Deer keeping with Dom: Winter at Knole
The most important job over the winter is getting food into the deer. During the rut, which took place in October, the bucks do not feed so they lose a lot of condition.
This year has been fantastic because we have had a mild autumn with ideal growing conditions for the grass. I have never seen so much grass in the park in winter, so the deer are still feeding and putting on weight. In summer the deer get all the food they need from the natural vegetation in the park. In winter though, we need to supplement this with a special deer feed.
Once a day, I lay out the pelletts in a line along the hard pathways in the park. This is best as if we put it in piles the bucks would just come along and push everybody out of the way. The deer will be waiting for me to arrive. They like routine so it is important not to change the feeding time as some of the herd won’t turn up.
We also put haylage out in metal feeding stands around the park, which are topped up regularly for the deer to help themselves. We don’t lay the feed on the grass because Knole is a designated Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) and we need to maintain the ecosystem of the park and reduce the nutrient levels going into the ground.
Even though it is winter the deer still get some nutrients from the park’s vegetation. They nibble on the buds that are coming through on the beech trees, strip bark from the bottom of the trees and there is still some grass growing. Deer don’t need much water to survive and they get all they need from their food.
By December all the deer should have grown their thick winter coats. The biggest difference is the sika deer, which change from a spotted maroon-brown coat to a charcoal colour. During the cold winter nights, they tuck themselves up in the woodland. They sleep sporadically throughout the day, but dawn and dusk are their prime times to be awake.
Over winter the deer are also in full antlers. The cycle starts in May when they shed their antlers and start growing a new set, which will be ‘in velvet’ until around August when the hard antlers come through. Hormones drive the cycle – when testosterone is at its lowest the antler is cast and then it builds in strength and size until the rut. The deer do a really good job of looking after their antlers. When they are ‘in velvet’ the antlers are delicate and the deer do their utmost not to damage them in any way.
Winter is the time we have to cull the herd. If we didn’t, we could easily have thousands of deer in two to three years. We keep the herd to around 450 deer because there is simply not enough food in the park to sustain any more. The herd would become malnourished and ill if the parkland was overpopulated.
I am often asked how many deer we have and I’m pretty certain it is between 450 and 470. When I put the feed lines out in the winter, I drive up and down filming the deer on my phone, then I replay the footage to count and work out exactly how many there are.
We have been doing a lot this year to educate visitors on why they should not touch or feed the deer, and things are definitely improving.
The herd gets everything it needs from us but, more importantly, we don’t want to get too close and attempt to tame them. When the deer are feeding they can be quite aggressive – they stand up on their hind legs and shake the trees to get at the leaves and acorns. If a deer wants food it could do the same thing to a human and that’s no joke with a 120 kilo buck with sharp antlers.
Visitors who want to learn about the herd should come along to one of our deer keeping sessions or guided walks that take place regularly throughout the year. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and ask questions. Unfortunately at present, due to the pandemic, these walks are not scheduled to take place.
The deer are wild animals, seen at their best from a respectful distance. If you get too close, you will unsettle them. Please do not feed or pet them. The deer get all the food they need from the park grassland and from the Sackville family's Knole Estate Park and Deer Keeper.