Why deer on Sheffield’s Big Moor don’t keep the wolves at bay

Red deer stag in the snow near White Edge, seeking shelter in the woodlands
Red deer stag in the snow near White Edge, seeking shelter in the woodlands

Dusk, the outskirts of Sheffield. The unearthly bellow of a great beast echoes across the grasslands. Another roars in response, and another, as naturalists aim their telescopes and a BBC film crew edits their latest footage. It’s like the Serengeti, said one observer.

“Some people call Big Moor a wasteland,” said Danny Udall from the Eastern Moors Partnership, of the 12 square kilometres of moorland between Curbar and Holmesfield.

Two red deer hinds, a calf and 2 yearling males looking east for the morning sun to rise on Big Moor

Two red deer hinds, a calf and 2 yearling males looking east for the morning sun to rise on Big Moor

“But if you want to get away from it all and find a connection with something big and something wild, this is the place.”

From now until November, Sheffield’s red deer herds will be rutting: the stags sizing up their rivals, roaring at them and very occasionally locking antlers in a tug of war to work out who’s the biggest and strongest, while the female hinds indifferently browse the heather and bilberry bushes, in preparation for selecting the stag to be the father of their children.

On Big Moor and nearby White Edge, more than 160 red deer will be bellowing, chasing and mating over the next month, like an antelope herd in a wildlife documentary. With one dramatic exception: on Big Moor there are no big predators waiting in the grass.

So Saturday’s Blue Peter crew filming for a broadcast this week chose instead the Eastern Moors Bolving Championship as a finale to the day’s footage.

Red deer stags on Totley Moor with Sheffield behind them

Red deer stags on Totley Moor with Sheffield behind them

“‘Bolving’ is people emulating the roar of a red deer stag, which is then marked according to authenticity, volume and whether you get a response from a real red deer,” said Danny Udall. “It’s also a good way of making a fool of yourself.”

The National Trust and the RSPB, who manage the Peak District’s eastern moors on behalf of the National Park Authority, imported the ‘bolving’ idea from Exmoor three years ago, and for this year’s competition held at Barbrook there were more than 100 people spectating and bolving.

“I’m not aiming to be like Simon Cowell,” said official bolving judge Roger Temple. “We don’t want to be too serious. But I do know that some competitors have been out on the moor practising.”

As darkness fell, the bolvers grunted and bellowed, while the careful listener noted a contemptuous edge in the stag responses.

Red deer stag and hind during the rut on Big Moor

Red deer stag and hind during the rut on Big Moor

Red deer have been increasing on Big Moor since the 1980s, when a satellite herd of Chatsworth escapees settled on the moor, liking its isolation, its vegetation, and the surrounding woodland to hide in once the rutting season is over.

Stags are so busy trying to prove their virility that they have little time to eat during the rut, leaving them vulnerable to harsh winters, and there are now only 20-30 mature stags on Big Moor, said Danny. Nevertheless, there are several hundred red deer living around Sheffield, with more than 260 red deer counted on Big Moor in 2014.

But too many deer can erode the moorland vegetation, and lead to disease, said Danny. There have also been reports of deer in local gardens, and several near misses on the roads. “When living closely with big wildlife like deer, I recognise there can be issues like the impact on people’s gardens,” Danny said.

So recently the Eastern Moors Partnership has contracted the shooting of some mature female deer, to be sold on as game venison. Depending on the increase in calves in this year’s count, more deer may or may not be killed this winter.

Red deer stag bellowing during the rut on Big Moor

Red deer stag bellowing during the rut on Big Moor

The recent increase in red deer could have been linked to a reduction of moorland grazing by sheep, or simply by the herds thriving in a very amenable landscape.

“We have reduced the size of the herd to keep it in balance with the environment,” said Danny. “We got rid of the wolf in Britain some years ago, so now we have to be the wolf in the landscape.”

That means keeping the deer moving around the moor and spending less time browsing in woodland, as well as reducing the numbers.

Conservationists talk of the missing predators in the UK, and how the imbalance leads to problems down the food chain for plants, trees and even song birds as deer populations keep growing. Some lynx (which kill younger and smaller deer in Europe) may be reintroduced as a trial in the UK in the near future. But what about the wolf, the red deer’s main historical predator?

People in the USA and Europe have lived with wolves and bears for years, said Danny. “You might ask why it’s OK for people in other countries to live with big scary animals, but not us?”

– Visit Eastern Moors for details.

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: competitors and supporters on their way to the bolving stage

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: competitors and supporters on their way to the bolving stage

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: competitor on his way to the stage

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: competitor on his way to the stage

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: Jo Armstrong (left) and Janet Scholefield in bolving action

Eastern Moors Red Deer Bolving Championships, Barbrook: Jo Armstrong (left) and Janet Scholefield in bolving action