Country & Coast: Fallow deer

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Fallow deer are not exactly rare in Yorkshire, but their principal habitat of extensive woodland makes them considerably less visible than the familiar roe deer that many of us see white-tailing across fields or running through car headlights in darkness.

It was with high excitement, then, that I turned the corner of some trees in the Aire Valley last week to encounter a herd of 18 fallows grazing in the far corner of a clearing.

They stared back at me for a few seconds, as if obligingly posing for my camera, before they leapt over a drystone wall and disappeared into a plantation of conifers.

Compared to roe and red deer, fallows have a very high cute factor. Their fawns are the epitome of Bambi, and the delicate light brown coats - pinkish in the dying sunlight of a cold winter afternoon - have an attractive mottle of white spots. In summer they look even more attractive when their coats turn chestnut and the mottling is more obvious.

This herd of fallows consisted entirely of does, and so somewhere else would be a group of bucks - young males - since they always move in single-sex herds.

The fully grown stags are more solitary and only meet with the does during the autumn rutting season.

Even with their penchant for the deep cover of trees, feral fallows are not common on the Pennines side of Yorkshire although there are records for the area going back many years. This particular herd is likely to be many miles distant from other significant fallow populations.

The highest density and, therefore, the best chance most people will have of seeing fallows is around Ripon, thanks to some healthy herds maintained by the National Trust on the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal estate, and to a lesser extent around the Hambleton Hills and Vale of Pickering and along the wooded western fringes of the North York Moors National Park.

Fallows are said to have been introduced to Britain by the Normans, although there is archaeological evidence of them being present 400,000 years ago. In medieval times they were very common and hunted, as were all deer, in huge numbers.

Many of those fallows running wild today in the Yorkshire countryside are thought likely to be escapees from the deer parks of the 18th century at great houses like Studley Royal, Duncombe Park, Nostell Priory and Cannon Hall.

In more recent times a small herd of fallow deer has been established on the estate of Lotherton Hall, a magnificent Edwardian mansion once owned by the wealthy pit-owning family, the Gascoignes, and now owned by Leeds City Council.

The chances are that the fallow deer I saw in the Aire Valley are remnants of the large population which once existed in the Forest of Bowland to west.

It would be interesting to know more about their movements, but there seems to be more talk about culling than there is of studying the nomadic existence of these lovely creatures. For now, they make quite the picture.