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Did a horrible crime happen in this wood ?


While I have been a bone collector I have seen lots of death, and I have seen some horrible things, but nothing quite as horrible and sad as this - even though I haven't seen it with my own eyes because ever since the start of March I haven't been able to go out on walks after I broke my leg cross-country running.

At the start of April Dad went out on a walk to stalk the red deer herd that live in the woods at the north of my village. He had tracked a few and was heading back along the edge of this wood, near where he knew the hind herd liked to graze, and he took a shortcut through the corner of the wood and he got a shock.

He photographed what he found, and printed them out for me to have a look at when he got home. I was shocked.

This is what he first found just inside the south edge of the wood. It was the remains of a red deer. 

That is not unusual, since we find deer skeletons all the time. Deer have a tough life and there are always some that are dying, and a third of red deer calves die before their first brthday. But as he moved through the wood he found something else close by ! It was a second skeleton, with the second skull (bottom right in the picture) separate from the spine (bottom left, just out of shot) and close to the first deer (top arrow).

It was really unusual to find two bodies close together, then it got stranger as he moved north ! About 50 yards away from these two bodies was a third, in an identical condition, with the head, spine, pelvis and lower leg attached like the first, and a limb a short distance away.

What dad asked me was: what could have caused three deer to die close together ?

Examining the scene

Dad had taken lots of pictures and remembered to put in a scale marker. I have trained him well ! This was the third body he found:

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

The remains lay in a ditch between rows of pine trees. It was gruesome. It was definitely a red deer from the size, but the snout looked slightly shorter. It was a female, because there were no pedicles (lumps of bone on the skull where the antlers attach behind the eyes). The skull and jaws were there with a small amount of soft tissue, and the head, spine, pelvis and one of the back legs were all still joined by the last bit of tissue, so it was almost but not fully decomposed yet. The first eight ribs on the left side were still there, but broken near the front. There was still some tissue between the ribs.

This next picture was really useful. You can see it had four cheek teeth on the lower jaw, and the third one had three spikes. The arrow points to a tiny canine tooth (they are hardly visible in real life) and the front incisoform teeth.

Using my guide to aging deer by their teeth, I could see that the fourth cheek tooth (M1) which it has comes fully through at between 4 and 6 months, and the next one, the fifth cheek tooth (M2) , comes fully through by 12 months. There was no sign of the M2 tooth so I guessed it was probably about 4-6 months old, but possibly older.

Then I looked at the photographs of the first deer Dad found:
Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

That one was very similar to the third one, another female, with the head, spine, pelvis and one lower leg still attached.

The skull still had the lower jaws in place, and the top of the skull had a layer of skin still attached. Like the other one, it had four cheek teeth but no sign of the fifth, so it would be about the same age.

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

The third skull which was nearby was very similar but the skin was off the snout, and it wasn't attached to the spine.

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

This was a female too. You could tell from the teeth it was the same age, as well as something else really interesting. Look at the circles which show the the difference in colour between the pm3 tooth and the M1 tooth. The M1 is much whiter, meaning it was much newer, meaning that I thought this M1 tooth had only recently come through making it 4-6 months but not much older. Also the spikes on the upper pm3 are quite sharp because they haven't been worn down yet.

The spine and ribcage were nearby, with most of the ribcage intact, but the rib ends broken about 3/4s of the way down.

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

I looked at the pictures again and asked for a close-up of a detail from the first deer. There was something close to the left hip. It looked like a poo. (You can also see a crack along the top of the hip joint which shows this was a young deer whose pelvis hadn't properly fused yet).
Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

The first deer was unusual as well because the ribs had all been broken about two or three inches from the spine:

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

Dad had searched for some of the legs. It is usual to find them a bit away from the body, because foxes pull them apart. This is a femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) still joined at the knee. The top of the femur has been broken near the top. (The bottom of the femur looks broken too but this just shows it was a young animal where the bone was still growing.)

Here's another one that is almost the same. It shows a whole front leg with the humerus (upper arm), ulna and radius (forearm) and metacarpal and foot (lower leg in deer). Again the humerus is broken near the top.
Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

At all three bodies were pieces of fur scattered about. The pieces around the third deer were in larger chunks than the fur round the other two bodies. I could tell from the photographs some interesting things about the fur from the third body. It was still attached to the skin, and the skin had been pulled off in clumps.

