The Red Deer is one of the largest wild animals in the UK and our largest deer being one of only two species native to the UK. A male can stand an impressive 1.4 meters at the shoulder with long neck, head and antlers adding to this with an Adult male weighing more than 500lbs. They are sometimes called the lord of the forest and are the source of many old English myths and legends including the White Stag in Arthurian myth which is thought to represent the quest for spiritual knowledge.
They are identifiable by their size and red/ brown colouring, the young have spots to help them hide from predators but adults do not have such markings, the rump pattern is a cream colour without the black lines found in other species. Red Deer are ruminants having an even number of toes and a stomach with four chambers, they are likely to have evolved from an ancestor in central Asia much like the modern Sika deer and the two species can inter breed, in the UK this threatens the long term survival of pure Red Deer in the southern lake district and Wicklow mountains of Southern Ireland where hybrids are extremely successful. Males are known as Harts or Stags while females are known as Hinds in the UK. Only males grow antlers, once a male reaches the age of about 10 months they start to develop and are shed yearly between March and April, and often chewed by the deer possibly to recycle calcium. As the deer gets older the antlers become more branched in appearance.
The Red Deer is a widespread animal in Europe being found across Europe into the Caucasus Mountains and as far east as western and central Asia. They can also be found in the mountains of North Africa being the only deer in Africa but numbers there are in decline. Via introduction they can also be found in the Southern Hemisphere with populations in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
Given a choice the Red Deer is a woodland creature and deep woodland is the animal’s ideal habitat where they grow to the largest size and produce the most young. Large populations can be found in the British Woodlands such as Cannock Chase and the New Forest but the lost of this habitat has lead to the majority now being adapted to open moorland especially in Scotland where the largest populations can be found, here 80% of the animals live on open hill areas. Numbers have increased in recent years as they have colonised forest plantations and culls of females have been reduced, it is thought UK population is now in excess of 300,000.
Red Deer are herbivores, with the larger groups of females taking the better grass rich feeding areas while the stags are left to feed on the more open heathland areas. In the summer when deer feed at higher altitude in mountain areas, the main food sources are grasses, and sedges, while small shrubs like gorse and heather become the main target in the winter, as the deer move to the more sheltered valleys. In large numbers Deer can be destructive to the woodland as they also eat young trees and can hinder native woodland regeneration. That said they are important ecologically as their browsing influences vegetation patterns and they provide a source of food for other UK mammals such as the golden eagle (which will take young as live prey), buzzards, badgers, pine martens and foxes which will eat the dead animals.
A herd normally has around 40 animals in, lead by a dominant female, with her offspring and any of their offspring. The male groups are made up of unrelated males, are smaller and frequently change. Woodland herds tend to be much smaller than those living on heathland.A male reaches maturity around 6 years of age and then can take part in the ‘Rut’ this takes place from end of September to November where the male groups split up and fight to control groups of females to mate with. These Harems are normally about a dozen females but can be much larger. The males engage in distinctive roaring contests, bellowing at each other in a display of prowess, a sound which can be heard over long distances. The males also at times lock antlers and pace each other and have been known to wound each other. During the rut the males tend to loose about 15% of their body weight due to reduced feeding. After mating the animals return to their respective groups with the young born between May and mid June. The young calves are weaned off their mother’s milk within 8 months.