While not, strictly speaking, an indigenous species, fallow deer (Dama dama) were native to most of Europe, including the land that is now Britain, during the last interglacial. They have been part of our modern landscape since the Norman craze for hunting in the 11th century when they were imported from the Eastern Mediterranean to stock huge aristocratic parks throughout Britain.
The 1,000-acre deer park around Old Knepp Castle was one such hunting domain. It gained a reputation for its fallow deer and wild boar in the 13th century when King John used to hunt here.
By the 14th century, deer parks covered over 2% of the English landscape but they began to fall into disrepair in the 15th century. Knepp itself was disemparked sometime in the 16th century, the deer simply released into the open countryside. Around 130,000 fallow deer now live wild in the UK.
Our fallow deer are strains from Petworth Park (Henry VIII is said to have hunted them here in the 1500s) and Gunton Park, chosen for the impressive size of their antlers.
Unlike our indigenous, reclusive roe deer (of which we have a small population at Knepp) that are exclusive browsers, fallow graze as well as browse. Their impact in the Repton Park around the modern-day Knepp Castle is obvious from the characteristic high browse line on the trees, extensive, closely cropped ‘deer lawns’, and lack of ground cover in the unfenced woods. This is the kind of cultural landscape we were aiming to recreate with the park restoration.
Now, under our new Countryside Stewardship agreement, the number of fallow deer has been greatly reduced in the park to allow more complex grassland to become established, and for scrub and naturally regenerating young trees to get a foothold. This should further enhance the wood pasture habitat of the Repton park, and support a new generation of wild oak trees.
In the Southern Block, where there is no such park designation, we allowed a vegetation pulse to occur before introducing fallow deer and other grazers. The explosion of scrub that developed here over a period of six or so years when there were no animals present is now robust enough to fight an even battle with the browsing animals we have introduced. This exuberant habitat looks much like African scrub and hosts some of our biggest wildlife successes, such as nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies.