of Red Deer
Of the six deer species living wild in the United Kingdom today,
only the Red (Cervus elaphus) and Roe (Capreolus capreolus)
can be called indigenous. The Red deer is the largest mammal in
Britain and has been here in some form or other since this island
was joined to mainland Europe. Red deer are proven survivors,
having struggled through the ice age, a period when their natural
woodland habitat was buried under ice and when almost every Briton
hunted deer. They overcame the effects of the former and learned
to avoid the latter. The ‘deer forests’ of Scotland are far removed
as a habitat from that which they would occupy out of preference
and yet they adapted in a relatively short period of time to the
point where they now have to be managed to prevent over-population.
It is because of the necessity for this management that our knowledge
of Red deer, as well as all other species, now becomes so important.
These notes deal specifically with Cervus elaphus scoticus,
one common subspecies that can be found in a number of areas throughout
Britain and Ireland.
HISTORY AND DISTRIBUTION
The Cervidae family has been evolving since
the early Miocene era about 20 million years ago, with the actual
Cervus genus really becoming recognizable during the Pliocene
era 12 million years ago. It should be noted that in this pre-Ice
Age era, continents were still one land mass and this is probably
why the genus has such a wide distribution. Red deer in what is
now the United Kingdom survived the Ice Age and there was a large
population in heavily wooded post-glacial Britain. As the human
population expanded, so the need for food increased and Red deer
became a favoured quarry. The success of the species since those
days has been closely linked to the fortunes and favours of man.
On the one hand man progressively removed the natural predators
(bear, lynx, and wolf); but on the other, has hunted deer for
food or for sport. It should be recognized that it is hunting
that has ensured the survival of the species. In the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, when food was scarce, it was royal protection
of the aristocracy’s privilege to hunt for sport that ensured
Red deer were not hunted to extinction. Whilst no one might applaud
the social injustices of that era, at least Red deer remained
Red deer are one of the most widely distributed
deer in the world, stretching throughout the Eurasian temperate
zones from New Zealand to northern Europe. Although the former
is as a result of an artificial introduction, the remainder are
mostly indigenous and are broken down into 12 subspecies. These
differ in size, appearance and habits, with food availability
and environment directly influencing their evolution.
The Red deer distributed across the UK are
a subspecies distinct to this country, Cervus elaphus scoticus.
The largest density of Red deer and that group most readily associated
with British Red, resides in Scotland. However a significant number
of Red are spread throughout other parts of the country, for example
in the New Forest, on Exmoor, the Quantocks, Suffolk, and the
Lake District. Many of these often isolated groups have at various
times been supplemented by introduced stocks or escapees from
deer parks. The most ‘pure’ of these groups is probably to be
found in the Lake District. But even the largest of these groups
outside of the Highlands, around Exmoor and the Quantocks (approximately
3,000 in 1995), cannot compare with the estimated 300,000 Red
deer living wild in Scotland. These Scottish deer, although by
nature woodland dwellers, have been forced to adapt to a moorland
environment due to the demise of the great Caledonian forests
and, as a result, they are smaller. This is partly due to the
poorer quality nutrition available on the open moor, which is
ironically referred to as ‘deer forest’.
During the summer, Red deer
are dark red or brown with a lighter color of cream on the underbelly,
inner thighs and rump. There may also be some spots on the summer
coats, particularly along the spine. In winter, the pelage changes
to a darker brown or grey, with lighter patches on the rump and
undersides. It is notable that their caudal patch tends to reach
higher up the rump than is the case
with other deer. Both sexes have tails of approximately 15 cm
in length which are generally the same color as the caudal patch.
This tail may have a dark dorsal stripe that can extend upwards
along the spine. There is also a visible gland high on the cannon
bones (the long bone immediately above the hoof) of the rear legs.
Appearance can also be influenced by age and condition, for example
yearlings and calves have a shorter head due to having fewer teeth
in their jaw than an adult. Alternatively, when deer condition
begins to fail through age their coats will often appear
to be ginger in colour, even in the winter months.
Calves are spotted at birth but generally loose
these spots after about 2 months. When they are born, hill calves
will weigh approximately 6.5kg, but the birth weight might be
double this in the case of lowland forest deer. These weights
are affected by the spring weather and the mother’s condition
during the previous autumn. Amongst adults, the size of mature
hinds can vary between 42-54cm at the shoulder and they can weigh
between 57–115kg (125–250lbs). Stag weights vary between 90–190kg
(200–420lbs), with hill Red rarely weighing more than 300lbs.
