Fur and Feather

Fur and Feather

Series The Red Deer


The history of the wild red deer [Cervus elaphus) is closely interwoven with our national life; nor can we doubt that in former days the exercise of hunting served to develop the best qualities of physical excellence in much the same way in which athletic sports at present influence the rising generation of Englishmen.

Many Acts of Parliament were passed in both England and Scotland, intended to restrict the pleasures of the chase, and to reserve them for the most powerful. But the red deer inhabited our islands long before the historic period.

Its range then as now included most of temperate Europe; but the stags which ‘belled’ over our moors and mosses in those distant days carried much finer antlers than their modern descendants.

The sands of Morecambe Bay have a reputation at the present time for the large symmetrical horns which are from time to time washed out by the tide from the holes in which they have lain embedded for ages.

The peat bogs of Scotland, especially of the Western Highlands, tell the same story. Even the gravel beds of our inland valleys often yield fragments of red deer antlers, sometimes at a great depth below’ the present surface. These remains are seldom quite perfect.

Those found in the rubbish heaps of Roman settlements usually bear evidence of having been sawn asunder by workmen, whose task it was to manufacture spear-handles and other utensils from stag-horn. But the fine development of most of the remains show’s that our modern stags fall far short of the standard of heads carried by the stags which cropped our hillsides when the aurochs fought with rival bulls on the fells of Westmorland, and wolves found a safe retreat among the limestone caves of Furness.

Originally, the red deer roamed at will from the north to the south of Britain. The weald of Kent was no less the haunt of well-furnished hinds than the waste lands of Lancashire, or the more distant solitudes of central Scotland. But the interests of the great barons induced them to obtain authority from the Crown to enclose their favorite chase in many instances; with the result that a large number of the best coverts for deer became secluded as private property.

This remark applies to England almost entirely. I have no special information as to Ireland. The subject of Irish red deer has been dealt with by several writers of Irish nationality, including Archdeacon Rowan, whose ‘Lake Lore’ contains a chapter on the red deer of the Killarney Mountains.

Mr. R. J. Ussher contributed to the ‘ Zoologist ’ a paper entitled ‘ Notes on Irish Red Deer,’ from which some useful information may be gleaned (‘Zook,’ 1882, pp. 81-84). Thompson’s ‘Natural History of Ireland’ should also be consulted. Our English red deer have received ample justice at the hands of Dr. Collyns and Richard Jefferies, but only as regards that stronghold of the race which exists among the Devonian woodlands.

St. John and other Scottish sportsmen have done ample justice to our grand Highland deer; but, curiously enough, no one except the writer himself has attempted to depict the life of the stag upon the face of the mist-wrapped hills of the English Lake district.

This fact may well serve as an excuse for including in the present volume a description of the picturesque region in the midst of which the red deer, which once roamed from the shores of the North Sea to the red sandstone cliffs that break the swell of the Irish Channel, have for many years past found their only northern sanctuary.

The forest of Martindale situated in the very heart of the Lake district. It is bounded on the north by the long winding reaches of Ullswater Lake. Haweswater, a lonely loch, abounding in charr and gwyniad, bars a way of escape to the eastward, unless an outlying deer makes for Shap Fell.

High Street, across which the Roman sappers engineered a military road, is a favorite haunt of the red deer; but they do not roam over to Windermere or Potterdale under ordinary circumstances. Indeed, the deer are most partial to the center of Martindale, which includes the valleys of Boarsdale, Bannerdale, Rampsgill, and Fusedale.

The nature of the rock causes it to splinter at sharp angles, hence the crags of the district frequently assume an irregular and jagged outline, which adds variety to the scenery. In the present day it is usual to reach Martindale and Fusedale driving from Pooley Bridge along the Westmorland side of the lake.

It is also easy to row across from the Cumberland side in a small boat. But even a century ago the stretch of hills, each divided by a deep gully from its next neighbor, which ex- tended from Shap to Patterdale, must have filled the mind of a casual stranger with a sense of loneliness and isolation, due for the most part to the weird gloom with which the dark precipices that rise above the four dales just mentioned are certainly invested.

I never visit Bannerdale myself without glancing upwards at the deserted eyrie of the sea eagles which once filled a shelf of precipice, lying in a sort of shadow, not far below the summit of Buck Crag.

It was between 1793 and 1809 that old Edward Sisson, the wildfowler, shot the female off her nest. He cut off the foot as a token of what he had done. One of the claws was missing, showing that iron traps were already used to destroy our Lakeland eagles.

Sisson carved a claw out of a piece of wood and colored it to match the real claws. The eyrie from which this bird was shot was the last used in Lakeland. At least so old folks say. They also relate that the eyrie contained two eggs at the time of Sisson’s achievement.

‘I’he screes at the foot of that eyrie are redolent still of the ‘foil of the Sweet Mart,’ a sadly persecuted animal. How it is that the ‘Mart ’ has not been exterminated long since I hardly know. I suppose that it must be explained by the fact that the marten cat frequently runs to ground in crags which are too lofty and precipitous to afford a footing to the most adventuresome of fell-side hounds.



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