Managing deer on Blickling Estate

Close up image of Roe Deer by wildlife photographer Richard Nicoll

As curators of the countryside, ways we can improve, expand and connect our most important natural habitats are rarely off the conversational menu. Deer have a big impact on the biodiversity of these habitats and, because they can travel miles to feed and to breed, it’s important we take a landscape-scale approach to managing their populations.

The impact on biodiversity

Deer munch on nectar-rich plants (think our beloved bluebells) that would otherwise be visited by insects.  In turn, these invertebrates make up an important part of the diets of resident and migratory birds.  Incessant grazers, deer lift the woodland canopy leaving few options for wildlife specialising in inhabiting the woodland understory.  New flushes of woodland regeneration are nibbled back, and bark can be damaged by deer scraping their antlers against the trees, leaving the trees vulnerable to disease and decay.

Out for the count

February 2017 saw the conclusion of a three year deer population survey conducted across several Trust properties in the East of England.  Deer are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk.  So, equipped with a thermal imaging camera, a clipboard and an enormous flask of coffee a small team from Blickling set out as the sun went down to count the deer.

We use a method called distance sampling.  Taking a set route around the park we count the deer we see, recording the habitat they are occupying and the distance they are from us at the same time.  These last few bits of information are crucial because, with a bit of scientific jiggery-pokery, we can account for the deer that we might have missed.  The thermal imaging camera is a fantastic piece of kit, but even it can’t see through trees.  So, in a dense habitat such as woodland where most of the deer we can count are a short distance from the path, it’s very likely that we will have been unable to see some individuals.

What happens next?  Well, we will be able to put together site specific plans to manage the deer; managing deer numbers is important for the health of our heath and woodland, and for that of the deer themselves.

Blickling’s 18th Century Deer Park

In the 18th Century, Blickling’s Tower Park was home to a herd of fallow deer which would have been managed as park deer.  Today, Blickling Estate is home to rather more solitary species – muntjac and roe deer.  Muntjac, also known as ‘barking deer’, are the smallest of the deer species resident in the UK.  They have no seasonal rut, and mating can take place at any time of the year.  Roe deer, on the other hand, breed between mid July and mid August; prior to the rut they aggressively defend exclusive territories around one or more does.  Muntjac are also highly territorial, but both species are seen to form small groups in winter – often with one another.

A healthy alternative

Just as having a deer park on your estate was a show of wealth and status in the 18th Century, the venison we produce as a product of our sustainable woodland management is a valuable resource today. Wild venison is packed with the good stuff; protein, vitamins and iron, and low in fat, making it a healthy alternative to conventional red meat.  Traditionally eaten through the winter months, venison is excellent roasted and in casseroles.  Our wild venison burgers made with nothing more than a pinch of salt and pepper proved a welcome winter warmer at our last Christmas event!