Fancy a go at Deer Feeding?  Helen did!

Since lockdown I have taken the fantastic opportunity (with a little extra time available to me on a weekend!) to learn more about our herds of red deer primarily managed by my husband Antony.  Early every Saturday & Sunday morning he disappears off for about 1-2 hours maybe longer & ‘feeds the deer’ and whilst I was aware of the basics I was keen to find out just what a typical ‘deer feed’ outing is like.

Well, where to start?  Certainly no two deer feeds are ever the same.  At the end of March, the weather was pretty brisk first thing in the morning and even if it looks bright several layers of clothing are recommended. As my Mum used to say – if you’ve got it, you can always take a layer off if it warms up!

So the summer routine for the herds are some supplementary feed in the way of beef nuts, these are full of protein, a nice alternative to grass, and the deer love them!  We fill the buckets from the silo at the farm, load them in the truck and off we go… before we even get to the first field there is just time to take in what I’ve always been told is ‘the best part of the day’ but never really appreciated.  But there really is something in that!  The air is fresh, the farm is normally empty, no machinery in the yard (if Oli’s spraying he’s out way earlier in the morning than this!) and it is so quiet & peaceful.  Except for the bird song and, if I was better educated in birdsong I would love to tell you precisely which birds – save to say that there is simply a huge variety of sing-song going on.

Anyway back to my main role which as I have found out is chief gate opener & closer – no wonder Antony was so happy for me to ‘help’!  Not every gate has a race so you need to see if the deer are close by before unlocking and opening a gate to let the feeding wagon through as they would be only too keen to join you on the other side.  Generally the deer see you approaching and they know what time it is and soon we are surrounded by stags (only little ones apparently, but they look magnificent to me) the yearling boys born last season, who are very jumpy and playful with furry antler stubs just coming through.  We top up their water in the trough, they are given their allotted feed and off we go!

The hinds are split into two enclosures at this time of year ready for calving towards the end of May / June time.  It is always a juggling act to get them into the right place and quite a logistical challenge given the shape and nature of the old parkland estate system which is linear rather than circular so moving deer has to be planned weeks in advance.  We also took the opportunity to improve the grazing sprayed off most of the nettles in the enclosures.  Having done this livestock can’t be put back in that field until a week after the herbicide has been applied – time really is against us when we have 6 enclosures to manage before the middle of May!  The hinds are friendly but not quite as speedy as the stags but I don’t blame them not wanting to run about as they are nearly ready to calve!  This is also the opportunity for Antony to check on the herd, look for any problems and ensure they are healthy.  So, we swap roles and quite quickly I’m promoted to deer feeder whilst he casts an eye over the girls.  Well he didn’t tell me quite how heavy those ‘buckets’ of feed are…  around 17kg apparently, my goodness this is a work-out, forget PE with Joe!!  Carrying the bucket and tipping the feed across the enclosure so they don’t fight for it is no mean feat and quite often there is one who tries to get her head in the bucket rather than pick it off the ground.  The ladies are slightly less magnificent but still very strong and persistent so whilst they enjoy the affection of being stroked behind the ears, I’m never totally relaxed and convinced that they won’t turn on me.  Several gates and groups of deer later, (& wow we have A LOT of gates!) which are typical farm gates: they are all meant to work the same but some you have to lift, some you push, some you really need 3 hands to open and we’re on the home-ward stretch.

Don’t forget the Belties – our newest additions arrived just before lockdown, just 4 Belted Galloway cattle (hopefully more to come) looking very at home in the ‘family camping field’ this year doing a great job of keeping it grazed naturally.  Well these big boys are easy to spot, just look for the white stripe, but they are normally in the same corner of the field.  They have completely different personalities to the deer: they are slow, steady, plodders who don’t often run for their breakfast.  We call them over and give them 4 small piles of food, they have a good temperament – you can look them in the eye and they don’t feel you are challenging them, however the terrier is nowhere near and I’m not far from a gate in case of an early exit!

It’s not just deer and cattle you see on a deer feed, there are literally hundreds of hares and as the season has progressed and we’ve been eagerly awaiting the sight of a deer calf it is very easy to mistake a hare for a calf from a distance.  I’ve also spotted roe and muntjac deer around the estate and even a muntjac in a deer enclosure looking for the way they came in so they can get out again.  The birdlife is prolific from greylag geese (way too many for a farmers liking as 4 geese eat the equivalent grass as 1 sheep does!), Canada geese, swans, duck, buzzards, wagtails, woodpeckers and many many more for the avid bird lover to spot and hear.

I could share many a tale about unexpected happenings on a typical (there really is no such thing!) deer feed but to be honest I really recommend you give this experience a go.  Whatever the month over the summer or the weather, these animals are a sight to behold and the opportunity to come on the estate and get involved in feeding and learning more about them truly is a great experience.

Weekend Deer Feeding Experiences at Stourton Estates can be purchased on our website online here

Socially distanced feeding tours are now available from the comfort of an open air seated mini-trailer, starting at a more socially reasonable time of 8am.  If you want to check availability of a particular date prior to booking please email contact@stourtonestates.co.uk

 

Written by Helen Strawson

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