It looked grey but when you turned it over you could see it was actually brown. This is important because red deer fur changes from brown in summer to grey in winter.

Dad brought home this bit of fur for me to have a look at. When I turned it over I could see "V" shaped marks that looked as if they had been caused by an animal's canine teeth tearing off the fur:

I had some clues to start telling dad what I thought had happened.

When did they die ?

It looks like they all died at the same time, but when ? The clues are:

  • the amount of decomposition
  • the teeth
  • the fur

Decomposition: The remains were almost completely skeletonised. If it was summer, and in the open, I would guess maybe that it happened six weeks ago. But in winter, decomposition slows down a lot. My best guess from the remains was they died between three months and seven months ago, which would have been between  the start of October and the start of January. (70% of red deer are born in the three weeks between 25th May and 14th June according to this, I've used a birthday of 1st June to calculate the dates.)

The teeth are a good clue. It looked like they all died at the same time, when they were between four and six months old. Red deer are born about the start of June, so that would put the time of death between the start of October and the start of December.

Red deer still have their reddy coat until at least the start of November, when it turns more dull, then it goes back to red in March.

The only time period all these things could have all happened would be between the start of November and the start of December so that is when I think the deer died.

What could have caused this ?

Finding one deer is not unusual but finding three that died at the same time, at the same age in the same place is very unusual.

Could they have been poisoned ? Sometimes bad gamekeepers leave out poison on dead animals, to kill off buzzards and foxes (but they usually end up killing other animals as well). But deer don't eat meat, and it is very unlikely foliage would be poisoned.  It is possible but unlikely that a stream could have been poisoned, but why did it just affect the three youngest of the herd ?

Could they have been shot ? There are both poachers and a stalker that work in that wood. But all three were shot in the wood itself, where it is difficult to hunt, and both poachers and the stalker would have taken the carcass, just leaving the head, lower legs and organs (it's called gralloching). There were no signs of being shot, but often there wouldn't be on the remains we found.

Could they have died from the cold ? November wasn't a cold month, and it wasn't that cold a winter. Here's the Met Office report for November.

Could it have been foxes ? Foxes usually take small prey and sometimes newborn deer calves. A fox wouldn't attack a healthy 4 month old red deer calf, especially when there were sheep and rabbits nearby. But foxes will eat dead animals, no matter how they died. Remember the teeth marks in the skin on the clumps of fur ? I measured them against one of my fox skulls and found they were a perfect match for the distance between them:

Could the teeth marks have matched a dog instead ? I don't think so because foxes have longer, thinner canines, and if a dog was big enough to bring down a calf, it would have a bigger skull and bite than a fox.

So I think a fox didn't kill the deer but it probably pulled the fur off at at least one of them afterwards.

Could it have been a big cat ? Last week's post got me thinking, especially as there are no wild animals in the UK which prey on non-baby red deer. There are signs it might have been from another animal from the rib cage that was broken open next to the spine, and the broken humerus and femur. Red deer bones are thick and solid and difficult to bite through. Foxes bite through the tummy to get into the chest cavity rather than bite through the rib cage. As I wrote about last week, a lot of people believe that a bitter open chest cavity is a sign of a big cat, and the way the fur was taken off is too, but I'm not so sure. And why did it kill three almost at the same time in the same place, and then kill nothing there for the next five months ?

Could it have been some other kind of predator ? I had one clue, which was the poo beside it. I knew it was from a big animal, but not a deer, fox or badger. Luckily I knew a poo expert I met a few years ago !

Sometimes poachers hunt with dogs to track injured deer,  but the dogs are well trained and the poachers would have taken the bodies. The shepherd's sheepdog wouldn't have done this. People don't walk their dogs in this wood. But the poo had to get there somehow.

My best guess is this: someone took three or more dogs down at night into the fields or woods to hunt deer or rabbits. The dogs, maybe greyhounds, chased the red deer, and killed the three weakest of the herd, the youngest ones, and broke open the ribcage of the first deer. Then afterwards, foxes came and tore off the fur of the third deer. It is the only explanation that really makes sense.

There are signs that would have been there when the bodies were fresh, like bite marks on the bodies, but now we'll never know for sure.

Could the dogs have come across the deer bodies after they died ? That's possible too. But the bodies must have been quite fresh, because of the way the skin was taken off in clumps.

It is against the law to hunt deer with dogs, but there is a stupid mistake in the law which makes the police have to prove that the dog owner intended to hunt deer and it didn't just happen by accident.