These weights are traditionally measured in stones (one stone
= 14 lbs) and pounds. The height at the shoulder of mature stags
will be between 101–112cm (41–54in). Once again the significant
difference in size is mainly indicative of whether they are moorland
or woodland dwelling deer. As with Sika deer, immediately prior
to the rut the stag’s neck visibly thickens and a mane develops.
This has probably evolved as a result of the extra muscle and
protection required when fighting during the rut. It is certainly
accompanied by or linked to a significant increase in testosterone
levels. There are some unusual pelage colour variations that can
mostly be found within herds of park deer and these include white,
cream and albino. The albino can be being distinguished from the
white by its pink eyes and nose.
Red, in common with other deer species, have
a number of external glands; these include sub-orbital (below
the eyes), preputial (reproductive organs), metatarsal (on the
lower back leg), and interdigital (between the cleaves of the
hooves). These organs are used to mark areas, indicate mating
availability and possibly allow recognition of individuals. A
fluid gait allows the animal to trot very long distances without
strain. They are also strong swimmers, most noticeably demonstrated
in the successful colonization of the islands off the coast of
Scotland. The gait and stance of deer are also good indicators
of age and condition. As you might expect, those with an alert,
head-high stance (coupled with other indicators) are probably
young and in good condition, whereas the long-faced deer with
head down is probably past its prime.
Red deer can have a life span of over 20 years,
however this is unusual and they rarely live beyond 15 years.
The highest period of mortality is in their first year, with over
80% of these deaths occurring within the first week of birth.
Vulnerability during this period is dependant upon weather and
predation. Both foxes and golden eagles have been known to take
newborn calves. Late born calves are more likely to succumb. Hinds
will normally breed between the ages of three and 13 years of
age, whilst stags will normally mate between the ages of five
and 11, although stags as young as one year will attempt to mount
if the opportunity arises. After getting through the first year
it is not until the age of eight that natural mortality starts
to increase. Generally death by old age is governed by the deer’s
ability to consume food which is determined by tooth wear.
HABITAT AND FOOD
It has already been stated that Red deer are
by nature forest dwellers, however they are highly adaptive. Their
selection of habitat is mostly linked to the availability of food,
but other factors such as weather and fly infestation can also
influence movement. Red will retreat to higher ground or deeper
woodland during the height of summer to avoid flies, returning
to lower or more open ground when food becomes scarce and the
weather inclement. Their daily movement pattern will lead them
from the lower, more sheltered areas where they spend the nights,
back to higher sunny slopes where they spend the day feeding,
resting and chewing the cud. These daytime resting areas will
normally be good vantage points from which they can easily see
approaching danger. They will also feel more secure if there is
a fairly constant wind. Once the wind becomes unpredictable or
above approximately Force 4 they will become agitated and move.
This preferred daily and seasonal movement can be severely affected
by human disturbance in the form of fencing or excessive disturbance
by hill walkers and this in turn can cause sufficient stress to
affect the condition of the deer. Red deer are grazers by preference,
however good grass is not always available so many other food
sources are taken advantage of. These include rough grasses (Molinia
and Scirpus cespitosus) as well as heather and dwarf shrubs. Heather
is of particular dietary importance during the dormant winter
months, especially when snow covers the ground. If the weather
is especially harsh, stags can be forced from the hill to maraud
farm crops, most usually at night. During the winter months the
nutritional requirement of Red alters as do their metabolisms;
differences in eating habits can also be distinguished between
stags and pregnant hinds. Despite any slowing down of their metabolic
rate, this does not prevent death from malnutrition, which normally
occurs in the spring when resources are at their lowest. This
can be exacerbated, as has happened in recent years, by successive
cold, wet winters. It is the impact of cold wind and driving rain
getting under the normally highly effective double coat of the
deer that has the greatest debilitating effect.
In August the stags that up to this time of year have been living
in large stag groups start to become intolerant of each other.
An increased testosterone level causes this reaction, along with
an increase in neck and testicle size. This hormonal change is
also responsible for the cleaning of velvet from stags’ antlers.
