Red Deer in Buckland Woods

Trans. Devon Assoc., vol. XXVIII, (1896), pp. 244-246.


F. H. Firth.

Prepared by Michael Steer

The article was read at the Association’s July 1896 Ashburton meeting. Deer hunting has a long history on Dartmoor. This brief presentation by F.H. Firth of Cator, near Widecombe, provides several names of those who, for better or worse, were associated with either the preservation or illicit slaughter of red deer in earlier times. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Within the last few years the "wild red deer" has appeared in Buckland and Holne Chase Woods, which are separated, the one from the other, by the river Dart, and are situated about two miles on the north-west side of Ashburton.

Whence do they come, and why remain? Probably they have been ''hounded" from their native Exmoor, and have found congenial food and cover in the fastnesses of Buckland and Holne Woods, for there are portions of these woods little short of a jungle.

Red deer have visited Dartmoor from time immemorial, but have been driven away, and in some cases shot; and their present prolonged sojourn at Buckland and Holne would indicate that they have found something congenial to their wild nature, and probably the care that is lavished upon them by Mr. Bastard and Mr. Dawson, in some measure, accounts for this.

They have been fitly named "a wandering tribe", here to-day and gone to-morrow; now at Holne Chase, and then at Auswel (Hazel), crossing the "Dart" on their journey.

Red deer have been hunted on Exmoor from the time of Queen Elizabeth, and we are told by Rowe that towards the end of the last century "they were plentiful on Dartmoor."

The wandering propensity of these animals would lead to the inference that they may resort to any locality where they find food and suitable cover; and, besides this, who can say whether these very animals now at Buckland are not the descendants of their Dartmoor progenitors, and that it is their wonderful instinct which brings them back after the lapse of so many years?

Incidental mention of them is made by Rowe in "The Presentment of a Jury at a Survey Court for the Forest of Dartmoor, holden at Okhampton, A.D. 1609”  where the following passage occurs:

“5th itm. They do present that one Edwd Ashe in the sommer tyme 1607 was at Sampford within Venvill (by his own confession) at the rousing of a Stagge and was at hunting of the same Dere with Houndes till he was kilt about Blanchdon wch was not lawful to be donne without licence.

“6 Itm”. Further also they do present that Willm Chastie (by his own confession) killd a Stagge with a pice or gun nere a month since about Blacktorrebeare, (which is part in the Forest of Dartmoore and part in Yenvill) and that he did it for Sir Thomas Wys **** and delivered the same to the said Sir Thomas at his house at Sidnham, at wch tyme he told him that he had killed the same dere in the forest".

Before I close my paper, it may be of interest to note the "shedding of horns" in this interesting animal. We all know that they do so each and every year, but the wonder is how can such a marvellous development proceed so rapidly! I cannot do better than quote from Collyns on Red Deer:

''These wonderful developments, the horns, are shed or mewed every year. From the time when the horn drops off, to that when the new horn reaches its full growth, is a period of from sixteen to eighteen weeks, and when we consider that the horns of an old stag will sometimes weigh 14 or 15 lbs., we may well wonder how such a mass of bony substance can be reproduced in so short a space of time. Yet so it is, and the mode by which the Almighty has provided for the annual renewing of the chiefest ornament of the 'Monarch of the Wilds,' is so accurately described by Dr. Bell, that I venture to transcribe it:

“The growth of the horn is an astonishing instance of the rapidity of production of bone under particular circumstances, and unparalleled in its extent in so short a time. During its growth the branches of the external carotid arteries, which lend their assistance in the formation, are considerably enlarged for the purpose of carrying the great flow of blood required for the production of bone. It extends by means of the velvet (a plexus of blood vessels) all over the external parts of the horn; it is quite soft and highly vascular, so that the slightest injury causes blood to flow freely, and the horn, when this occurs, to be imperfectly developed.

"'The period at which stags shed their horns is the spring, about April, and an old stag is rarely seen with his horns on after the beginning of May. “Before the period arrives when the stag is about to shed or cast his homs, he retires to the deepest and thickest coverts, and there remains secluded until his new horns begin to sprout.

"He then leaves the tangled thickets and seeks the open moor and heaths, or if these be far distant, he retreats to timber woods or grown-up plantations; instinct teaches him to do this, as the extreme sensitiveness and tenderness of the velvet-covered substance, destined to grow into a branching antler, are such, that he cannot endure the touch of the coppice-wood or furze-brake in which he has hidden himself, as if for very shame, since his former coronet dropped from his brow."

Three antlers have been picked up within the last few years in the Buckland Woods by Mr. Bastard's keepers, and they are now in his possession. The new horns attain their full growth and development in the short space of about five months. Two s