Epping Forest has held a long association with deer. In times when the pleasures of the chase were the favourite recreation of the Sovereign, Epping Forest became a much favoured royal hunting ground. As part of the Royal Forest of Essex it was controlled by Forest Courts which meted out harsh penalties to those caught poaching or even just disturbing the deer.
A number of deer parks were formed in and around the Forest. Copped Hall, Monkhams and Fairmead date from the 13th century. The hunt grandstand of Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge still stands today at Chingford. The Lodge was commissioned by Henry VIII as a grandstand from which to view the hunt. Queen Elizabeth I is thought to have visited the Lodge.
The tales of poaching and annual Easter Hunts of tame deer bedecked in ribbons continued for may hundreds of years. The notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, was known for dealing in poached Forest venison which was sold on the black market as ‘Black Mutton’.
The City of London became the Conservators of Epping Forest in 1878 and deer are the only wild animals to be specifically mentioned in the Epping Forest Act. The gradual loss of interest by the Crown for hunting in the Forest eventually led Queen Victoria to relinquish all Royal hunting rights in 1882.
Most fallow deer in Britain are descended from animals introduced by the Normans but it is possible that Epping Forest’s herd is descended from an importation in Stuart times. Although the fallow exhibits a wide variation in coat colour, ranging from white through to black, the uniform dark colour of these animals is unusual.
With the growth of car ownership during the 1950s, the Conservators became concerned about the increasing numbers of deer killed on the roads throughout the Forest and the Deer Sanctuary was established to the south-west of Theydon Bois in 1959 to retain specimens of the dark-coloured deer which have long been associated with Epping Forest. Public access is not permitted but good views can be obtained from the nearby public footpath and the adjoining Forest. Occasionally guided visits to the Sanctuary are organised by Forest Keepers.
Male fallow deer are traditionally known as bucks. Each year a new set of antlers are grown, the older buck casting their antlers in April, the younger ones usually later in May. The new sets of antlers start to grow almost immediately and are usually fully grown by August.
Female fallow, known as does, do not grow antlers. Fawns are born each summer from mid-May into June. It is quite normal for young fawns to be left alone by their mothers for long periods, the fawns lying hidden in the grass.
In late autumn, the does come into season. The bucks move into rutting ‘stands’ where they make muddy wallows by scraping the ground and urinating onto it. They then roll in their wallows to gain the distinctive and powerful odour of a rutting buck in its prime, which, together with their loud belching groans, serve to attract does and overawe younger males. Challenges for the rutting stands are met in a battle of clashing antlers.
Today, the Forest’s deer delight visitors who are thrilled to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. The main threat to deer now comes not so much from poaching, but from fast busy roads and human disturbance. When walking in Epping Forest please be mindful to minimise disturbance to the deer and always ensure dogs are under effective control.
Deer walks, talks and educational activities are regularly organised, for further information, please visit www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/eppingforest or follow @COLEppingForest on Twitter. You can find out more about this unique, ancient woodland at Epping Forest’s Visitor Centre, The View, Rangers Road, Chingford, which is conveniently located next door to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.
Images: Mark Powter