As part of my work to improve the farm for the sake of black grouse, I have been really encouraged by the way that the roe deer have responded. Within two or three years of removing stock from a piece of ground, roe simply move in and make the space their own. I was always told that roe will not share ground with sheep, and it has been pleasing to note that this is generally true. It’s not that the two make mutually exclusive inroads into the local food supply, but the roe actively seem to dislike sheep and take pains to avoid them. The only time I have seen roe with sheep, the latter have been stocked so lightly that any fussiness by the former would have seemed absurdly fastidious as if it were a point of principle.
I have three little “woods” on the go, as well as a long strip of sitka spruce which attracted the first roe within hours of my opening it up and cutting it in half with a sheltered ride. At the time, I was amazed by the way that these deer seemed to fall from the sky, but having bumped them often enough with the lamp and caught them out in the open at first light, it seems that they generally roam around the farm at will under cover of darkness, and large open spaces which seem deeply inhospitable by day become practicable for prospecting deer under the stars.
Now that some of the young trees are starting to approach my head-height, the woods seem to attract deer as if they were stepping stones between the vast banks of commercial woodland. The birches and rowans are spilling over the tops of their guards, and the un-grazed vegetation at ground level comes alive with colour during the summer, when king cups, ragged robin, flag iris, speedwell and milkwort light up the grass.
One of these little woods is only around a quarter of an acre, having been formed by a temporary fence between the dykes which was strung up to make a secure triangle of ground for difficult ewes during the lambing. I planted up this little patch on two sides with a hawthorn hedge and filled the centre with an odd mixture of rowans, birches and aspens. A friend gave me a sack of scots pines, and these were also planted despite the ground being rather too wet. Over the past four years, the trees have done really well, and it is a constant source of delight to take a wander through the emerging thicket.
When I went up to visit this little wood yesterday, it looked very different. The grass was all trampled and the trees had obviously been hammered. The scots pines were just bumpy pegs without a single needle, and the flag irises were reduced to fibrous stumps. Despite my best efforts, it seemed that the sheep had been able to penetrate this little sanctuary, and I walked around the dyke to find out how they had got in. I was surprised to find that there was no clear point of access, and felt slightly confused by the obvious trampling which ran back and forth up the inside of the small temporary fence. It had been so excessively trodden that it looked like a mountain bike track in the Peak District, and it seemed like something had been trying desperately to get out.
And then the picture became clear. A small hut was built out of pallets when the fence was first erected so that the lambing ewes could have some shelter. In the dry grass under the corrugated iron roof, there was a little deer. It had been dead for less than a week, and as I picked it up, I realised that it was as light as a feather. The bones stuck out on its hips and its ribs felt like pencils. It had clearly been stuck in this little wood and had eaten everything it could as the temperature started to drop and the grass stopped growing.
It was impossible to tell how long it had been in there, but my notes inform me that I was last in the wood in July, and there was no sign of any browsing then. Could it have been born in there this summer and was able to walk within inches of it without ever seeing it? If it had been born in there, the doe could easily get over the fence to feed her youngster, and it could have grown up in this quarter acre prison until the milk had dried up and the food had run out. Surely it did not jump in and then couldn’t jump out?
And regardless of how it got in, why on earth didn’t it jump out? Parts of this ramshackle barrier are so low that I can step across it without even having to hold the top barb down, but as the tracks revealed, the little deer had walked back and forth along that boundary as if it were the Berlin wall. I describe it as a “little” deer partly out of pity, but I have certainly seen smaller deer jump higher obstacles.
It was a horrible discovery, and I have been feeling strangely guilty about it. I know that I shouldn’t feel bad because it was hardly my fault, but I had accidentally built a roe trap and it must have been a harrowing and lonely end for its victim. There is no comparison between this sinister, lingering decline and an abrupt, careful death administered by a rifle shot – I have no qualms with death in itself, but the nature of this incident was protracted, unpleasant and amounted to little more than a sad waste. There is no way I could have predicted that this would happen, but I still feel implicated. Indeed, it raises the question of how many fawns die like this each year in quiet, avoidable corners where nobody ever finds them.
Most striking of all is the idea that roe have something of a tragic aura about them. They are unquestionably the most beautiful mammals we have in this country, with a wealth of fascinating behaviour encompassing everything from affection and delicacy to savagery and strength. But so often, the only way we humans ever encounter them is in their moments of misery and death. Their swollen corpses litter the roadsides and their young are minced by silage cutters or fatally abducted by idle well-wishers who think they can help.
Roe probably don’t suffer worse privation than any other British mammal, but their moments of delight and comfort are so often hidden from our eyes that we seldom see anything to counter their abundant, conspicuous suffering. To us, the balance seems to be perpetually tipped towards doom.
If that little fawn had got out of the wood and vanished into the hills with its mother, I would never have known that it had even existed. The huge majority of fawns born in 2014 have melted into the long grass to lead full, satisfying lives in total secrecy, away from the vulgarity of human observation. But having been blind to the success of the many, I find myself dwelling on the gloom of this sad individual.