Hanging on for deer life
28 February, 2013
Scotland’s largest native land mammal is the red deer. Humans have interacted with red deer throughout history. Red deer bones are among the most commonly found wild animal remains in Mesolithic archaeological sites (dating from roughly 8000 to 3000 BC). Hunting deer was of significant importance to early man: it probably signified prestige and power.
Unlike other animals such as sheep, cattle, boar and wolves, there was no attempt to domesticate deer. Interestingly, archaeological evidence has shown that deer have grown shorter in the past 10,000 years. As the wildwood was felled and replaced by open moor, being smaller presumably became advantageous to these widely hunted animals!
The archaeological evidence also tells us that fawns and young deer aged four or five years were the most commonly caught. The significance of this is hard to judge, but fawns would be unable to keep up with their mothers during a chase. Also, young deer are ejected from the herd and have to find new territories, where they are vulnerable until they gain experience and familiarity with the land.
During the Middle Ages, hunting began to be stringently controlled by the Crown. Large areas of land were declared to be royal forests, subject to ‘Forest Law’. Only the king and his guests could hunt there – unless he granted hunting rights to others.
Confusingly, the term ‘forest’ did not mean a wood but an area of land that was good for game. Deer preferred woodland; hence the modern meaning of the word came about. Many monasteries were given rights over neighbouring forest land. Melrose Abbey and Dryburgh Abbey in the Borders used them for rearing sheep, and for pannage: releasing pigs into woodland to forage. These rights generated a large part of the monastery’s income.
The Book of Deer written in the 12th century at Deer Abbey, near Peterhead, gives a unique insight to medieval life. It records the granting of an elerc – an Irish word meaning a place where deer would be driven to be ambushed by hunters. A similar ambush space was used in Holyrood Park, where deer would be funnelled below the Salisbury Crags.
Such was the importance of hunting that ‘parks’ began to be created in the 12th century. These were enclosed game reserves normally surrounded by a ditch and bank or wooden fence known as the ‘pele’ or ‘peel’. Hence the parkland surrounding Linlithgow Palace is called the Peel.
Holyrood Park was originally a hunting park and the park at Stirling can still be seen to the south of the castle. These parks would have been regularly stocked and documents relate how deer were driven from the Lomond Hills into the park at Falkland. Deer were also transported by wagon and records show that a cartload of deer took three days to travel from Falkland to Stirling.
Deer are still seen occasionally in the parks of Holyrood, Linlithgow and Stirling in the winter, when food is scarce in the surrounding countryside. I have also seen deer when visiting Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie, in the adjacent Inch Marshes Nature Reserve.