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Red deer

Red deer


The red deer is the largest land-mammal in the UK with a males (stags) standing 107-137cm at the shoulder and weighing 90-190kg. Adult females (hinds) reach a height of 107-122cm at the shoulder and weigh 63-120kg. Deer on the open hill in Scotland are smaller than those in lowland English woodland.

The summer coat is reddish brown to brown and the winter coat is brown to grey. There are no spots on the adult coat. Stags have large, highly branched antlers and the number of branches increases with age. Antlers can have up to 16 points in wild animals. The angle between the brow tine and the main beam is near to 90o. This is important in distinguishing red deer from the related sika.

History, distribution & habitat

Red deer are a native species having migrated to Britain from Europe 11,000 years ago. They were used extensively by Mesolithic man as a source of food, skins and tools (bones and antlers). However, the development of agriculture by Neolithic man cleared swathes of forest to make way for fields and this loss of forest encouraged the decline of red deer populations, which became confined to the Scottish Highlands, south-west England and a few other small, scattered populations

The Normans protected red deer in parks and ‘forests’ (often devoid of trees!) for royal hunting, but this protection was lost during the Medieval period causing another decline in numbers in England. Victorian re-introductions of ‘improved’ stock (often inter-bred with larger related species such as wapiti), escapes from deer parks, natural spread, together with an increase in the Highlands and in forest and woodland cover since the early 20th century, mean that red deer are now widely distributed and are expanding in range and number.

While preferring woodland and forest habitats in England and southern Scotland, red deer can adapt to open moor and hills as they have in parts of Scotland and south-west England. Native stock are common in the Scottish Highlands, Dumfriesshire, Lake District, East Anglia and the south-west of England. Feral stock are present in the north of England, north Midlands, East Anglia, the New Forest and Sussex.

Red deer graze on grasses and dwarf shrubs e.g. heather and bilberry. Woody browse, e.g. tree shoots, is taken when other food is limited during winter. However, grazing of tree shoots and agricultural crops puts red deer in conflict with farmers and foresters due to economic damage. Conversely, many country and forest estates can gain substantial revenue from recreational stalking and/or venison production. As well as being farmed for their venison red deer are also kept as ornamental park species in the UK. Whether in conflict or used as a resource, red deer populations require careful management to maintain health and quality and ensure a sustainable balance with their environment.

Breeding, behaviour & lifecycle

The breeding season, on rut, occurs from the end of September to November. Stags return to the hind's home range and compete for them by engaging in elaborate displays of dominance including roaring, parallel walks and fighting.  Serious injury and death can result from fighting but this only occurs between stags of similar size that cannot assess dominance by any of the other means.  The dominant stag then ensures exclusive mating with the hinds.

Despite being sexually mature before their second birthday in productive woodland populations, only stags over five years old tend to mate.  In woodland populations hinds over one year old give birth to a single calf after an eight-month gestation, between mid-May to mid-July. Puberty may be delayed until three years old in hill hinds, which may give birth only once every two or three years.

Some Scottish hill populations suffer heavy infant mortality at and shortly after birth and during their first winter. Lifespan can be, exceptionally, up to 18 years.

In woodland red deer are largely solitary or occur as mother and calf groups. On open ground, larger single sex groups assemble, only mixing during the rut and in the Highlands of Scotland large groups may persist for most of the year. Red deer are active throughout the 24 hour period but make more use of open spaces during the hours of darkness in populations experiencing frequent disturbance. Peak times of activity are at dawn and dusk. In the Highlands of Scotland red deer use the open hills during the day and descend to lower ground during the night.

Stags roar and grunt during the rut. Hinds bark when alarmed and moo when searching for their young. Calves emit a high-pitched squeal when alarmed and may bleat to their mother.

Follow this link for amateur footage of a roaring stag:

Download species leaflet.

Download distribution & identification poster.

Further reading

Scottish Red Deer and their Conservation by V P W Lowe (2014) Hayloft Publishing Ltd