer and the shepherd going about their daily business), they are greatly affected by the significant disturbance arising from vastly increased recreational use of the countryside. The disturbance provided by dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and others, especially in the hours of dawn and dusk, is pushing more and more of our Roe population into clusters in thick cover. Given that both bucks and does are territorial this may well serve to limit population increase.

Roe are helped in their successful survival and expansion by embryonic diapause (delayed implantation). After mating by the buck in late July or early August and subsequent fertilisation of the egg, the embryo floats free in the uterus and does not become attached to the maternal caruncular ridges until December/January. Only then does the embryo genuinely begin to develop. Parturition takes place in May. The large majority of does have two corpora lutea which is a rough indication of the number of fertilised eggs: in other words Roe are generally capable of consistently producing twins. Weather conditions, the pressure of predators (Foxes Vulpes vulpes, Badgers Meles meles and even large birds of prey) together with food supply will dictate the survival rate. In softer areas of the south survival may well average close to two, while in the harsher areas of northern Scotland it may fall to 0.75 (Prior, 1995). The author’s personal view is that here in the North East we fall in the middle ground between these two figures.

It is probable that the explosion of Roe numbers in the North East is largely based on three factors:

  • The vast increase in suitable woodland.
  • The changes in farming policy leading to a year-round supply of food.
  • The lack of large predators, although to a large extent man has taken up this role. Roe stalking has a large number of dedicated amateur stalkers (in addition to a handful of professionals) whose job is to keep the population in balance.

Estimating the number of Roe Deer in the North East can only be a guess. If there are 500,000 nationally, do we have 5%, 25,000? Given that the population of the Kielder area could amount to approximately a half or more of this figure (based on known cull figures), it might well be that this is a reasonably accurate guess.


Ian Smales (last updated Nov 12)