Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oh dear the deer

The Beautiful Ratbags

roe doe in late October; note canny cage on right, protecting olive
They are graceful, fleet of foot, soft-eyed and timid. Yet they pose a dilemma.

At first it appears that Dama dama or fallow deer are not indigenous to our region, for they were not in Chianti during the childhoods of older people alive today, when, I have been assured, the only large mammals were hare, fox and badger. Even the porcupine was introduced relatively recently; hence the current dearth of giaggioli, common irises, which used to fill the surrounding countryside, for porcupines adore tubers. 

Fallow deer, rather, were introduced or probably re-introduced, or perhaps returned for lack of predators (see below) since Wikipedia tells us they were native to most of Europe during the last Interglacial, while at the beginning of the Holocene they inhabited the Middle East and some parts of the Mediterranean. We have to blame the Romans for bringing them back to central Europe. Precisely where Chianti stands in this scheme of things is unclear. But these deer have certainly been around a lot longer than we like to think. 

As for the roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, which are stronger and even more agile than fallow deer, jumping higher and faster despite being considerably smaller, they seem to be pretty well indigenous to Eurasia (with the exception of Ireland and smaller islands). However I note: "in the Mediterranean region [they are] largely confined to mountainous regions, and [are] absent or rare at low levels". Our part of Chianti is not mountainous, it is hilly (Le Ripe stands at 330m above sea level), so why have the deer descended below their usual terrain to bother us?

roe deer fawn (roe is the original Bambi) hidden in undergrowth by doe - this location is surprisingly close to our house

For that is the problem. They bother us a lot. Not only do they graze on rosebuds and young shoots, munch the leaves of certain plants, defoliating anything within reach, they also scrape young tree trunks with their horns and antlers and break off branches in their urge to remove the velvet and to mark their territory. Several of my fruit trees have been maimed in this way and a crab apple was almost ring-barked, surviving only by a miracle. Not only that: they also bring ticks and although Lyme Disease is not a big issue here, it is still a concern.

It seems that deer in Britain have reached such pestilential proportions that they are altering the landscape and the vegetation. I observe this here. Not only does deer nibbling reduce the size and vitality of much undergrowth in the woods, it is probably eliminating some species entirely. Deer numbers in our area have increased to such an extent that they are devastating vineyards and olive groves, to the despair of the farmers.

What's to be done? In our own small way we fight back: we grow aromatic plants which the deer do not like; we protect all vulnerable plants including fruit trees with strong cages of wire netting; we segregate our roses in the vegie patch. One of the reasons we may get dogs is that they keep the deer away. Ultimately we dream of erecting a fence around our garden area. And of course, some highly regulated culling is carried out by the powers that be. 

This fascinating article below, focusing on the US but reflecting the situation in Europe, explores how things have come to such a pass, providing some answers to our questions.

"Suddenly, for the first time in eleven thousand years, hundreds of thousands of square miles in the heart of the white-tailed deer’s historic range were largely off limits to one of its biggest predators. Suddenly, an animal instinctively wary of predators, including Homo sapiens, found itself in a lush habitat where major predators—drivers being the exception—didn’t exist." 

Perhaps we should be glad that the wolves are returning to Chianti. (See post for December 2012).  A balance might be re-established. At least they are truly the deer's natural predator, no ethical qualms attached.

another roe deer doe at Le Ripe

Apologies for the quality of the photos: capturing wild animals with the camera is quite a challenge...


  1. These are great pictures, no apologies are required! They are terribly beautiful, it is true.

    I have also read that some species of birds that like to build nests in low-hanging branches are threatened by the current boom in deer numbers.

    Dogs sound like a good answer. Wolves? Won't we have bigger problems than protecting just our trees and flowers if they become more numerous?

    P.S. Could you link to the article that you cite?


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