Very few colleges can boast of having a Deer Park. While Magdalene in Oxford still has its herd of deer, Peterhouse has a Deer Park, but no deer. This oddity inevitably raises the obvious questions: were there really deer here, and what happened to them?
Firstly, there were indeed deer in the Deer Park in living memory (until about 1935). It is sometimes assumed that deer were introduced into 'The Grove', as it was known, by the landscape gardener William Sawrey Gilpin in 1840. Gilpin designed many of the formal gardens of English estates and in the last few years of his life was commissioned to redesign Peterhouse's gardens. This was occasioned by the building of the Fitzwilliam Museum on Peterhouse land, an event that disrupted the existing gardens.
In reality, the deer arrived long after Gilpin's time. The first record is of a pair being given to the college in 1857. Dr. Porter, the then Master, wrote in 1892:
"We have had a few deer in our College grounds at Peterhouse for thirty-five years, or nearly so. The Rev. J.W. Taylor presented to the College in 1857 a buck and a doe, which I believe he obtained from a dealer in London, and during part of that period we have had as many as twelve. The late Duke of Devonshire, Chancellor of the University, about 1870 sent us a buck and does from one of his deer-parks [Chatsworth, Harwick or Holker], and the late Earl of Rosslyn, a year before his death , sent us from Easton Lodge, Dunmow, half-a-dozen young deer; but they disliked so much the confinement within our small grounds, that they nearly all died. At present we have only two, but in the proper season we shall endeavor to replenish our stock."
The Deer Park does not seem to have been a success for the deer. As Porter recorded, there was just a pair in 1892 and this remained the case through to 1902. A few fawns were born, but do not seem to have survived. Four more were added in 1901 and two more in 1905. Around 1910 they may have increased to nine. They seem to have dropped to six by 1922 and from this point they declined steadily. There were five in the mid 1920s, falling to just three does in 1927. It is not clear what happened to these, but it is likely that they also died in the following couple of years. In 1931 a buck and two does were brought in to the Deer Park by the Duke of Portland from the Welbeck Abbey herd. A fawn was born at the start of 1933 but died almost immediately. The buck died at the same time and an autopsy revealed Johne's Disease as the cause of death. This infectious bacterium in the Peterhouse Deer Park meant that it was impossible to restock the park or to send the remaining deer elsewhere. Although Johne's Disease was widespread in the wider countryside at the time, the source of the Peterhouse infection is not known; it could have come in with the Welbeck deer or with sheep that had grazed the Deer Park in the 1920s.
1933 was a particularly bad year for the dear as the death of the stag and the fawn was followed in May by one of the does being startled and running into a wall, breaking a leg and having to be put down. The remaining doe lived on in isolation until the following year when it was decided that she should be put down, marking the end of the smallest Deer Park in Britain.
The cause of the demise of the deer is not known as only the last stag was autopsied, but the diagnosis of Johne's Disease in this animal could explain much of the history of the herd. The causative bacterium is picked up from faeces or contaminated water and new-born animals are often infected at birth. In young deer it progresses rapidly, with symptoms being detectable from eight months of age and death following shortly afterwards. There appear to have been few fawns reaching maturity in the Peterhouse herd, which might fit with Johne's. In adult deer outbreaks of the disease can cause 50% mortality, and 50% of infected animals can be asymptomatic. This may mean that the Peterhouse infection was long-standing, and not due to the last three animals or the sheep in the 1920s. If the herd was infected from around 1900 the susceptible adults and the fawns would be lost quickly, but asymptomatic carriers would have survived only to transmit the disease to each new introduction.
Pattenden,P. 2004. The Buck Stops Here. Peterhouse Annual Record 2003/4: 26-50
Whitaker, J. 1892. A descriptive list of the Deer-Parks and Paddocks of England. Ballantyne, Hanson & Co., London
Malyon, C. 2007. Visit to Peterhouse gardens, 15th August 2007. Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust Newsletter 29: 2-4