THE RED DEER Cervus elaphus

Red Deer

Recognition:

Our largest deer species, up to 1.2 metres in height at the shoulder. Red-brown coat colour with no spots in adults. Antlers of males usually branched, not palmate. Rump pattern creamy, not delineated by black lines.

General Ecology:

In Britain most red deer are found on the open moorlands of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, although scattered populations are found elsewhere such as north west England, East Anglia, Exmoor and Ireland.

Range and numbers greatly reduced in historic times, becoming extinct in much of England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands by the end of the 18th century. Subsequent increase in numbers associated with the development of deer stalking as a sport, under-culling of females, and to colonisation of forestry plantations. Contemporary population is likely to exceed c.300,000 animals.

About 80% of the Scottish red deer population live in open-hill habitats year-round. These animals tend to be smaller and produce fewer young than those resident in woodland habitat.

Males and females usually remain in separate groups for much of the year, the females (hinds) tending to monopolise the better, relatively grass-rich, habitats. In contrast, the males (stags) tend to utilise poorer heather-dominant feeding areas. Grasses, sedges and rushes comprise the bulk of the summer diet, with dwarf-shrubs such as heather and blaeberry being more important in winter. Young trees are also browsed.In winter red deer usually concentrate sheltered lower ground, moving to higher altitude summer feeding areas.

In open habitats, such as moorland, hinds are typically organised into groups of between 9 and 40 animals, consisting of a dominant hind, her dependent offspring, and her mature daughters together with their offspring, all sharing over-lapping ranges. In contrast, stag groups are less stable and comprise unrelated individuals. Group-size of red deer occupying woodland habitats tends to be smaller than those of the open hill.

Mating takes place from the end of September to November. At this time (the "rut") mature stags, perhaps 5 to 6 years of age, leave the bachelor groups to seek out hinds at traditional rutting sites. Here the stags attempt to defend groups of 10-15 hinds (exceptionally up to 70) in an attempt to prevent mating by other stags. During the rut, stags engage in roaring "contests", accompanied by parallel walking and locking of antlers. Serious injury is not an uncommon consequence of these battles for access to females. So pre-occupied are they with the rut that stags typically lose c.14% of their pre-rut body weight.

Following the rut, stags and hinds typically segregate again. Calves produced as a consequence of the autumn matings are born from mid-May, with a peak of births in the 1st or 2nd week of June. Calves are usually weaned by 8 months old.

 

Conservation:

Red deer are important ecologically. They provide an important source of food (in the form of live prey or carrion) for other animals, including golden eagle, buzzard, badger, pine marten and fox. In addition, through their browsing, red deer influence vegetation composition and structure. Depending on deer density, and our management objectives for the vegetation, this may be a good or bad thing. In some areas of Scotland, the density of red deer populations is such that regeneration of native woodland is being prevented and higher culling rates are required to reduce the population.

The culling of red deer for sport, meat, or for management is a significant factor in red deer ecology, with c. 70,000 animals being killed annually in recent years. In most parts of the Highlands annual culling rates (6-12% of hinds and between 10-17% of stags), have been insufficient to prevent an increase in the red deer population.

Hybridisation with introduced sika deer Cervus nippon is thought to pose a significant threat to the genetic integrity of native red deer. In some areas such as the southern Lake District and the Wicklow Mountains, the deer populations are now composed almost entirely of red-sika hybrids. It has been suggested that in time, pure red deer may only survive on some of the Scottish islands.

Frequent Questions:

Do both male and females grow antlers?
No. Only males grow antlers. They start to develop at about 10 months of age and are shed annually in March or April. Antlers become progressively more branched with age.

If I find shed antlers can I collect them?
In wild populations of red deer living in the frequently infertile upland habitats of Scotland it is probably better to resist the temptation to collect shed antlers. They are frequently chewed by red deer and other mammals and probably provide a source of phosphorous and calcium.

Further Information: