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 Red deer  (Cervus elaphus)


During the summer, Red deer are dark red or brown with a lighter color of cream on the underbelly, inner thighs and rump. There may also be some spots on the summer coats, particularly along the spine. In winter, the pelage changes to a darker brown or grey, with lighter patches on the rump and undersides. It is notable that their caudal patch tends to reach higher up the  rump than is the case with other deer. Both sexes have tails of approximately 15 cm in length which are generally the same color as the caudal patch. This tail may have a dark dorsal stripe that can extend upwards along the spine. There is also a visible gland high on the cannon bones (the long bone immediately above the hoof) of the rear legs. Appearance can also be influenced by age and condition, for example yearlings and calves have a shorter head due to having fewer teeth in their jaw than an adult. Alternatively, when deer condition begins to fail through age their coats will often appear to be ginger in colour, even in the winter months.

Calves are spotted at birth but generally loose these spots after about 2 months. When they are born, hill calves will weigh approximately 6.5kg, but the birth weight might be double this in the case of lowland forest deer. These weights are affected by the spring weather and the mother’s condition during the previous autumn. Amongst adults, the size of mature hinds can vary between 42-54cm at the shoulder and they can weigh between 57–115kg (125–250lbs). Stag weights vary between 90–190kg (200–420lbs), with hill Red rarely weighing more than 300lbs. These weights are traditionally measured in stones (one stone = 14 lbs) and pounds. The height at the shoulder of mature stags will be between 101–112cm (41–54in). Once again the significant difference in size is mainly indicative of whether they are moorland or woodland dwelling deer. As with Sika deer, immediately prior to the rut the stag’s neck visibly thickens and a mane develops. This has probably evolved as a result of the extra muscle and protection required when fighting during the rut. It is certainly accompanied by or linked to a significant increase in testosterone levels. There are some unusual pelage colour variations that can mostly be found within herds of park deer and these include white, cream and albino. The albino can be being distinguished from the white by its pink eyes and nose.

Red, in common with other deer species, have a number of external glands; these include sub-orbital (below the eyes), preputial (reproductive organs), metatarsal (on the lower back leg), and interdigital (between the cleaves of the hooves). These organs are used to mark areas, indicate mating availability and possibly allow recognition of individuals. A fluid gait allows the animal to trot very long distances without strain. They are also strong swimmers, most noticeably demonstrated in the successful colonization of the islands off the coast of Scotland. The gait and stance of deer are also good indicators of age and condition. As you might expect, those with an alert, head-high stance (coupled with other indicators) are probably young and in good condition, whereas the long-faced deer with head down is probably past its prime.

Red deer can have a life span of over 20 years, however this is unusual and they rarely live beyond 15 years. The highest period of mortality is in their first year, with over 80% of these deaths occurring within the first week of birth. Vulnerability during this period is dependant upon weather and predation. Both foxes and golden eagles have been known to take newborn calves. Late born calves are more likely to succumb. Hinds will normally breed between the ages of three and 13 years of age, whilst stags will normally mate between the ages of five and 11, although stags as young as one year will attempt to mount if the opportunity arises. After getting through the first year it is not until the age of eight that natural mortality starts to increase. Generally death by old age is governed by the deer’s ability to consume food which is determined by tooth wear.


It has already been stated that Red deer are by nature forest dwellers, however they are highly adaptive. Their selection of habitat is mostly linked to the availability of food, but other factors such as weather and fly infestation can also influence movement. Red will retreat to higher ground or deeper woodland during the height of summer to avoid flies, returning to lower or more open ground when food becomes scarce and the weather inclement. Their daily movement pattern will lead them from the lower, more sheltered areas where they spend the nights, back to higher sunny slopes where they spend the day feeding, resting and chewing the cud. These daytime resting areas will normally be good vantage points from which they can easily see approaching danger. They will also feel more secure if there is a fairly constant wind. Once the wind becomes unpredictable or above approximately Force 4 they will become agitated and move. This preferred daily and seasonal movement can be severely affected by human disturbance in the form of fencing or excessive disturbance by hill walkers and this in turn can cause sufficient stress to affect the condition of the deer. Red deer are grazers by preference, however good grass is not always available so many other food sources are taken advantage of. These include rough grasses (Molinia and Scirpus cespitosus) as well as heather and dwarf shrubs. Heather is of particular dietary importance during the dormant winter months, especially when snow covers the ground. If the weather is especially harsh, stags can be forced from the hill to maraud farm crops, most usually at night. During the winter months the nutritional requirement of Red alters as do their metabolisms; differences in eating habits can also be distinguished between stags and pregnant hinds. Despite any slowing down of their metabolic rate, this does not prevent death from malnutrition, which normally occurs in the spring when resources are at their lowest. This can be exacerbated, as has happened in recent years, by successive cold, wet winters. It is the impact of cold wind and driving rain getting under the normally highly effective double coat of the deer that has the greatest debilitating effect.

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