Deer, and in particular its substantial red deer population, form an important part of the ecology and cultural history of the Quantock Hills. The Quantock Deer Management & Conservation Group was formed in 1991 to promote liaison on deer issues between local landholders, countryside organisations (including FoQ), the local hunt, and deer stalkers concerned with the welfare and management of deer. The group has no powers to intervene directly in deer control, its purpose being primarily advisory, to help maintain a dialogue between all parties with an interest in deer.
One important task of the group is the organisation of the annual late winter deer count covering all of the Quantock Hills and some of the adjoining lower lying land. This count, organised with the support of the AONB Service and local landowners, has now taken place regularly for over 25 years, relying on the participation of farmers and 50 or so volunteers.
Although not expected be very precise in any one year, the count provides invaluable ‘re-assurance’ of the minimum number of red deer remaining, as well as trends in the proportion of hinds, calves, young and older stags. Numbers of red deer counted in late winter have fluctuated between a low of 306 and high of 958, but in the vast majority of years figures have been from 500 to 800 head. The count is aimed foremost at red deer, but has logged also the significant rise and spread of roe deer in the area over the last 30 years. Fortunately, sightings of the non-native sika and muntjac remain low.
When I last wrote in the FoQ newsletter some ten years ago, it was to explain the then unprecedented step that QDM&CG had taken to call on landholders to cull a larger number of female deer. That decision followed a progressive increase in red deer numbers, from an average count of 555 for 1993-1997, to 745 for 1998-2002 and a further rise to over 830 for 2003-2007. This was paralleled by increasing concern among nature conservation organisations over damage to woodland regeneration, to farm crops and the consequent increase in applications for night-shooting licences. The group therefore recommended local landholders should liaise on a gradual reduction of the breeding population over the coming five years, but then aim to retain a herd nearer to 500 red deer. The QDM&CG, being fully committed (then as now) to the long-term conservation of a substantial population of red deer on the Quantocks, at that time had agreed also a policy that “should consecutive annual counts ever indicate that numbers are likely to have fallen to below about 300 head, the group will call on its members and others to introduce a minimal cull policy”.
As it happens, numbers recorded at the count did indeed fall back through until 2013, and appear to have stabilized since at between 500 to 600. However, while overall numbers are broadly within the range sought, some caveats are worth noting. Firstly, the bulk of the reduction in deer numbers over the past 10 years has occurred in especially the south-west and central sections of the count areas, with a far lesser change in the northern sections. It is also suspected that the extensive planting of Miscanthus (Elephant grass) over the past decade on low lying land around the Quantocks may have led to a greater – but as yet unknown - number of red deer being missed during the counts. Consideration is currently being given to some research to investigate this further, possibly using drones to help assess the actual extent of red deer presence in Miscanthus during late winter.
Dr Jochen Langbein
Langbein Wildlife Associates