As with most other aspects of a deer’s life cycle, this is governed
by photoperiod (the daily period of light and darkness). At this
time hinds begin to reduce their range and congregate in traditional
rutting areas. Shortly thereafter, in early September, stags ‘breakout-out’
from the stag groups and take possession of hind harems. Once
resident, these ‘master stags’ which are invariably between the
ages five and 11 years old, start defending their harem and herding
in any passing hinds. All of this rutting activity, which even
precludes eating, takes its toll on the condition of mature stags
and they can lose as much as 20% of their body weight during the
six week rutting period which peaks in mid-October. Fights between
stags are common and very often cause serious or fatal injury.
The severity of these fights is directly related to the degree
of threat, that is, the bigger the stag, the bigger the fight.
There are also a number of other activities that are associated
with the rut which are:
Roaring. This can be either
a challenge, a demonstration of size or, after fighting, the
reinforcement of status.
Barking. Used to reinforce
a warning to young stags after they have been chased away.
Thrashing and Wiping. The
scent marking of a holding area by rubbing antlers and scent
glands against the ground and prominent landmarks.
Wallowing. The stags immerse
themselves in muddy pools, many of which contain urine.
Flehmen. The sniffing of
areas which hinds have either occupied or urinated upon, often
associated with the curling of the upper lip.
Mutual Sniffing and Licking.
Both hinds and stags spend a considerable amount of time sniffing
and licking each other.
Herding. Stags, throughout
the rut, will continue to herd hinds; both those already resident
and others passing within easy reach.
Chivying. A stag’s pursuit
of hinds around the rutting stand, often with neck and tongue
Mounting. Mounting only takes
place at the peak of a hind’s oestrus, which normally occurs
about the third week in October. A number of mountings may
take place over a period of up to an hour. The hind determines
the selection of the mating partner, and the time of mating.
Most hinds conceive at the first mounting, however if this
fails then, as polyestrus animals, they will come into oestrus
up to a further two occasions, with approximately 18 days
Fighting. This generally
follows a set sequence. It starts with the master stag approaching
the intruder; in younger stags this is normally sufficient
to displace them. However, if the intruder is more confident,
a period of parallel walking and mutual roaring will precede
the actual locking of antlers. The more serious challenges
will involve repeated antler locking and pushing until one
stag is pushed backwards, at which point there will be a short
pursuit and the contest will end.
After a gestation period of approximately 235
days (eight months), a calf of approximately 6 kg will be born,
as early as late May but with the majority born in early to mid-June.
There is possibly a slightly higher proportion of male calves
by 1-2%. This could be a natural compensation for the slightly
higher mortality rate in stag calves. Immediately prior to the
hind giving birth she becomes restless and begins to moan. The
actual birth normally occurs with the hind standing. Afterwards
the hind will lick the calf clean, clean any contaminated grass
and within forty minutes the calf will begin to suckle. After
about an hour and a half the placenta will be expelled and the
hind will eat it and clean traces of it from the area. This fastidious
behavior assists in concealing the calf from predators. As soon
as possible the hind will then move the calf away from the birthing
area. The average annual increase in population at the time of
calving is 10-20% in hill Red, depending on area and the previous
winter, and 30-33% in lowland Red.
Suckling occurs every two to three hours during
the first few days and reduces gradually thereafter. While suckling,
hinds will eat the faeces and urine of their calves, once again
minimizing the risk of scent attracting predators. Calves in farmed
conditions can be weaned quickly but, in the wild, calves are
weaned after five to seven months. Hinds that did not conceive
(yeld hinds) continue infrequent suckling of the previous year’s
calves well into their second year. Calves gain weight rapidly
during the autumn months after their birth, putting on as much
as 30kg before November. After that weight gain slows considerably
during the winter months and this is probably governed by food
availability and the higher energy levels required to keep warm.
