Red deer (Cervus elaphus) are impressive animals at any time of the year, but as autumn’s cloak sweeps away the remnants of summer, the stags really come into their own. In this article, Kate Priestman takes a closer look at this enigmatic species…
Red deer are a native species to the UK, they are thought to have migrated from Europe c. 11,000 years ago. The British Deer Society notes that they were used “extensively by Mesolithic man as a source of food, skins and tools (bones and antlers). However, the development of agriculture by Neolithic man cleared swathes of forest to make way for fields and 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 for royal hunting, but this protection was lost during the Medieval 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, together with an increase in the Highlands and in forest and woodland cover since the early 20th century, mean that red deer are now widely distributed and are expanding in range and number”.
There is some controversy with regards to red deer taxonomy; genetic evidence indicates that red deer is a species group, rather than a single species; in addition, there is much debate about the number of subspecies within the Cervus genus (which is further confused by hybridisation) .
The IUCN recognises several subspecies of Western Red Deer as follows:
- C. e. elaphus: Ireland, Great Britain, continental Europe.
- C. e. barbarus: Atlas Mountains (Algeria, Tunisia).
- C. e. corsicanus: Corsica (extinct, reintroduced in 1985), Sardinia.
- C. e. maral: Anatolia,.
- C. e. italicus: Italy (Ferrara).
- C. e. brauneri: Crimea (Russia).
- C. e. montanus (syn. Carpathicus): Carpathian mountains.
The closely related and slightly larger American elk or wapiti, native to North America and eastern parts of Asia, had been regarded as a subspecies of red deer, but it has since been established as a distinct species. It is probable that the ancestor of all red deer, including wapiti, originated in central Asia and resembled sika deer .
Red deer are distributed from Europe into North Africa and the Middle East. They are also widely distributed throughout most of continental Europe, and are present on a number of islands, including Sardinia.
- Red deer became extinct on Corsica but was reintroduced in 1985 from Sardinia.
- All the continental populations of Italy became extinct in historic times and were replaced by new stocks of foreign origin).
- Red deer are extinct in Albania.
- In Greece, the small isolated subpopulations are the result of reintroductions into areas where it previously occurred.
- In Portugal all populations result from reintroduction or natural expansion from transborder Spanish populations, which in turn were reintroduced.
- Red deer occurs from sea level to above the tree line (c. 2,500 m) in the Alps.
- In Africa red deer is found in the Atlas Mountains of NE Algeria and Tunisia.
- Red deer are in the near and Middle East in Turkey, N Iran, and Iraq, but extinct in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria .
In the UK, indigenous populations occur in Scotland, the Lake District, and the South West of England (principally on Exmoor). Not all of these are of entirely pure bloodlines, as some of these populations have been supplemented with deliberate releases of deer from parks. The University of Edinburgh found that, in Scotland, there has been extensive hybridisation with the closely related sika deer .
Red deer vary in size depending on their habitat. Deer on the open hills of Scotland are smaller than those in lowland English woodland . This difference appears to be related to the availability of food during the winter months.
Adult red deer in the UK and Europe are usually between 1.6m and 2.6m in length and a full-grown stag stands about 1.2m at the shoulder; hinds are slightly smaller, standing about 1m at the shoulder. In the wild, adult stags generally weigh between 90kg and 260kg depending upon the habitat, while hinds typically do not exceed 150kg. Weight at any given time is highly dependant upon season and food availability .
A red deer’s diet mainly consists of tree shoots, grasses, sedges and shrubs. In the autumn months, fruit and seeds are also important.
Red deer are ruminants, characterised by a four-chambered stomach. When the rumen is full the deer must stop feeding and start ruminating. Red deer exhibit a feed-ruminate cycle of between five and nine hours, depending on the type of food taken – red deer living in open hill areas (e.g. Scottish Highlands) tend to exhibit a pronounced activity cycle: they spend much of the day at high elevations resting and ruminating, descending at dusk to feed during the night, before returning up the hillside at dawn. Deer inhabiting woodland have a similarly cycle, whereby they spend the daytime in, or close to, tree cover where they rest and ruminate before moving into more open areas (e.g. meadows, clearings and agricultural fields) at dusk to feed . Peak times of activity are at dawn and dusk.
