David Beeson, March 2022
UK deer have antlers that are shed yearly, while sheep & goats have horns that grow and are not shed. Although you are unlikely to need that fact in the field!
Deer are Ungulates, having hooves instead of claws and they are in the Cervidae family, being ruminant browsers and so have lost their upper jaw molars. This is an easy indication of the family if you discover a deer’s skull.
The deer you are likely to encounter are: Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Sika Deer, Roe Deer and Muntjac Deer. Chinese Water Deer occur in the east, although a now extinct colony did occur in the 1960s near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Red deer are substantial animals, while the smallest, muntjac, are large Labrador in size. Only red and roe are native.
Red deer are mostly found around Southern Hampshire, Thetford Chase and the far West Country in Southern England. The species, in various forms, is widely distributed in North America (called Elk), Europe and the Far East.
Cervus elaphus is a large red-brownish deer lacking spots at maturity. The hoof-prints (slots) can be 5 – 7cm wide but widen when running. The black, oval droppings are around 3cm x 1.5cm. The males, stags, thrash vegetation when clearing the dying skin and hair (velvet) before the autumn rut (mating).
Antlers are found only in males, and they grow yearly, increasing their size and complexity until an animal reaches old age. The number of points is not an indication of age as growth varies with feeding conditions. Antlers are cast in February or March and soon after start regrowth from bony pedicles on the skull. The growing antlers are covered in blood-rich, hairy skin. You can discover shed antlers, but they are soon gnawed by other animals to consume the minerals. Even antlers I have stored in a shed were partly eaten.
Deer moult and winter coats are usually darker and thicker.
It is a deer tolerant of both deciduous woodland (New Forest), coniferous plantations and open moorland (Dartmoor and Exmoor). Males and females associate only during the autumnal mating season when the stages bellow to hold territory. Fights are common between seemingly equal males. Young are birthed in June or July with lactation until the autumn common.
For witnessing the rut in the New Forest, head to the Ornamental Drive to the west of Lyndhurst.
Feeding occurs throughout the day and night, although disturbance makes them more nocturnal. They are browsers but also feed on grasses and heathers. They are ruminants and will ‘chew the cud’ when at rest.
The adults have no natural predators in the UK, so populations need culling if winter and road attrition does not stabilize the population.
Fallow Deer, Dama dama, have palmate antlers in the males. Coat colour is less spotted and darker in winter and mostly a reddish-fawn. White and black colour variants are not uncommon. They are a beautiful deer and often encountered in parks. Wild populations occur along the South Coast, East Midlands and East Anglia. I have had herds in excess of thirty in my own garden. They are a common species in Central Europe.
Slots and droppings as red deer but smaller in size, as is the animal (up to 70Kg, with Red Deer to 225Kg. for a big eight-year-old male.) Males’ antlers shed in April or May with the rut later than red deer, in September to October. In the New Forest head to the Deer Sanctuary area west of Lyndhurst. Single fawns are born in early summer. Fallow are herd animals.
Feeding: more likely to graze than other species, with grasses 60% of the bulk. Acorns, chestnut and fruit also eaten. In Harewood I have seen them take wild apples and blackberries.
The original fallow deer are said to come from Turkey-Iran.
Animals can survive for over 20 years in parks, half that in the wild.
Cervus nippon, the Sika Deer. The name gives away the origin of this introduced species – Japan and southern China.
Fallow Deer in size with small red deer-like antlers in the males. Concentrated around the Southern New Forest (About 200 animals) and South Dorset and westwards (2000). Best places to see sike are: Arne RSPB reserve, Wareham Forest and south of the railway line that bisects the New Forest.
Droppings and slots not easily distinguished from fallow and roe. Weight of a mature animal is up to 65Kg. Especially found on acid soils and amongst coniferous plantations eating heather, grasses and browsing trees. Seldom seen in the open. Herd species.
Rut and life cycle as Fallow Deer. Male vocalise during the rut with high-pitched whistle.
To see the rut, go to RSPB Arne’s field system near the farm buildings in late September.
