Red deer are indigenous to Britain but, in the wild, they have been relegated, almost exclusively, to the Scottish Highlands and we have come to think of them as an animal whose natural habitat is the landscape of Landseer – barren uplands swathed in mist.
This was not always so, as their behaviour at Knepp demonstrates. They love wallowing in rivers and ponds and, in the warmer, lusher environment here, they grow almost twice the size of Scottish beasts and develop colossal antlers. Red deer, it is now believed, were originally a riverine species that were pushed out of their preferred habitat throughout Europe as humans took over the fertile floodplains and river deltas.
Like fallow deer, red deer graze as well as browse but, because of their size, they are heavier hitters on vegetation. Red deer graze in the growing season and browse and de-bark in winter when the grass gets tougher. They can even de-bark poisonous elder by neutralising the cyanide in their stomachs – something cattle and horses cannot do.
Research at Knepp has shown that red deer are the most generalist of all Knepp’s herbivores and the only species to favour plantations (planted before the rewilding project began) as habitat. They also showed a preference for fields where bramble, one of their favourite food plants, is prevalent.
The stags rut from late-September to mid-October, roaring and clashing antlers. Their territorial displays, pawing up the ground and turfing up the sward with their antlers, adds another disturbance factor to the land, creating opportunities for other species as well as an autumn spectacle for visitors to the Wildland.