Studies of radio-collared deer in the Slovak Republic (Central Europe) have found that these animals spend anywhere between 20% and 90% of their time feeding, according to season, then reducing their activity during the late winter months (January and February). The same study also found that there was about a 60% decrease in heart rate during winter (compared with summer peaks) and documented a previously unknown case of nocturnal hypometabolism (i.e. where the deer reduce their metabolic rate at night to cut their energy expenditure during winter) in this species .
In woodland red deer are largely solitary or occur as mother and calf groups. On open ground, larger single sex groups occur where they tend to only mix during the rut. In the Highlands of Scotland, large groups may be present for most of the year.
Throughout winter and spring, stags live in loosely structured bachelor groups, away from females, who generally associate with their maternal female relatives. This separation of the sexes ends as the autumn rut (or breeding season) approaches and males move into the areas of good grazing where females are usually found .
Female red deer reach sexual maturity at two years of age; the breeding season or rut typically begins towards the end of September and runs through until November. Autumn heralds the time of year when stags compete for the females or hinds and their habitat echoes to the sounds of the red deer stags roaring and clashing antlers as they seek to assert their dominance with one another.
Despite being sexually mature before their second birthday in productive woodland populations, only stags over five years old tend to mate .
Rival stags challenge opponents by bellowing and walking in parallel (a ‘stiff legged’ side-by-side strut). This allows rivals to assess each other’s antlers, body size and fitness. If neither stag backs down, this can lead to fighting whereby the males clash antlers together, sometimes leading to serious injuries.
“The decision to fight is not one that is taken lightly and there is a highly ritualised series of behavioural interactions that happen before stags clash. The aim of these behaviours is to prevent direct physical violence wherever possible, because violence can be costly. Indeed, early work by the RDRG on Rum demonstrated that a rutting stag will, on average, only fight with rivals five times during the three weeks of the rut. Despite this relatively low contact rate, Tim Clutton-Brock and his colleagues have estimated that roughly 5% of rutting stags receive permanent injuries and calculate a 30% chance of a stag being maimed at some point during a typical rutting run; most free-ranging stags can expect to rut for about five seasons”.
Only a few males hold harems – these top males use up an enormous amount of energy: they rarely eat (if at all), having to fight or chase away challengers and maintain their harem of females. “As the top males become exhausted, they move away from the rutting areas, reforming their bachelor herds. Sometimes this allows younger males a chance to mate with females coming into oestrus late in the rut” .
Harem-holding stags lose up to 20% of their body weight. Stags two to four years old rarely hold harems and spend most of the rut on the edge of larger harems, as do stags over 11 years old.
In woodland populations, hinds over one year old give birth to a single calf after an eight-month gestation, between mid-May to mid-July. Hill hinds typically give birth from three years old, and may give birth only once every two or three years . For the first few weeks of life, the calves hide when they not being suckled by their mothers. They will follow their mothers and continue to take milk until at least the beginning of the rut. If the mother fails to conceive during the rut, the mother may continue to suckle the calf well into the following year .
Only 45% of male calves and 50% of female calves survive to see their third birthday. The average natural lifespan of a female is just over 10 years and of a male is just less than 9 years.
“Males grow a new set of antlers each year. They cast the previous year’s antlers in March and April, and during spring and summer, re-grow a new set whilst also re-building their strength in preparation for the cycle beginning again in the rut. Older males grow larger antlers with more branches than younger ones, and also start the process earlier in the year. When antlers grow, they are covered in a fine layer of ‘velvet’. This is ‘cleaned’ in August/September, and males are then ready to rut in the autumn” .
The main threat to red deer comrises intermixing between subspecies and hybridisation.
Header Image: Arturo de Frias Marques / Wikimedia Commons
-  Wikipedia
-  IUCN
-  The British Deer Society
-  Wildlife Online
-  Isle of Rum Red Deer Project
About the Author: Kate Priestman (CEnv, MCIEEM) has over sixteen years experience as an ecologist. Prior to setting up her own consultancy business in 2012, Kate worked in London for over a decade, providing the lead ecology role for a number of high profile projects. Kate works as an artist, author, writer and editor.