After I told dad my theory he let the Wildlife Crime Officer at the local police know, even though there was not much they could do after this time. It is always a good idea to report any wildlife crime.

Are these the young deer that died ?

I wrote about stalking this herd last year during the rut. Dad had photographed this mother and female calf on the 13th October, when the calf would have been four-and-a-half months old. They were about a third of a mile away from where the bodies were found.

Here is another calf from the same herd, about a mile away on the moors at the end of October:

This hind herd is difficult to count because it is in the woods, but I think it has about 20, mainly adult females but also the calves until they turn three. I don't know how many calves they had last year, but I don't think it was much more than three. So this could mean that all last year's calves were killed at once. It is a terrible shame.

UPDATE: I wrote this on Monday, because I was going on a school trip from Tuesday to Friday. Then on Tuesday dad went out to stalk that herd. He counted 16 red deer in the herd, with two year-old calves, and three two-year-old spiker stags (with their first pointy antlers). So there are still some calves left in the herd ! Here's a hind (female) with the eleven month-old calves:

And here is one of the two-year-old spiker stags with an adult hind and an eleven month-old calf:

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Katcetera said...

Wow, what an interesting find! Very interesting post! Hope your cast if off and you'll be able to go see it for yourself soon.

Tim said...

Hi Jake, You make a very good investigator. I was very impressed with your analysis of the evidence.

I have lived in woods that look much like yours for most of my 60+ years, and found many deer skeletons in the spring. Looking at your dad's pictures, I noticed a few odd things. 1) none of the skulls had their noses chewed off. Dogs, coyotes and wolves nearly always eat this part to get the blood rich sinus tissues. 2) Very little hair or hide were found near the carcasses. Most kills I've seen have most of the hide nearby, and loads of loose hair scattered around. The torn pieces of hide your dad found are the sort of thing that should have been scattered over a large area. Notice how the hide has no trace of meat or other tissue attached. This is from the dog pulling away the last bits of flesh once the carcass has been picked clean. The sharply angled tears from the teeth show that this was done after the hide had time to dry to a parchment consistency. Otherwise the tears would have been long and stringy from stretching. I think you got the right culprit for those tears. The fox probably came along some time after the killing to pick up the scraps. 3) On the deer's hind leg, the skin just below the hock looks perfectly evenly cut, right where a man with a knife would start skinning the leg.

I believe you are right about the crime. Done by poachers, ones that don't mind wasting meat, just cutting away the best cuts, and carrying them away wrapped in the hides.

You are a very impressive young man, and am sure your dad is VERY proud of you.

Jack N said...

Great detective work Jake!

Jake said...

Thanks ! I'm hopefully getting my cast off a week on Monday

Jake said...

Hi Tim ! I've seen roe deer noses chewed off by foxes, but never on red deer. I don't know if dogs would. There's still the dog poo and the broken ribs which suggest a dog but that's only on one body. Maybe there will be more clues when it is fully skeletonised.

Jake said...

Thanks ! I like puzzles like this.

David Forbes said...

Hi Jake. I hope you leg is on the mend and soon you will be back exploring. A very interesting column this week. After recently watching several episodes of History Time Team, I think you would love being on a program like that.

Sylvía Oddný said...

A fascinating case! Best wishes on your leg :)

Julia said...

The place where I go and look for bones is also making me suspicious! I find these black garbage bags and inside each of them there is one raccoon in them. When I first started looking there last year there were enough bones there for about 4 deers, and every time I go back out there I find more and more deer bones. There is a landfill at the top of a hill very very close to the spot I look for bones. I think that the raccoons in bags are from the landfill. Raccoons that get trapped in the landfill and the workers throw them away back into the forest. But why in plastic bags? I found this article very interesting!! :)

Jake said...

I found something similar in a wood here three years ago :-( http://www.jakes-bones.com/2010/04/surprise-find-in-new-wood.html

Daniel said...

Nice work! You are like Sherlock!
How dry is the poo? because you could tell how old it was that way. and couldn't it be a lost dog that had done that poo?

Jake said...

I don't know because I didn't want to ask dad to go back to feel poo. The dog would have to be very lost to be where the bodies were.

justynbaldwin said...


AlmaRatt said...

Wolves tear open/break the rib cage when they hunt deer. My first imminent guess wouldve been some kind of dog, big dog. I think you did great on finding out what it could be!

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