Investigator files episode one: Pheasants and meeting calves

Pheasants bred for shooting on Exmoor

I have been investigating pheasant shoot areas on Exmoor with my colleague Mark.

We walked for miles in Forestry Commission public forests that are leased to shoots. I was horrified by what we found there: acre after acre of fenced off enclosures designed for rearing pheasants.

These release pens are used to help pheasants bred for shooting to acclimatise to the wild before they are released. Not only did these cages stretch on as far as the eye could see, they were also the closest thing to wildlife that the area had to offer.

 On shooting grounds like these, it is typical for anything that is the slightest threat to a pheasant to be either shot, trapped or poisoned. Hence the cruel practice of snaring, which kills and maims foxes, in addition to other species and the occasional household pet, every year.

As a result, there was no wildlife in the area. The cages stood out against an otherwise barren landscape. And this was right in the heart of Exmoor.

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Deer calves thriving on League sanctuary

We encountered a more positive story when we returned to Baronsdown, the League’s flagship wildlife sanctuary which we were using as our base for the day.

Baronsdown is deserving of its title as a sanctuary; animals who live there are well-protected from the cruelty of shooting and hunting. With the calving of the Red Deer in full swing, Mark and I were treated to some amazing sights.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a new-born deer. I found my first new-born wild red deer calf on Exmoor in the early seventies, and ever since then I’ve been trying to give others the same experience.

When ready to give birth, the hind (female deer) usually finds a quiet spot alone. When the calf is born, she licks her offspring clean.

The calves are remarkably ready for life from the moment they enter the world. Within the first hour after their birth, they are able stand and wobble unsteadily over to suckle under their mothers.

The mother then hides her calf in the undergrowth, where it is completely dependent on this camouflage, and lack of scent, to keep it safe from predators. The calf also has a very loud, high-pitched cry and its mother is always within earshot to run in to protect the little one when she hears it. Hinds can use their front legs to hit with great power to ward off danger.

Throughout the first day or two these calves just lay still when you find them, giving wildlife lovers like me the chance to observe them. The code of conduct is to never touch the calf and not to stay too long; just take a picture and move away respectfully.

Eventually, at around three to four years old, male deer are driven away from their mothers by the stags that come to court them during rutting season. These young males will then need to make their home somewhere else.

The young deer I have observed can look forward to the protection Baronsdown has to offer for at least those first few years of its life; growing up and learning from its mother, playing in peace. But when the male deer are driven away, the young sometimes wander far from the safety of the sanctuary.

That means, later in life, these stags could face the horror of being hunted by hounds. It is then, as they are chased for mile after mile, they will try to return to their birthplace and their mother. They run the gauntlet, flanked by dogs and shouting hunters, and we can only hope they make it back to the sanctuary before they collapse in exhaustion.

As Mark and I looked at these innocent calves, we wondered why anyone would want to chase and torment such a beautiful creature. We also wondered what lies ahead for the calves we saw. Will they be chased away? If so, where to? Will they get to enjoy a long, happy life?

Whatever the answers, we know the League will always be on their side.

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