Wildlife & Nature to See in May : Deer

Wildlife to See in May : Deer

© Laurie Campbell: Red Deer ready for the rut.

© Laurie Campbell: Red Deer ready for the rut.

There are currently six different species of deer found in the UK, perhaps the most famous of these is the Red Deer which often gets a lot of publicity during the rutting season due to it’s impressive antlers, bellowing calls and violent clashes with opposing males. Our other species are listed as Roe, Fallow, Sika, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer.

Of the six species listed above only 2 are truly classed as native species, though Fallow deer have recently been adopted as ‘almost’ native (technically ‘naturalised’) having arrived with the Normans around 1000 years ago. The other three species are much more recent additions, having only arrived as escapees and deliberate releases within the last 100 years.

This article will give a brief overview of our native species and our recently adopted ‘almost native’ Fallow deer. The other three species may be covered at a later date.

During this time of year, the doe from all species are giving birth to young conceived during the rut. An interesting point here is, that whilst all three species calve at during the same period, the rutting season for each species is slightly different. Roe Deer are rutting between mid-July and August; Red Deer rut from late September into November and the Fallow Deer rut runs from late September into mid October. Calving for all three species occurs during May and June, though Red Deer calving can stretch into early July.

Natural predators to deer such as bears, wolves and lynx have long been extinct in Britain, although elusive big cat sightings do continue to be reported, any existing big cats are certainly not sufficient to make any impact on deer populations. Of course they are not entirely without predators as there is man, and in some cases foxes and our larger prey birds.

Deer populations are managed in a multitude of ways in order to maintain healthy populations. When numbers do become too great they can cause significant damage to forestry (of which Roe deer seem most infamous for) and can also be more vulnerable to sickness and disease. Other causes of deer being culled are damage to agricultural crops and of course recreational hunting and it should be noted that this is generally viewed by authorities as humane method of control, it is also provides an injection of money into rural areas and helps to maintain well managed wilderness areas. Whilst it is obviously fiercely debated both sides of the argument should be considered before reaching a conclusion.

After a quick overview of our deer species then, lets take a look in a little more detail at each species.

Red Deer

Red Deer are our largest land mammal with Stags measuring up to 1.37 metres at shoulder height and hind up to 1.2 metres. They are largely made famous by the huge antlers sported by the Stags during the rutting season in late Autumn. These are highly branched and the number of branches increases with age and may be up to 16 points. The main concentrations of these majestic animals are in the Scottish Highlands, with smaller populations in North-West England, Exmoor and Ireland and other areas.

Red Deer can live as long as 18 years, though this is very unusual and mortality can be high in infants, serious injury is also not uncommon during rutting. Stags and hinds remain separate for the majority of the year with stags leading a solitary existence during this time. Hinds more often stay in groups though may also be solitary (or with calf) in woodland areas.

© Laurie Campbell: Young red deer with dappled coat.

© Laurie Campbell: Young red deer with dappled coat.

This of course changes during the rut when the stags come down from the hills roaring challenges to rivals and strut around the greens competing for hinds. The competition involves competing males bellowing and walking parallel to one another, if they are evenly matched or just unwilling to back down then fighting commences. During this clash of the titans the stags attempt to overpower each other after locking antlers, often with brutal force. Serious injuries are not uncommon during this time. These battles continue between the current dominant stag and challengers throughout the rutting season as the dominant stag attempts to defend his harem of up to 70 hinds. As the rutting season ends the exhausted stags return to the hills. Whilst their antlers have now server their purpose, they are not shed until March or April.

After a gestation period of 8 months, calves are born from mid-May and are usually weaned by 8 months old. Males are sexually active from around their 2nd birthday but are unlikely to successfully mate for 2-3 more years. Hinds are sexually active from around their 3rd year.

The Scottish herd is estimated to be around 300,000 and a cull of 50-70,000 takes place annually.

Roe Deer

Roe deer are the smallest of the species we are covering here with an average of 60-75cm at the shoulder. They are a small reddish brown colour with a conspicuous white rump. After becoming extinct in many areas during the 17th century it has made an excellent comeback and is now widespread throughout most of the UK. The males have short antlers with 3 points on each; these are shed, or cast between October and early January. The growth of new antlers begins straight away and they are fully grown by March, at which point the ‘velvet’ skin begins to be shed.
Roe deer are active 24 hours a day, with dawn and dusk been the period of greatest activity. They live in woodland and are generally solitary, though small groups tend to form in winter. As numbers have increased, they have also begun to move into more open areas and even into urban areas (locally we have them living on a roundabout in the middle of a busy intersection!). They are generally grazers but can also do substantial damage to trees. They can live to a similar age to Red Deer but in reality seldom live past 7 years due to culling, traffic accident and some predation of young by foxes and large prey birds.

© Laurie Campbell: Young Roe Deer.

© Laurie Campbell: Young Roe Deer.

Roe Deer rutting occurs from mid-July to the end of August, during which time males aggressively defend territories by barking and chasing and occasional violent fighting during which serious injuries and even death can occur. Interestingly, although the egg is fertilised it lies dormant until January, at which point there is 5 months foetal growth before birth. This delayed implantation leads to females giving birth, most commonly to twins, though single kids and triplets also occur, between mid May and mid June.

Young Roe Deer have a dappled coat to help camouflage them and are frequently left alone lying amongst vegetation. Multiple kids are usually left separately. After 6-8 weeks they are usually mobile enough to accompany their mother and whilst been weaned by 3-4 months will continue to take some milk through the winter. Sexual maturity is reached at around 14 months.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer are of medium size at around 90cm shoulder height. There are variation in coat and appearance but the most commonly associated is that of light brown with pale spots. They are also the only British deer with palmate antlers in adults over 3 years of age and from 65 to 90 cm long. Males begin to grow antlers at two years of age; shedding occurs in April and new increasingly larger and more elaborate antlers are then grown until August. At this time the velvet is rubbed off in preparation for rutting.

Fallow deer are also active throughout the 24 period and most active at dawn and dusk. They generally live in small single sex herds preferring mature broad leaf woodland as well as open areas. Their diet consists of a range of vegetation (from which they also seem to extract almost all of their water requirements) including grasses and herbs, but can also cause damage to trees whilst grazing lower branches. Live span is also similar to the other deer species and can be Upton 16 years but, more commonly rarely exceeds 8-10 years.

© Laurie Campbell: Fallow Deer with hinds and palmate antlers.

© Laurie Campbell: Fallow Deer with hinds and palmate antlers.

The Fallow deer rut begins in late September and last around a month, though mating may actually take place slightly outside of this time. During the rut males may defend areas, form a lek in high density areas or even just seek out receptive females in low density areas. During this time their behaviour is consistent with other species of deer, usually involving vocal calls, parallel walking and often fighting. The rut usually results in a single fawn being born (exceptionally twins) between mid May and June.

Fawns tend to remain completely hidden for the first week until strong enough to keep up with the herd. Weaning is usually complete by October. Sexual maturity is reach at about 18 months, at which point young bucks, previously with doe herds will join a buck herd.

Having had a brief overview of our native (and naturalised) species, coupled with the fact that all three are having their young around this time of year, I hope that your curiosity has been aroused sufficiently to venture out to see them for yourselves! Whilst seeing wild deer, certainly females with young, at this time of year can be quite challenging (though extremely rewarding), there are many captive herds at properties and estates throughout the UK, and now is a good time to get out and look for newly born young deer from all species.