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How dead deer are helping to rewild Gibbets Close nature reserve

by Neil Clennell

The photo in January's newsletter (shown above) of Toby and a majestic, if rather dead, fallow deer stag at our Gibbets Close restoration site certainly caused some interest. The stag was killed in an altercation with a vehicle on the Charlbury to Enstone road. It was the first roadkill carcass that we collected before Christmas and took to a quiet spot at Gibbets Close Hill. It was closely followed by a couple of muntjac.

There are several biological factors that probably limit the rate at which landscapes, and even individual sites that have been heavily modified by human activity over long periods of time, can begin to repair themselves by natural ecological processes. One of these is the comparative lack of ‘dead things’ in modified countryside compared to more pristine environments. Already one of the most deforested countries in Europe, very few of the trees that we do have in the UK are allowed to reach a ripe old age, die, and then fall over to slowly decompose over decades. Similarly, the biomass of wild animals out there is at an all-time low, especially in farmed landscapes where it has been largely replaced by domesticated livestock.

Now, the appearance of large dead animals as a result of a top predator’s kill, or a natural disaster like fire or famine, is an extremely rare event. From our (admittedly crude) roadkill-hunt straw poll alone, it would be fair to conclude that finding large dead animals in the Wychwood is difficult and rare; when you do they are almost exclusively deer; and our current top predator is the motor vehicle.

Why does this matter? Isn’t it all a bit esoteric really, and our landscapes aren’t pristine anymore because we have to live here too? Well, the importance isn’t so much the individual events (the storm-felled veteran, the remains of a large predator kill) and their very localised effects, it’s the catalysing effects on food chains cumulatively across a landscape. There are a myriad of creatures that specialise in clearing up death and decay, from the microscopic to the vultures, and keeping them busy and well-fed is actually the cornerstone of healthy food webs and ecosystems.

The deer carcasses we have taken to Gibbets Close are the nearest we can manage to simulating an important biological process that we can’t reasonably hope will re-establish itself by entirely natural means in the wider landscape any time in the near future. They are the preliminary part of a plan to investigate the effects of sporadic, glut-and-famine carrion availability on the recovery of the wider species assemblage over time, not just on the obvious scavengers. Over the coming years we will monitor population changes of certain indicator species that should benefit indirectly from the increased biomass of detritivores, but for now, we just wanted to know if anything would find the carcasses, and what would happen.

As it turns out, lots happens. More on all this another time, but here are two initial takeaways for now. Apparently eyes are a delicacy and make a delicious starter. And muntjac have truly terrifying fangs that wouldn’t look out of place in a tiger’s mouth. Who knew?!

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