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Deer Management in the UK:  Part 1 – Deer

Deer Management

Deer Management in the UK: Part 1 – Deer

Deer in the UK

Deer are ruminants of the family Cervidae. There are currently six species of deer in the UK, from five genera, meaning that only two of these species are closely related to each other. In order to provide effective management of each species, and to ensure that landowners have the means to protect their crops, legislation caters for the diverse behaviour and conservation status of these six very different animals.

Chinese water deer buck
Image: courtesy of Lowland Stalking

In deer, there’s a high level of sexual dimorphism, meaning that there are obvious physical differences between the male and female of each species. Deer shooting seasons vary according to the species, and it also varies according to the sex. Inability to distinguish between the sexes is not accepted as a legal defence for shooting deer out of season. 

In five of the six species of deer, the male is armed with antlers, which are made of bone and covered by a velvet-like material. The purpose of the blood-rich velvet is to provide the growing bone with nutrients. When the bone is fully grown, it hardens and dies. The deer rubs his antlers against trees to rid them of the dead velvet.

Deer are crepuscular animals, meaning that they’re most active at twilight – the periods between dawn and sunrise, and between sunset and dusk. However, they’re also adaptable. In areas where there’s a lot of human disturbance, deer will be more active at night, and in times of food shortage, they’ll roam and graze during the day.

Let’s take a look at the six species of deer in the UK.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red list conservation status:

  • Native species
  • UK status: LC (least concern)
  • World status: LC (least concern)
Red deer with new, velvet-covered antlers
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

The red deer is the largest of the six UK species, and one of only two deer species indigenous to the UK. Although the animal is seen all over Britain, the largest population is in Scotland.

Red deer exist for most of the year in single-sex groups, and calves stay with their mothers for the best part of a year, although they’re weaned at around two months old.

Red deer hind with kids
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

Although the red deer stag might have reached sexual maturity by one year old, he’d be lucky to get the chance of mating before four years old, because of heavy competition from more mature stags. For a period of seven or eight years, a healthy stag will fight for the right to mate with a harem of hinds, using his antlers to intimidate, injure, and occasionally kill, his rivals. And he’ll bellow to demonstrate physical fitness.

At around eleven years old, the stag will be back on the outskirts of the mating scene.

What does the red deer look like?

Red deer calf
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

The russet pelt of red deer in summer is a quintessential image of the British countryside, but in winter, the colour turns to a dull brownish grey. As the deer runs away from you, you’ll notice a short tail and pale rump. The stag is significantly larger than the hind, with large antlers that become more branched as the stag ages. Both sexes lose their infant spots as they reach sexual maturity.

Sika deer (Cervus nippon)

Red list conservation status:

  • Non-native species
  • UK status: not ranked
  • World status: LC (least concern)
Sika stags
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

All species in the genus Cervus can breed with one another, producing fertile hybrids, and in the UK, there’s a lot of crossbreeding between sika deer and red deer.

Like red deer, sika are to be found in small groups all over Britain, but they’re most prolific in Scotland.

Sika deer are, in the main, crepuscular animals, but they’re sometimes seen out and about in broad daylight. In areas where there’s a lot of human activity, sika will play safe and become nocturnal.

During the months of September to November, lone individuals and members of single-sex groups come together for the rut. Unlike the harem-holding red deer stag, the sika stag begins his mating campaign by staking his territory. He’ll fight other males for control of this territory, and he’ll lure in females, forming his harem.

What does the sika deer look like?

Sika deer retain their infant spots, with coats varying in colour through a range of brown shades – becoming darker in the winter months. A dark line runs the length of the spine from a proportionally small head to a white rump and short tail. A sika stag’s antlers are similar to the antlers of a red stag, but smaller, with fewer branches.

European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus)

Red list conservation status:

  • Native species
  • UK status: LC (least concern)
  • World status: LC (least concern)
European Roe buck
Image: courtesy of Enguerran Urban
via Unsplash

The roe deer is a solitary animal, although a doe is usually accompanied by her latest offspring. The young deer are chased away by their mother just a couple of weeks before she gives birth again. The new babies are hidden away for several weeks – silent, inert, and concealed.

The rut takes place in July and August, and a doe will give birth in May or June. After conception, there’s delayed implantation, so the embryos don’t start to grow until approximately five months later, making the total gestation period around ten months. Twins are not unusual for roe deer, and sometimes a doe will produce triplets. The higher birth rate, however, is balanced out by high infant mortality.

Roe deer are thriving all over Britain. However, their habitat isn’t restricted to the countryside. Some UK cities are now home to colonies of roe deer.

What does the roe deer look like?

During the summer, the tail-less roe deer has a rusty-red coat, which in winter changes to a dull grey; all year round, it has a distinguishable white rump. During the winter, the doe has a tuft of hair at the base of her rump patch. The buck has single-stemmed antlers, without branches, which are shed after the rut.

Fallow deer (Dama dama)

Red list conservation status:

  • Non-native naturalised species
  • UK status: LC (least concern)
  • World status: LC (least concern)
Fallow stag
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

Fallow deer are crepuscular animals, favouring the hours of twilight over daytime and night-time. They spend their daytime lying down, ruminating – or chewing the cud. In areas where they’re frequently disturbed by human activity, the deer will roam around and feed during the night.

For most of the year, fallow deer live in single-sex groups, but come together in late October for the rut. A single fawn (twins are rare) is born in the spring, and there’s a strong bond between mother and offspring. By the time the doe gives birth to her next fawn, the adolescent fallow deer will be totally independent.

