Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
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Recognition. Our largest land-mammal. Summer coat is reddish brown to brown, winter coat is brown to grey. No spots present in adult coat. Large, highly branched antlers in the stag (male).
Adult size. Stags 90-190kg, 107-137cm at shoulder. Females (hinds) 63-120kg, up to 107-122cm at shoulder. Deer on the open hill in Scotland are smaller than those in lowland English woodland.
Antlers. Highly branched. The number of branches increases with age. Up to 16 points in native animals. The angle between the brow tine and the main beam is always more than 90?. This is important in distinguishing red deer from the related sika.
Life span. Exceptionally up to 18 years. Heavy infant mortality at and shortly after birth and during first winter in some Scottish hill populations.
Download our Red Deer species sheet
Status. Widespread and locally common.
UK distribution. Native stock common in the Scottish Highlands, Dumfriesshire, Lake District, East Anglia and the south-west of England. Feral stock present in the north of England, north Midlands, East Anglia, the New Forest and Sussex.
Habitat. Within its range in England and southern Scotland occurs in woodlands and forests but can adapt to open moor and hill on Scottish hills and south-west England.
Food & feeding. Grazers of grasses, and dwarf shrubs e.g. heather and bilberry. Woody browse, e.g. tree shoots, is taken when other food is limiting e.g. during winter.
Origins & history. Red deer migrated into Britain from Europe 11000 years ago. They were used extensively by Mesolithic man as a source of food, skins and tools (bones and antlers). Neolithic man developed agriculture and cleared swathes of forest to make way for fields. 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 Mediaeval 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 and increase in the Highlands and an increase in forest and woodland cover since the early 20th century mean that red deer are now widely distributed in Britain and are expanding in range and number.
Social organisation. In woodlands 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.
Vocalisation. 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: http://www.youtube.com/v/jf7bOSPihrk&rel=1">
The rut. The breeding season, on rut, occurs from the end of September to November. Stags return to hind's home range and compete for access to hinds by engaging in elaborate displays of dominance including roaring, parallel walks and fighting. Serious injury and death can result but fighting only occurs between stags of similar size that can not assess dominance by any of the other means. The dominant stag then ensures exclusive mating with the hinds.
Breeding. Only stages over 5 years old tend to achieve mating dispite being sexually mature much earlier (before their 2nd birthday in productive woodland populations). In woodland populations hinds over a year old give birth to a sangle calf after an 8 month gestation, between mid-May to mid-July each year. Puberty may be delayed until 3 years old in hill hinds, which may give birth only once every 2 or 3 years.
Activity. 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 oppen hills during the day and descend to lower ground during thr night.
Economical factors. 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 esates can gain substantial revenue from recreational stalking and/or venison production. Red deer are also farmed for their venison and are 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.
Further reading Clutton-Brock T.H., Guiness F.E. & Albon S.D (1982) Red deer. Behaviour and ecology of two sexes. Edinburgh University Press.
Clutton-Brock T.H. & McIntyre N. (1999) Red deer. Colin Baxter Photography Ltd, Moray.
Staines, B.W. & Burkitt, T. (2002) Red deer. Mammal Society, London & British Deer Society, Fordingbridge.