By Mariecia Fraser
I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland where there are deer everywhere; on hillsides, in woods, on warning signs along roads, in bits on walls, and on menus in most pubs and restaurants. The monarch of the glen is an icon after all. And deservedly so. Red deer in particular seem to embody the free spirit of those that are at one with wild places. They move swiftly and effortlessly over the toughest of terrain, disappearing into the landscape within moments when disturbed, while a well crowned stag personifies elegant violence.
So it was a bit of a shock to move to a part of upland Britain where there are no deer. I have lived on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains for over twenty years now, and have never seen a single cervid anywhere in this area. Apparently there are reasonable numbers in some other parts of Wales, but there are none on the high ground of Ceredigion. Or if there are they are very, very shy. In fact you can go for miles and miles without seeing any grazers at all on many of the high plateaux. Declining stock numbers have meant that farmers have focussed their attention on better pastures down the hill, and without any wild herbivores many of these hill areas are shifting away from the grazed ecosystems that we know. There are many who hold strong and conflicting views on whether this is a good thing. To me there is something desolate and depressing about these areas; we have done too much and gone too far to turn back the clock to some Bronze Age idyll without some creative management (but more on that another day).
Of course there are also some up advantages to a lack of deer. Wildlife such as deer can be a reservoir for pests and diseases such as ticks and liver fluke. In addition, fencing of woodland and gardens is simpler and cheaper without them, and there are none of the debates and disagreements over how best to manage population numbers. In Scotland the majority of deer are free-ranging, passing from one estate to another,and are simultaneously considered pests and commercial commodities. Originally forest dwellers, they are seasonally and regionally adaptable, taking browse and grasses in various amounts according to season and area. However, this adaptability has taken its toll; red deer in Eastern Europe have 2 to 2.5 times the body weight and around 3 to 4 times the antler weight of those on Scottish hill-land.
Perhaps the afforestation planned, together with the destocking we’ve already seen, will mean deer naturally spread into favourable habitat within areas such as Ceredigion. Despite the challenges they might bring, I hope so.