Deer in their normal habitat are normally exceptionally
healthy, far more so than most domestic livestock. That said,
there are a number of parasites and diseases which can affect
Red deer, albeit rarely. Ectoparasites include, ticks (Ixodes),
keds (Lipoptaena), lice (Trichdectes), nasal
bot fly (Cephenemyia auribarbis) and warble fly (Hypoderma
diana). The latter two in this group can cause the deer great
distress. The castor bean tick can be a carrier of Lyme disease,
which can be dangerous to humans if contracted, the symptoms not
recognized and therefore left untreated. The endoparasites relevant
to Red deer include liver fluke, (Fasciola hepatica) lungworm
(Dictyocaulus) and a number of nematoda (unsegmented
worms like hookworm causing intestinal infection). Most of the
above will cause discomfort but are unlikely to fatal. Very rarely,
Red deer can also carry the three notifiable diseases, namely:
Tuberculosis, Foot and Mouth and Anthrax.
Red stags can appear the most majestic of animals when they are
carrying a full ‘rack’ and the thick mane that appears during
the rut. It is a sight that inspired Landseer to paint one of
the most famous animal portraits of all time, Monarch of the
Glen. There exists a significant difference between highland
and lowland deer antler growth, with the better highland stags
only expected to achieve 12 points (a ‘Royal’), whereas
lowland deer can achieve many more points with much greater mass.
This great mass of bone (not horn) has to be grown annually and
requires considerable nutrition to sustain it.
Antlers are cast when testosterone levels fall
in mid-March through April, with older stags casting first. These
cast antlers are often mouthed and chewed by deer, particularly
where there is a calcium
deficiency in the diet. Almost as soon as antlers are cast, new
velvet-covered replacements begin to emerge. Velvet is a soft,
blood-filled bone forming tissue that is very sensitive. If there
is a conflict at this time stags will ‘box’ each other with their
front feet to protect these sensitive antlers. This behaviour
has probably been learned from hinds as they box to establish
the female pecking order within a herd. Once the stags’ antlers
have grown to full size, usually by July, the blood supply to
the antlers is stopped and they begin shedding or cleaning the
velvet. In woodland dwelling deer, fraying (that is the rubbing
of this dead and now irritating velvet against trees) can assist
this, but it is not one of the Red deer’s most endearing features
for foresters. This process will not start to occur until after
the second year; in their first year stag calves will start to
develop the pedicles (knobs of bone on the skull) that will eventually
carry the antlers and these become visible during their first
winter. In their second year they are known as a Knobber (or brocket)
for obvious reasons. Next is the ‘spiker’ stage, which occurs
during the third year. Thereafter antlers should continue to grow
in length, weight and number of tines, until approximately the
seventh to ninth year (the sixth to eighth ‘head’), when a full
classical head should develop. These age guides apply to hill
deer; in ideal conditions they could be carrying multi-point heads
in their second year. By this time there should be a number of
points or tines on each antler. Working up from the pedicle, these
are called: the brow, bay, trey, sur-royal and crown (which could
consist of a number of tines at the top). In the West of England
this is termed as having ‘all its rights and three atop’. The
size and number of tines is once again predominantly influenced
by food and shelter, as has been proven by taking stags with relatively
poor heads from the hill to the luxury and comfort of a park environment.
Antlers can also develop abnormally and the
causes of this could be hereditary or due to injury, illness or
nutritional deficiency. A number of specific antler abnormalities
have been defined. A Hummel is a stag without antlers, also known
as a ‘Nott’ in the West Country. They either do not have any pedicles
or these are miniscule. Not having to grow antlers often means
that they have greater body mass than normal stags. This abnormality
is not a hereditary condition and Hummel’s can hold hinds and
produce normal offspring. A Switch is a head with only main beams
that have no tines or perhaps only brow tines. It indicates a
deer that has either gone past it’s full potential or one that
will never attain it. They are also referred to as ‘killers’ because
without the necessary tines to lock with an opponent, these single
spikes can pierce through the natural defence that tines provide.
A Cromie is a head with a swept back, goat-like appearance that
is normally associated with the Scottish islands of Islay and
Stags and hinds will generally remain in separate
herds for the majority of the year, between November and September,
coming together as soon as hormones levels rise in late September. There are of
course always exceptions and it is not unusual for younger stags
to be seen around hind groups, indeed larger separate gender groups
will tolerate each other if feeding in the same area. It is interesting
to note that the greater the number of hinds occupying the better
feeding grounds, the further the stags are forced to travel to
find food, often resulting in marauding which decreases the opportunity
of longevity. The size of both stag and hind herds can vary greatly
outside of the rut, but during the rut it is normally based on
how many hinds a stag can defend (between one and 20). After the
rut these herds can comprise up or more than 100 deer on the Scottish
hill, whereas up to 20 would be more normal in a woodland environment.
