Deer at Ashridge Estate
The fallow deer are an integral part of the landscape at Ashridge and a much-loved feature of this historic estate.
In 1283, Edmund Earl of Cornwall (grandson of King John of Robin Hood fame) founded a monastery on the site where Ashridge House now stands. It was named ‘Assherugge’.
As was the custom amongst the elite in medieval times, a deer park was created, surrounding the monastery. Fallow deer were brought in, kept within this fenced enclosure, and hunted for venison. This is the origin of the fallow deer that live at Ashridge today.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the estate passed into the hands of the Earls of Bridgewater. The park was expanded, but the deer were always kept within the fenced parkland and managed by the park keepers.
The Great Sale – the deer set free
In 1925, the owners of the Ashridge Estate decided to sell up. By this time the estate comprised not only the park, but large areas of woodland and commons surrounding it. The estate was broken up and Ashridge House was sold, but the magnificent landscape that surrounded it passed to the National Trust to look after.
At the time of the sale, the fences enclosing the park were removed. The deer that had lived behind fences for 600 years were set free to roam across the countryside. They now travel widely in the landscape, crossing land owned by many landowners, and are truly wild animals.
How to recognise a fallow deer
Fallow deer bucks (males) have distinctive palmate antlers with a broad flat centre. Younger males are called ‘prickets’ and their antlers are shorter and pointed. The antlers are shed every year, and each year they grow back bigger, until around the age of eight when the males have reached their maximum size. Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of 2.5 cm a day. A soft velvet covering helps protect newly forming antlers as they grow, but this is shed once the antlers are fully grown.
Fallow deer come in a variety of colours. You’re most likely to see the dark, or melanistic, deer at Ashridge, but tan, spotty, or even white individuals also can also be seen. They were originally brought to England from the Mediterranean area but are now considered to be naturalised in Britain.
Muntjac deer also live at Ashridge, they are small and stocky, and are sometimes mistaken for wild boar. Muntjac are native to Asia and are thought to have escaped into the countryside from Woburn. They are now widespread across England and Wales.
How to see deer on the estate
Deer are naturally cautious animals that move in small groups and avoid humans. They are surprisingly hard to see within the tree canopy and it's possible to pass very close to them without seeing them – you need to keep your eyes peeled. Peer though the trunks of the trees into the darkest places, looking for the give-away flick of a tail or the glint of a bright
eye. If you want to photograph them you will need a long lens and a steady hand.
We recommend walking quietly and keeping dogs on a short lead. Choose parts of the estate that are away from roads and well used tracks. The best time of day to see deer is at dawn and dusk when they are most active.
The breeding season for Fallow deer, known as the rutting season, begins once the weather turns cold, usually in October. At this time of year the bucks can be heard making loud, deep, groaning calls in order to attract a doe (female). The sound of the groan is directly related to the size of the male, although it’s not possible for us to hear the difference.
For other bucks, however, this is very important – it can help them know how strong another buck is likely to be and whether it’s worth the risk of challenging them. If they are closely matched in size bucks may test their strength against each other by pushing and shoving each other with their antlers.
A forest feast
Fallow deer graze in open grasslands as well as browse on trees and shrubs in woodlands. Much of their diet consists of grasses and flowers but they also eat the fresh young shoots of trees, shrubs and brambles. Some tree species are clearly favoured over others with ash, hornbeam, sweet chestnut, hazel and sallow amongst the favourites. Silver birch is one of the least palatable species.
Like most herbivores their diet depends on the season, and during autumn they will eat the fruits of the forest such as acorns, beech nuts, and sweet chestnuts, which they can remove from their prickly casing using their front hooves. During winter, when food is harder to find, they’ll take the juicy buds from trees. When really pushed, such as in snow or severe winter weather they’ll strip the bark from trees.
All deer are ruminants and often spend time ‘laying up’ in quiet areas during the daytime while they chew the cud.
The deer at Ashridge are an integral part of this landscape and a much-loved feature of this historic estate. However the deer population has grown rapidly in recent years and causes significant impact to the woodland, damaging habitats for other wildlife that make the estate their home.
The woodland is recognised as being of international importance and protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. This means we are required by law to care for the environment in a way that allows this wide variety of flora and fauna to flourish