Britain's largest wild mammal, the 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.
Males - Stag
Females - Hind
Young - Calf
Life Expectancy – 18 years (20 in captivity)
- Largest deer in the UK
- The rump patch is yellowish and comes up over the tail
- Long ears
- Has no black or white on the rump
- Single sex herds except in October during the rut
Where can Red Deer be found?Red Deer are one of the two indigenous deer species in the UK (the other being roe). Most are found in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but other large herds can also be found can also be found in Cumbria, Yorkshire, East Anglia, but the major English herd is located in the South-West centred on Exmoor and the Quantocks. Small populations can be found in many counties often based on escapees from local deer parks.
CoatTheir winter coats are coarse and vary in colour from reddish-grey to dark brown. By late winter their coats can start to look straw coloured and washed out. They start to lose their winter coats in June-July, looking scruffy and patchy. The summer pelage is typically a rich, red in colour with a grey throat and pale underside but a variety of colours may be seen ranging from dun to dark red. The rump patch is yellowish and extends down the inside of the hind legs nearly to the hock and well up onto the back above the tail which is short and much the same colour. A dark dorsal stripe usually runs up the spine from the rump patch to the back of the head. Sometimes a very faint line of spots can sometimes be detected on either side of the dorsal stripe.
Calves are born with a russet coat liberally covered with white/creamy spots and markings. These usually persist for 10-14 weeks. Adults of both sexes have long, angular faces and large lozenge shaped ears. Stags develop a heavy mane during the rutting season and is kept throughout the winter.
SizeThere is a wide variation between stags and hinds, and lowland and upland deer. Mature stags can be twice as heavy as the mature hinds in the same herd. By six years old stags have usually become fully grown and the hinds do not get much bigger after 4 years.
|Live weight (woodland)||Up to 250kg||Up to 120kg||9-14kg at birth|
|Live weight (uplands)||Up to 120kg||Up to 80kg||6-8kg at birth|
BehaviourRed deer in the UK spend most of the year in single sex herds although a few young stags are often found with the hinds and their calves. Herds in open areas tend to be larger than their woodland counterparts.
Stags in Scotland often spend the late summer on higher ground, perhaps avoiding biting flies and spend the winter on lower ground where the grazing is better. Hinds have a smaller home range than stags, who can wander over great distances especially during the rut. Age, size and weight influences an animal’s position in the hierarchy. High status animals are likely to get priority access to better resources so tend to breed more successfully.
BreedingTowards the end of September, the stags start to roar and become increasingly aggressive towards each other, then leave the male herds to search for hinds who are starting to come into oestrus. The ‘rut’ continues until the end of October and sometimes into the start of November. Stags stop eating during the rut and their constant roaring, fighting and mating causes them to lose condition quickly.
Female calves do not usually breed. If the conditions are right, most yearling hinds will normally breed, bearing a calf on their second birthday. However, where there are large deer numbers and poorer grazing, they may not have their first calf until they are 3, 4 or 5 years old. If she cannot get up to breeding weight whilst suckling a calf due to nutritional stress she will not become pregnant the following year. A barren hind is called a ‘yeld’.
In late May/June the pregnant hinds leave the herd to calf. The hind and calves do not rejoin the herd until the calves are strong enough to run with their mothers. In the wild, most pregnancies lead to single calves being born.
VoiceDuring the rut, the stags roar is similar to a cows. Both stags and hinds give a single, deep grunt or bark when suspicious. During the calving season, hinds will also give an occasional bellow. Hinds ‘wicker’ to their calves which bleat for their mothers when alarmed or lost.
AntlersThe antlers vary widely in length , spread, weight ad appearance depending on the available food, the habitat and the genetics of the herd. The classic head is known as a ‘Royal’ and consists of 2x6 point antlers showing brow, bay and trey tines with each main beam topped by a crown of 3 points emerging from a single point on the beam. Stags with more than 12 points are sometimes seen on hill, but park or woodland stags often carry many more than 12 points, with over 30 recorded.
As a stag gets older, his antlers tend to grow longer and thicker and carry more points/tines, but how the head develops is largely down to climate and feeding. A Red Deer’s brow tine usually emerges from the beam close to the coronet and at right angles to it – the tip curing upwards. This is an important feature which can help distinguish Red from Sika antlers.
A male calf develops pedicles during his first winter. A yearling stag first head varies from a pair of bony knobs (a knobber) to long spikes (a pricket) which will be clean of velvet by September/October. However, multi point yearling heads are fairly common in lowland areas where the feeding is good.
Stags cast their antlers from late March through to May and the velvet is cleaned off the new antlers by late August/September. After this, they are said to be in hard horn. Mature stags tend to cast and re-grow their antlers and shed velvet earlier than the younger animals. Cast antlers are chewed by both sexes using their molar teeth. This is most common in the Highlands where there is a shortage of calcium and other minerals.
A stag is usually in his prime between 8-12 years of age. As the animal gets older, the weight drops to the lower part of the antlers and points tend to become shorter and the tops gets spindly – this is termed as ‘going back’. Occasionally a stag doesn’t grow antlers at all and is know as a hummel. Such stags are fertile and the characteristic is not genetically inherited. One possible cause is thought to be if the stage suffered nutritional stress as a calf just as his pedicles are developing.