Deer keeping with Dom: Spring at Knole
Spring is a beautiful time in Knole Park and Dom Andrews, park and deer keeper, talks us through the sights to look out for and what he’s working on as the weather warms.
The deer are in pretty good condition after winter despite the snow at the end of February. It did make things a bit tougher for them, but nothing they couldn't cope with. The winter was generally dry and mild, which is good because deer are not particularly well insulated. They have winter coats but they don’t have massive amounts of fat.
The last few weeks of winter are always hardest for the deer when the supplementary feed slows down but the new grass and buds have not fully come through.
At the beginning of March we reduce the amount of haylage and pellets we put out as they start to take nutrition from the park - they much prefer to eat the fresh, young grass.
They also enjoy the new buds on the trees. Sweet chestnut trees are one of the first to have the sap rising. The deer strip the bark and can do quite a lot of damage. No-one knows why they do it, but one theory is they are trying to get to the sap, which has sugars in it and is a good source of energy. The other theory is they strip it for the roughage to cleanse their guts.
Towards the end of March and beginning of April the deer will shed their winter coats and the lighter summer coats come through. The deer start to look messy and untidy when this happens because the new coat comes from underneath and pushes the old one out. You might notice clumps of fur missing and the deer starting to look bare and patchy. Birds can often be seen collecting the deer's loose fur to line their nests.
Towards the end of April the bigger bucks start casting their antlers. They have been in full antler since August and the older bucks cast first. After that it is a sliding scale with the younger deer, known as prickets, the last to cast. This gives the larger bucks the longest period of time to grow the most impressive antlers.
Antler growth is governed by testosterone levels, which is at its lowest when the antler casts (and at its highest during the rut in autumn). The deer have an open sore for a day or two but the velvet soon comes through and the new antlers start to grow.
Almost all our female deer are pregnant now. There is an eight-month gestation period and the baby Sika deer should start to appear towards the end of May. The odd Fallow deer may be born in May, but July and August are more usual.
Now the grass is coming through and the deer have a natural food source I am focusing more on the parklands. We have had quite a few fallen trees from the storms recently so we have been busy clearing those and making sure the paths are clear in the park.
One of the major jobs for spring is getting the ragwort under control. It is starting to grow early this year thanks to a few days of warmer weather.
I will also start mowing soon if the grass continues to grow. The deer generally keep it down but some light mowing helps the park to look tidy.
We are waiting for the bracken to come through and we will be spraying and rolling it to stop it taking over. It really takes off around May and left alone you can have six or seven feet by June.
In general though, spring is a pretty quiet time in the park. The deer are happy to be left alone and we are waiting for the new growth to get underway.