The fallow deer population is more widespread in England and Wales than in Scotland.

What does the fallow deer look like?

There’s enormous variety in the colouring of fallow deer. The most common colour is a tan brown with white rump (outlined in black), and white spots on the flanks. In winter, the coat becomes grey.

Fallow doe
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

A variation is a paler tan with white spots, and caramel outline on the rump. Some fallow deer are dark brown or black. Others are a creamy colour, turning increasingly white with age.

The fallow’s tail is longer than the tail of any other deer species in the UK.

Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis inermis)

Red list conservation status:

  • Non-native
  • UK status: not ranked
  • World status: VU (vulnerable)
Chinese water deer buck
Image: courtesy of Lowland Stalking

The Chinese water deer is one of two subspecies of the water deer (Hydropotes inermis); the other subspecies is the Korean water deer (Hydropotes inermis argyropus). The genus name, Hydropotes, derives from two ancient Greek words: húdōr (water) and potḗs (drinking) – referring to the deer’s preference for water. The species name, inermis, is Latin, meaning ‘unarmed’ – a reference to the deer’s lack of antlers.

Chinese water deer were first brought to Britain at the end of the 19th century, imported by private collectors. Today’s population is descended from escapees and deliberate releases from captivity. Although small colonies of Chinese water deer are to be seen in many parts of the UK, the population is highest in East Anglia, where the habitat is particularly suited to the deer’s feeding preferences.

Although the Chinese water deer buck doesn’t have antlers, he is armed with a pair of prominent tusks, which he uses in fights with other bucks in the rutting season. Loosely fixed in their sockets, these tusks can be manipulated by the buck’s facial muscles. The doe also has a pair of ‘fangs’, which are much smaller than those of the buck. Unsurprisingly, this unusual physical trait has given rise to the nickname ‘vampire deer’.

Because the Chinese water deer buck doesn’t have antlers, it’s more difficult to distinguish a male from a female, and for this reason, both sexes have the same open and closed shooting season.

Water deer are mainly solitary animals, coming together in December for the rut. Does live in small, single-sex groups, but the bonds between individuals are weak. Bucks are very territorial, marking their territories with their faeces and urine, and with secretions from interdigital glands and preorbital glands.

Chinese water deer buck
Image: courtesy of Lowland Stalking

Chinese water deer does will occasionally give birth to as many as seven kids in one birth, although the usual number is two to four. The young become sexually mature at around six months old, and this is when they leave their mother.

What does the Chinese water deer look like?

The Chinese water deer, like many other deer species, is rusty red during summer, and grey in winter. It has a short tail, large, round ears, and a very cute face.

Reeves’s muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi)

Red list conservation status:

  • Non-native species
  • UK status: not ranked
  • World status: LC (least concern)
Reeve’s muntjac buck
Image: courtesy of Lowland Stalking

Reeve’s muntjac gets its name from the English naturalist, John Reeves (1774-1856), who worked for the British East India Company. As with Chinese water deer, the species was introduced to Britain from Asia at the end of the 19th century, and today’s UK population are descendants of escapees from captivity. Although muntjac deer are not a huge threat to commercial crops, their increasing numbers are associated with a rise in road traffic accidents.

Like all deer species in this country, muntjac are crepuscular animals, roaming around the countryside and suburban areas during twilight hours, feeding on fruits, flowers, nuts, and fungi. Muntjac don’t form herds. A doe is usually accompanied by her latest kid, but in the main, muntjac are solitary creatures.

Unlike all other species of deer in the UK, muntjac breed all year round. A doe becomes sexually mature in her first year of life, and from then on, she’ll be continuously producing one kid at a time, every seven months, becoming pregnant immediately after giving birth. When competing for does, a buck will fight primarily with its tusks, rather than its antlers.

What does the Reeve’s muntjac look like?

Reeve’s Muntjac buck
Image: courtesy of Pixabay

The hunched back of the muntjac deer is a familiar sight in rural and suburban England and Wales. This little deer, like most others, has a russet coat in summer, which turns grey in winter. When the muntjac is disturbed, it raises its wide, flat tail to display a white patch underneath.

The buck has small, backward-pointing antlers, and two black lines running from the base of his antlers to his nose. The doe has a dark brown patch on her forehead.

Venison

Image: courtesy of Norfolk Deer Management

Deer meat (Venison) is a rich, gamey meat – low in fat and high in protein and vitamins. Loved by many, yet unfamiliar to others, venison is a truly versatile meat, delicious in stews and casseroles, pies and puddings, burgers, meatballs, and sausages. A roast joint of venison, or a fried steak, can be served as rare as you like, and the kidneys, liver, and heart of deer make tasty patés and flavoursome gravies.

Image: courtesy of Norfolk Deer Management

In Scotland, it’s against the law to sell venison to anyone other than a licenced venison dealer, and in Northern Ireland, the meat can only be sold to a licensed game dealer. In England and Wales, venison isn’t subject to these restrictions, but the meat must be handled by a person with a game meat hygiene certificate – a qualification that’s included in the Deer Society Certificate 1 (DSC1).

Hunting Deer

Next time, we’ll be talking to local deerstalkers from Lowland Stalking and Norfolk Deer Management, and looking at some of the legislation governing deer control – including shooting seasons, minimum ammunition power, and carcass handling.

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