Meet the Team – Jason Griffin, Deer Manager at Cowdray Estate
“There is a long-standing connection between the Estate and deer. The first record of deer on the Estate was about 800 years ago. The original Cowdray House, now known as Cowdray Ruins after being destroyed by fire in 1793, had a grand hall called Buck Hall which was decorated with 11 life-size wooden animals. “
How would you describe your role as one of lowland Britain’s few full-time deer managers?
My role is to manage the wild deer population on the 16,500-acre Cowdray Estate to ensure that the deer do as little damage as possible to the trees, crops and also to tenant property within the boundary of the Estate. Tens of thousands of trees are planted across the Estate each year and a high deer population can mean that these young trees are at risk of being eaten or damaged particularly by deer marking their territory through rubbing their antlers against a tree.
The role primarily focuses on the culling of three species of wild deer – Fallow, Roe and Muntjac. The main cull takes place between 1st November to 1st March each year. At other times of the year, I focus on assessing damage to forest trees, maintaining infrastructure such as deer look out shelters and managing a group of assistant volunteers who are all very engaged and committed to our business. My job is diverse and challenging and I feel privileged to work as a full-time deer manager on such a beautiful estate as Cowdray.
What inspired you to become a deer manager?
I come from a generation of farmers in Somerset. As a child, I used to spend time on my Grandfather’s farm, and I loved being outside. After school I trained as a motor mechanic and then started work helping with a variety of jobs on a small estate in East Sussex. In 1999, after completing various hunting and deer welfare qualifications, I started volunteering at Cowdray as part of the Deer Management Team and absolutely loved it. Ten years later, I was in a good position to apply for the job of Deer Manager at Cowdray and I started soon after being offered the position.
Your role must be affected by the changing seasons. What is your favourite time of year?
All our activities are led by seasons and weather conditions. In the spring and summer, we focus on tree protection and maintenance to structures. The winter period is devoted to culling over the whole Estate. I love being outside and being able to witness all the different colours throughout the year from the lush green of spring to the brown and red leaves of autumn. The low light of winter can be quite an arduous period for us; spring is my favourite time of year. I love being out stalking at first light on a spring morning – you feel such a strong connection with the landscape.
Describe a typical morning stalking?
The day before going stalking I study the weather conditions, plan where I’m going – which is usually dictated by the wind direction – and get my clothing and hip flask ready. Deer stalking in the summer involves being on the ground at first light, which may mean getting up at 3am. Deer tend to move around more at the beginning and at the end of the day. In winter, the days start later so I would be out stalking by around 6.30am. We cull all year round due to the three different species breeding pattern and are careful to cull male and female deer as otherwise it could cause an unnatural balance in the population. Deer stalking is all absorbing – you are observing the wildlife and must be careful not to make a sound.
What first attracted you to work at Cowdray and what has been your most memorable moment while you have been working here?
I was attracted to Cowdray by the diverse landscapes including its beautiful forests and fields and its ‘old world feel’. My most memorable moment at Cowdray was my first day as the deer manager. I felt a real sense of achievement and was excited about working over such a varied and picturesque terrain.
Roughly how many deer are there within the 16,500-acre Cowdray Estate and where are they typically located?
There are roughly over 1,000 wild deer across the Estate. Larger numbers of deer are typically located south of Midhurst.
Why does the deer population need to be controlled?
As there is an absence of predators, if the deer population wasn’t kept under control the numbers would rise to an unsustainable level. This would result in them being able to do untold damage to the Estate’s property and would also have a negative impact on the Estate’s businesses such as the forestry and farms as well as other businesses that operate on the Estate. Deer eat crops and vegetation, are aggressive to young forest trees and there would also be an increase in road traffic accidents. A high deer population is also detrimental to the deer themselves as there is an increase in disease and less food to sustain the herd in winter. Allowing deer to destroy the vegetation also decreases the habitat for other species.
How many deer are culled each year on the Estate and is deer culling often misunderstood?
Several hundred deer are culled each year producing several tonnes of wild venison. Even the most hardened conservationists seem to understand that the deer population needs to be sensitively managed.
Is all the venison culled on the Estate sold in the Farm Shop? What is so great about venison and do you have a favourite way of cooking it?
About a third of the wild venison goes to the Farm Shop each year. However, the amount is increasing as people become more and more engaged with it. Venison is a fantastic source of food as it is locally sourced, sustainably managed, lean, healthy and nutritious. My favourite way of eating venison is frying some haunch steak on a stove in the forest.
How is deer historically connected to Cowdray?
There is a long-standing connection between the Estate and deer. The first record of deer on the Estate was about 800 years ago. The original Cowdray House, now known as Cowdray Ruins after being destroyed by fire in 1793, had a grand hall called Buck Hall which was decorated with 11 life size wooden animals. The current Cowdray House, which was originally built as a hunting lodge, also has an impressive entertaining room named after the original Buck Hall.
There is also the old Deer Park on the Estate by Benbow Pond which encompasses Oaters Wood and the historic Queen Elizabeth Oak.
What is your favourite place on the Estate?
My favourite place is my home, which is an Estate cottage located in the forest. I need somewhere quiet to live as sometimes I get up to go stalking very early and return home to sleep in the day for two or three hours.
What are you most looking forward to about Christmas?
I really enjoy Christmas, as I always have a holiday around that time to recharge ready for the busy few months which follow.
Do you enjoy cooking Christmas dinner, and what is your favourite thing on the plate?
I cook the Christmas dinner for my wife and myself. My favourite bit is my homemade bread sauce.
What do you like doing in your spare time?
I like to go fly fishing. I have a rod on the River Wey near Frensham, Surrey.
How would you spend a perfect Saturday?
My perfect Saturday consists of being at home by an open fire after a hard week’s work with a glass of red wine and Greta, our beloved Bavarian Mountain Hound, by my feet.
Pub lunch or home cooking? What would be your favourite dish to eat?
Home cooking. I like roast beef with all the trimmings.
If you could only take one thing from your house (excluding people) what would it be?
Greta, our dog.
Where do you like to go on holiday?
My wife and I love to travel around Central France. We enjoy browsing in antique shops and love the food and the wine.
What is the number one thing on your bucket list?
I would like to visit Austria as I love their landscapes and am fascinated by the Austrian hunting traditions.
And finally, what can’t you live without?
Coffee. I start my morning looking out of my back door assessing the weather and the wind with a cup of coffee in my hand.
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