A few weeks back, I found myself in Richmond Park, one of London’s most beautiful parks, and a ‘green lung’ in West London – you need a lot of trees to absorb the CO2 all the planes dump on London as they land at Heathrow. The park is huge by London standards, covering an area of approximately 2500 acres, making it the second largest green space in the city. It’s a glorious place with a long history, and royal links going back to Edward I’s reign (1272 – 1307). It took its current shape in 1637 under the unfortunate Charles I, who twelve years later would lose his head to the English Revolution.
What makes Richmond Park special though isn’t its size, but the sense of isolation you can find when you wander into the interior. On a mid-week day its possible to find yourself alone in a city of seven million people. Although the park sits in the middle of an urban area with a sizeable human population, it is entirely enclosed by a wall – with numerous entry and exit points – and has changed little over the centuries. Consequently, there are ancient mature trees in the park.
It was Charles I who introduced one of the main features of the park, a large number of Fallow and Red Deer. Charles created a deer park for royal hunting, originally called New Park to differentiate it from an existing park, now called Old Deer Park. Although the public had traditionally had access to the park, this ended in 1751, when Princess Amelia closed it to all but a small number of her friends. This caused a public outcry and, after a legal battle, the park reopened to the public in 1758. Public access was eventually guaranteed by an Act of Parliament in 1872.
In the Autumn, the male deer compete for females during the annual rutting season. The deer are wild, but normally aren’t a danger to humans, or their pets; however, in the rutting season they have been known to attack people and dogs. The Red Deer, in particular, are huge and have enormous antlers: it would be inadvisable to get too close. Its quite extraordinary to witness a natural phenomenon in such close proximity to a major urban area, and while passenger planes fly overhead.
When I was there, there were a lot of deer in evidence – given that they roam all over the park, a sighting isn’t always guaranteed. Watching the males charging around, all sound and fury, trying to herd more females into their harem, or trying to stop other males from stealing females, was hugely entertaining. On the outskirts of the groups of deer were lone males, too young to compete or already defeated in battle, but unwilling to go too far from the group just in case they got lucky!
I walked around for several hours, coming across groups of the smaller Fallow Deer and the much larger Red Deer. The Red Deer may be more dramatic because of their size and their magnificent antlers, but the Fallow Deer give them a run for their money in the energy stakes. The male Fallow Deer rarely seemed to stay still for more than a few seconds, before spotting a challenger, real or imagined, to chase after. Some of the deer were out in the open and attracted quite a few people, others were in high bracken and quite alone.
As befits a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, the park is rich in flora and fauna. Over 1000 species of beetle have been recorded in the park, including the endangered Stag Beetle and Cardinal Click Beetle. Several types of bat live here, as well as foxes, rabbits, voles, shrews and mice. Thanks to the grazing of the deer, the park has a special habitat, with a high level of flora diversity. It is the largest area of Lowland Acid Grassland in the London area.
In a city as big as this, its sometimes difficult to feel any connection to nature, but deer rutting season is one of the great natural events to take place in London. It is only really rivalled by the birthing period from May to July. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and record that as well.