Capreolus capreolus, the Roe Deer, are modest in size (25Kg) and are found not in herds but family groups. These, again, are attractive animals, well designed to dwell in deciduous woodland and the agricultural fringe. They are easily recognised and, if running away, appear virtually tailless but with a clear white-cream rump patch. Like the other deer they moult from a grey winter coat to a redder, thinner one in summer.
I first encountered wild roe deer vocalisation near Salisbury when one barked nearby … I thought it was some predatory African mammal! I’ve been in love with the mammal ever since.
If the animal is new to you, which is unlikely as the population has increased hugely in my lifetime, you will first encounter it when you feel watched in woodland. Peer around and ten metres away you’ll spot the roe patiently observing you in the dappled shade of an oak tree. After mutual appreciation it will slowly turn and wander off, soon vanishing into the foliage. On the other hand, if the animal feels fear, it will crash off barking to warn the rest of the family.
Field signs: slots 4.5 x 3.5cm. Droppings: 1.4 x .8cm or smaller, as usual with deer in clusters of individual faeces (In summer may stick). We always know when these deer have been in our garden as the rose bushes are left leafless to one metre high. Remembering that most leaves are partially toxic, the deer take a little of this and a little of that … except roses!
Male roe mark their territory by rubbing their antlers up tree stems about one to two centimetres in diameter. The removal of the bark leaves a clear lighter patch at about knee-height to a human. Look for these along the edge of woodland tracks.
Found throughout Southern England and widespread through Europe.
Twins are born in May or June and the rut is in early summer – with the females being chased in circles. (I have only witnessed this once.) Males alone have antlers and they are shed in November and regrown by March. The biggest antlers I have seen (Black Forest in Germany) had 4 points each; three is more usual, but with their ‘pearling’ around the base increasing with age.
As with other wild mammals, external and internal parasites are frequent. Ticks can be seen even from a distance, with ears being especially attacked.
Can survive to 18 years, but 8 – 10 more usual. Roads are lethal to the species, with only muntjac appearing more commonly (locally) on the road verges.
A lovely animal, and I especially enjoy watching them wander through Harewood Forest. If you have the courage, go out on a clear night (leaving your torch behind) just at dusk. Your eyes will soon adjust, and it will appear almost like black-and-white daylight. Now the roe will most ignore a non-speaking, slowly wandering human. I have even taken out small group of dads with young children and walked within a few metres of roe. The children often encounter rival males barking to each other from their territories. Magic! Add in the bats and tawney owls and you have the stuff of memories and wildlife enthusiasm for life. (Just do not get lost!)
Lastly, the Muntjac Deer – Muntiacus reevesi. A rapidly expanding species that is moving from dense woodland to being seen everywhere. Given a chance they mightily enjoy my garden. During almost any drive in North Hampshire you will encounter one or more dead muntjacs at the side of the road.
Males have short simple antlers, prominent canine teeth and a retreating animal shows its long white tail sticking upright. Once seen you will not mistake the chunky, small (15Kg) species.
Field signs: Slots 3 x 2cm, droppings: small and especially pointed at one end, in heaps. Dropping sites often reused.
Solitary species with the common name of barking deer, as the females bark when in season for ten or twenty minutes at two or three second intervals. They appear to mate at any time of the year from the distribution of calling females locally.
I encounter females with a single offspring much more frequently than males. One female holds a territory just beyond our fence and she barks regularly and loudly with it carrying hal a kilometre.
When encountered muntjac wander off quietly, unless caught in more open woodland when it is a determined trot with the tail up.
In Harewood Forest we have all these species, except sika. However, the red deer population may have been shot out as I have not seen any for several years.
Any walk in Southern England will allow you to encounter ‘high seats’. These are shooting positions for deer numbers are not controlled naturally and populations are getting too high for the survival of some plant species. For example, locally butterfly orchid seed heads are desirable to deer and the orchid’s distribution is rapidly declining. So, despite my dislike of shooting, I regret that I have to accept deer control. However, I would prefer wolves and lynx to carry out that function.
If you have never experience a deer rut, make this year the time to change that.
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