A thousand years ago, the woodlands around The Wrekin formed part of a Royal hunting forest that appears to have been founded by an Anglo Saxon monarch sometime before the Norman Invasion. While local street names and locations, such as Wellington’s Haygate Road and Wickets pub, commemorate these ancient links (for they mark former entrances into the old deer park of Wellington Hay) there is still a living connection to the distant past that anyone visiting the forest over the last millennia would recognise. By far the largest wild mammal you will see anywhere in the area, deer continue to roam freely in large numbers, regularly providing fleeting reminders of a long-vanished way of life…
From large to small, when it comes to deer the Wrekin Forest has it covered. Both Red and Roe Deer have been recorded here in recent times but the species you are most likely to encounter is, in size terms, located somewhere between the two. With fawn coat, extensive spotting on the flanks and a white rump framed by a distinctive black horseshoe-shaped marking, Fallow Deer are an instantly recognisable cornerstone of the local landscape that (depending on who you believe) have been with us since Norman or Roman times. Prized as an ornamental species and a revenue-generating source of meat, a strictly enforced set of regulations governed their preservation in medieval times. Happily, Fallow Deer are equally abundant nowadays, and even appear to be extending their range.
Compared to the mixed herds that roam parkland up and down the land, deer that live in large wooded areas like the Wrekin Forest can behave very differently. In this environment, the sexes often stay apart for most of the year only coming together during the breeding season, in October and November, when groaning bucks may be heard and seen defending rutting stands. In June and July, does give birth to a single fawn and this is time they can become much noisier, too, barking whenever they are alarmed. The hours from dusk until dawn are generally those when Fallow deer are at their most active but they can regularly be seen throughout the day, which is typically a time for ‘lying up’ and ruminating on the night’s meal!
Fallow Deer (Dama dama): free-roaming, intermediate sized deer (larger than a Roe, smaller than a Red) with fawn and white spotted coat that appears longer, greyer and more indistinct in winter (nb. a number of variations in coat exist from white to black). Distinctive white and black rump with horseshoe markings, and tail (the longest of any UK species) with black stripe. Life span of 8-10 years; antlers increase in size with age, appearing broad and flat in young animals, with the tines ill-defined. Most active in farmland and woodland between dusk and dawn.
Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus): small, elegant species with distinctive black moustache stripe, white chin and rump patch, which puffs out when alarmed. Appears tailless. Coat is reddish-brown in summer, turning a pale grey-brown in winter. Generally solitary, forming small groups in winter. Common and widespread but not widely established in the Midlands.
Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi): small, stocky deer with russet coat that turns grey in winter. Bucks have small, straight antlers with no branching and a striped face with distinctive horizontal black markings. Wide, flat tail with white underside. Solitary species but also found in male and female pairs. Prefer areas with plenty of dense, low vegetation where they can browse herbs and shrubs. Recently recorded in the woodlands around The Ercall.
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus): the UK’s largest land mammal. Reddish-brown summer coat, turning grey-brown in winter (adults are not spotted). A grazer of grasses and dwarf shrubs. They are largely solitary in woodlands, and peak activity occurs between dawn and dusk. Nationally, they are widely distributed and expanding in range but are nevertheless fairly thin on the ground in the West Midlands and the Marches. However, a single male stag was recorded among a herd of Roe Deer in the Wrekin Forest, near Lawley, in 2015 (which may be an escapee from a local park).
Fallow Deer are a species that frequent both mature broadleaf woodlands (especially those with a shrub-rich understorey) and open farmland. While they could turn up just about anywhere on your travels round the Wrekin Forest, Limekiln Wood is a particularly good place to catch a glimpse of their distinctive freckled flanks — and, if you’re very lucky, you may even witness the odd animal roaming the local golf course that bisects the wood and the nearby Ercall Hill.
As this fairway-based activity might suggest, Fallow Deer are prolific grazers of grass but, like Roe Deer, they will also browse the woodland floor, feeding on the shoots of dwarf shrubs and trees, especially in winter. This activity can be extremely damaging to young woodland in particular and, in Dairy Pit Coppice (which lies on the public footpath between The Ercall and the road to Little Wenlock), deer fencing has been erected to promote new tree growth. Commercial forestry is very much in the ascendancy on the southern side of The Wrekin and, here, deer are culled at certain times of the year in an attempt to control numbers (look out for warning signs on footpaths in the area). The farmland beyond the hill, adjoining Spout Lane, is another good place to watch local deer herds roam the landscape and large numbers of animals can often be viewed here in spring.
For more information about deer and their habitat, visit the British Deer Society