Roger Ratcliffe: Country & Coast

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The first rays of sun had yet to reach down into the Aire Valley but among the shadows of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal towpath I suddenly saw a roe deer white-tailing it away from me like a jogger out for an early morning run.

Constrained by a fence on one side and water on the other, the deer presumably kept going until it could find a route back into woodland cover. And bizarre though this must seem, as I watched its tail fade to a speck I began to think of Ed Miliband.

The roe is Britain’s smallest species of native deer and the commonest in Yorkshire. Once hunted almost to extinction it has staged a remarkable comeback, particularly to the east of the A1 where numbers have increased to such an extent I consider myself desperately unlucky not to encounter them in their reddish-brown coats.

They have established breeding strongholds between the River Don and River Trent on two areas of peatland known as the Thorne and Hatfield Moors but as they roam from one to the other across the area’s table-flat fields, like that roe deer in Airedale they are confronted by the obstacle of a canal.

Which is why Mr Miliband sprang to mind. A few years before he became Labour leader he was not even a household name in his own household, but in his constituency of Doncaster North he had earned a reputation as The Man Who Saved Bambi.

He chaired a working group of waterways officials and local conservationists who were concerned about the high numbers of deer, many of them fawns, that drowned in the 15-mile-long Stainforth & Keadby Canal. On one stretch alone, between Moors Bridge and Mauds Bridge near Thorne, up to 40 roe deer were dying every year. The sheet metal piles of the canal walls were too difficult to climb but they tried hard until they no longer had energy left to keep themselves afloat.

Eventually, £50,000 was raised to install so-called “deer ramps”, basically large piles of rubble dumped along the canal edges to provide a fairly easy exit route.

A special fence along parts of the canal where deer mortality seemed to be highest was also built to keep the animals out, and the initiative seems to have been a success. But in these cash-strapped times it is unlikely that such funds could be found today to provide deer ramps on other parts of Yorkshire’s vast waterways network.

A few years ago I came across a deer carcass – a Sika deer hind, I think, judging by its white mottles – floating forlornly in the Ripon Canal, and it ruined my day. There are few sadder sights in the countryside than a dead deer and I hope the one I saw on the Leeds and Liverpool managed to reach safety.