The Deer

Fallow deer are medium-sized deer, males standing about 3 feet tall at the shoulders, and females slightly shorter. Their coats range in color from chestnut, brown and black, to pure white, and most have white spots on their backs. All have a black line running down their backs to their tails. Their coats grow thick in winter and the spots become more faint. Males have broad, impressive antlers that can grow over two feet in height.

Their behavior…

In the wild, fallow deer live in separate, same sex herds for most of the year, only coming together for the rut, in October – November. During the rut, males groan, walk in a stiff-legged strut and spar with their antlers. Females deliver a single fawn in June or July. Young fawns are “cached” while does feed during the day.

buck eating in herdTheir origins and history…

Fallow Deer or Dama dama originated post-glacially in Turkey and Southern Europe. In more recent times, they have been introduced beyond this range to about 36 countries worldwide – in captive herds, parks and in some cases, they’ve escaped or been freed and have established themselves in the wild.

Another very closely related deer species — once thought the same species, or a subspecies, but proven distinct in 2005 — is Dama mesopotamica and hails from Iran. Unlike Dama dama, which is a very common wild species throughout Europe, Dama mesopotamica is highly endangered. Only 250 of these animals survive in captivity in Iran today.

Since the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Normans introduced the fallow deer all around Europe, humans have kept herds of these petite deer in captivity and raised them for meat. Their meat is lean, and if they are harvested carefully, it isn’t gamey like other wild venison. There’s no question they are one of the most commonly raised, wild animals.

Fallow Deer at Deauville Farm…

It is thought that the color variations in fallow deer evolved through captive breeding – so Gail’s herd of fallow deer, like most herds around the world, range in color from the most common, chestnut spotted coats, to chocolate brown and white, and many shades in between. This year, her two, dominant, young bucks are both chocolate brown, and at the moment there is only one whitish female in the herd – a doe Gail named “Butterscotch.” My film will likely feature these individuals since they are easy to spot in the herd.

Gail feeds the deer corn and hay. They have three pastures of over 20 acres total in which to roam freely. During bad weather, the deer have access to shelter in a large barn. They don’t really like to go inside structures, but one side of this barn is open to the air, and the floor is dry and covered with straw – they have discovered it is a comfortable, safe place to take refuge in a snowstorm. When it rains, the deer gather in small groups under cedar trees, and often lie down in the rain. Interestingly, they lick the water from their wet coats, and they also lick rain-drenched tree trunks!

The central pasture is a long rectangle partly on a hillside, and has viewing access on one, long side. This is where the deer are fed – both for ease of access to large tin cans of corn, and hay storage, and because visitors to Deauville like to watch them.

girl feeds deerstunningChildren visiting Deauville who are already “in the know” will rush to feed the deer some weeds they pull from the ground and hand through the fence. The Shenandoah is in drought and the deer pasture is bone dry, with edible grasses available only after rains. But green food grows at Deauville around the raised vegetable beds, since they are kept watered out of necessity. So, a few of the deer are brave enough to approach the fence – and humans — for some fresh greens. These individuals have been handfed like this for years, but even they are tentative creatures that take their time and show extraordinary cautiousness. “That’s just what deer are like,” Gail explains, “They’re wild animals even though they will live their whole life in this large, fenced pasture.”

The kids talk sweetly to their favorites – deer like “Sheila,” a 13 year old doe named after a little boy’s grandmother. It’s hard for any child to just feed them without trying to reach in through the fence to steal a furtive stroke of their spotted coats. But even the very experienced “Sheila” sometimes jumps at this crossing of boundaries. Gail cautions, “Be gentle with Sheila, kids. She’s getting old and because her teeth are worn, it takes her some time to chew the grass!” Gail explains that all the “handfed” deer are named, and will live out their lives on the farm because they are ambassadors for their kind.

But the handfed deer are just a fraction of the herd… this year, like most years before, there were new fawns to raise, bucks to assess for their potential contribution to the herd and many animals to harvest during the winter months.

The subject of the harvest is sometimes a difficult one for people to discuss, let alone accept. We are a culture that has grown far more comfortable thinking that meat is a thing you find in plastic at the supermarket. When asked by a curious, older child, Gail is honest about the fate of most of the members of her herd. And she will explain gently that they are being raised for food, that is, with the exception of twenty or so animals who — at some time after their birth, approached the fence, received names for their bravery, and who are too precious and beloved by too many people (including Gail) to become venison. Even a good farmer makes some decisions driven by emotion, not business.

Rarely has a child had trouble accepting what Gail has to say about this, unless their parents lead them down the path of misunderstanding. And only rarely has she had to calm down a shocked adult who can’t understand why anyone would want to kill, let alone eat “Bambi.” But Gail takes time to explain, and then asks the pointed question, “Would you rather eat meat that is humanely raised? Or the meat of an animal that has gone through our commercial agriculture system and lived through horrors beyond belief to reach our tables?” Many a visitor has changed their buying habits after a single visit to Gail’s farm, opting to buy humanely raised meat at a local farmers market whenever possible.

Filming the deer…

herd+fawnWell, suffice to say it is a huge challenge. Most of my career has been spent making wildlife films, but shooting the film requires a whole new set of wildlife understanding and direct filming experience with the specific animal in question. As I write this, I’ve just spent two weeks trying to outsmart them, without any luck – and this is after six months of experience trying to film them. My hope is to either approach them (or be in the right place at the right time) when they are in some of their more intimate moments, and to capture this behavior on video — but so far I’ve had little luck. Even after climbing on top of chicken coups to capture surreptitious glimpses from on high, and sitting for many hours day after day in a blind, the deer are always one leap in front of me, and well out of sight before I can get my camera positioned.

Yesterday, I could have sworn they sent a scout – that wily old gal Sheila – to walk past my blind to see if I was inside. Fallow deer stay in their herd almost all the time. So when one deer appeared in my line of sight, I assumed the others would be following. But then Sheila walked past my blind, doing the stiff-legged “I’m really terrified” walk. She actually cast a quick glance right inside at me from about 10 feet away, and then circled around, and ran back to the herd, this time running by at a safer range of 40 feet. And when she got back to the herd? I’m certain she reported that “the crazy human with the long sticks and big black thing” was indeed inside that blind, and they were going somewhere else, but quick.

All I can say is… wish me luck.