The herding instinct is probably a throwback to days of wolf packs,
when many eyes, ears and noses were the best method of defence
for the deer. Once calves become mobile in June, they will normally
remain within 10 metres of their mothers during their first nine
months or until the hind gives birth to her next calf. Interestingly
this umbilical distance is slightly greater for stag calves. The
hinds will often stay together throughout the first year and this
is evident in the oft seen ‘typical family group’, which includes
hind with calf, the previous year’s calf and often a Knobber or
pricket stag. There is an age related hierarchy within both stag
and hind groups. Even after splitting up, hind calves will adopt
a range that overlaps that of it’s mother, but stags invariably
travel some distance. The reason for this is unclear, however
it may be linked to the avoidance of inter-breeding as stags traveling
long distances are unlikely to mate with mothers or sisters.
The population density of Red deer, as with
all other species, can vary greatly with the type of terrain and
food availability. It can also vary considerably with the seasons
or even from month to month. It is probably because there are
so many variables that there is also a huge range in recommended
stocking levels. Some examples of recommended acreages per deer
E Luxmore (1980)
G K Whitehead (Germany)
The following records of Red deer densities
(number per km sq) are the result of a vantage point count by
the Forestry Commission, FC Pamphlet 71.
A planning density and balance might therefore
Hill (with no sheep), 1 deer to 50 acres.
Lowland (agriculture and forest), 1 deer to
Balance, 1 stag to 1.5 hinds (excluding young
of less than 10 months of age).
VOICE AND CALLS
During the rut stags are heard to issue an
impressive roar. This is a series of deep guttural sounds from
one breath, which can be repeated many times. The roar can be
given as a challenge, an indication of size and stature or to
reinforce the winning of a fight. They can give a short bark of
warning, but this is normally reserved for lesser stags that pose
no real threat. Outside the rut they are generally silent with
the exception of an occasional warning bark. When calving, hinds
develop the calving bellow which is only heard at that time of
year, but they can also give a warning bark when alarmed.
One of the most emotive subjects in the deer
world is the interbreeding of species, especially when one has
been introduced. The most serious is the hybridization of Red
with Sika deer (Cervus nippon). There is still a lot to
be learned about hybridization, particularly why it happens in
one area and not another. It has and continues to occur in the
Lake District, the Knapdale area of Argylshire, the Great Glen,
Galloway, and in the Wicklow mountains of Ireland. There is evidence
of hybridization in the northerly areas of the New Forest, however
the culprit Sika stags are thought to have migrated from Purbeck
and not to be from those Sika in the South of the Forest. The
main culprits are almost certainly wandering Sika stags that become
isolated from their own hinds. This mixing of species continues
to spread at over seven kilometers per year. It could be that,
within this century it transpires that the only pure Red in Scotland
could be those found on isolated islands.
There can be no doubt that the Red deer is
Britain’s largest and most spectacular mammal. It has survived
an ice age and almost constant hunting for millions of years.
It is nothing if not a survivor. However, aside from the problems
of hybridization, it also remains very much in the center of a
number of contentious issues. It has been blamed for the prevention
of the natural regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest, whilst
sheep and rabbits seem able to stay out of the limelight. There
is also a continuing debate about whether there are just too many
deer in Scotland altogether. And finally, perhaps the most emotive
of all, there is the issue of Red deer being hunted with hounds
in the South West of England. Although secretive by nature it
would appear not to be able to avoid the spotlight of controversy.
George Macdonald (Camusericht Estate) - for
the benefit of a lifetime’s experience on the hill.
The Deer-UK team are grateful to David Pantlin
for the use of the Red hind photographs in this article.
The Deer-UK team are grateful to Mark Ravnkilde
for the use of the Red stag in velvet photograph in this article.
Clutton-Brock G&A, Red Deer: Behavior
and Ecology of Two Sexes (Edinburgh University Press, 1982).
Whitehead GK, Encyclopedia of Deer (Swan
Hill Press, 1993).
de Nahlik AJ, Wild Deer (Ashford Press
Luxmoore, E Deer Stalking (David and
Charles Ltd, 1980).
Delap P, Red Deer (British Deer Society,
Forestry Commission Pamphlet 71.