The Fallow deer is a medium-sized cervid that has been widely translocated within Europe by early civilisations. Originating from Turkey and Iran, the Fallow deer was first introduced to Britain by the Romans but either died out or survived only in limited numbers. More successful introductions appear to have been carried out by the Normans during the 11th century and is still kept widely in deer parks and farms in Britain today. Indeed, Fallow remains at Roman archaeological sites at Fishbourne (Sussex) and on Isle of Thanet (Kent) may reflect earliest British deer parks. Those in our countryside today are largely descendants of mediaeval introductions or escaped from parks that fell into disrepair during the World Wars. Despite being an introduced species, it is not considered invasive, although they can negatively impact forestry if populations aren't managed.
That which follows is a brief summary of Fallow deer natural history. The detailed article for this species will follow in due course. Certain aspects of the natural history common to all deer (e.g. antler growth and formation, collisions with vehicles, chronic wasting disease) have been split from the individual overviews and placed into their own QA - this is partly to avoid repetition but also to allow more detailed coverage of the topics. A summary of the more general aspects of the biology, ecology and behaviour of Britain’s deer species can be found in the Deer Overview.
The Fallow deer at a glance
Historically classified as Cervus dama, from the Latin cervus meaning 'deer' and dama 'antelope', but formally recognised as distinct genus, Dama, since 1960. The word “fallow” derives from the Old English fealu, meaning 'brownish-yellow'. Two species in Europe: the widespread European fallow, Dama dama, and the Persian fallow, Dama mesopotamica, now restricted to Iran and Israel despite being once common across the Middle East.
Two subspecies, Dama dama dama and the Mesopotamian fallow Dama dama mesopotamica, although some consider this a separate species (i.e. Dama mesopotamica). Non-native species that appears to have been introduced to Britain by Romans around AD 43, dying out shortly after Roman withdrawal; current population probably stems from introduction in late 11th century by Norman invaders.
Size: Adults 1.3 to 1.7 m (4 - 5.5 ft) long; buck (male) stands 85 to 110 cm (nearly 3 to 3.5 ft) at shoulder. Weight 35 to 130 kg (77 - 287 lbs). Females (does) slightly smaller than bucks.
Appearance: Short, bright chestnut/red-brown coat with white spots in summer; grey-brown in winter with less distinct spots. A dark line runs the length of the back in summer coat. White rump with black borders forming an inverse horseshoe shape, and a relatively broad tail with black stripe down middle. Large palmate antlers on males. Hugely variable in colour, with four recognised morphs/phases: Common (most well recognised chestnut coat with black dorsal line), Menil (tan with brown dorsal line), Black (or melanistic) and White (albino and non-albino). One population with genetic predisposition to increased hair growth that presents as a longer-than-normal coat (i.e. long-haired fallow) studied in Shropshire during 1980s, although this population may now be extinct.
Distribution: Probably most widely distributed deer in world thanks for introductions by humans. Common throughout UK, where it's naturalised, and much of Central Europe; absent from Iceland and most of Scandinavia. Introduced to America and New Zealand. Bulk of British population in southern England and eastern Wales; patchy distribution in northern England, western Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Population estimated to be growing at ca. 2% per year; 2008 data numbers put at 150,000 to 250,000.
Longevity: In wild reach 8 to 10 yrs, exceptional ages of 16 yrs known; oldest captive specimen was 20 yrs old.
Sexing: Males have antlers for much of year (shed in spring), laryngeal prominence (Adam’s apple) and penile sheath. Males are “bucks”, females “does” and young “fawns”.
Antler Cycle: Antlers cast late March to early June (peak mid-April to mid-May); velvet shed August/September.
Activity: Active throughout day and night, with peak at dawn and dusk. Open spaces used ony at night by disturbed populations. Seasonally variable activity patterns; alternate between periods of feeding and ruminating.
Habitat: Areas of mixed or deciduous woodland and grassy open spaces with shrubby undergrowth for shelter and feeding. Can be found in open conifer stands.
Territory: Non-territorial with overlapping ranges. Prepare for rut late August and early September; maintain rutting stands to which does are attracted (lekking), or may “herd” females more akin to Red deer, depending on location/habitat - peak rut in October. Home range varies with season and habitat: e.g. in New Forest (UK) males = ~50 to 250 ha (123 - 618 ac.), females = ~50 to 90 ha (up to 222 ac.).
Diet: Primarily grasses and bramble; bark and shrubs may be taken during the autumn and winter.
Reproduction: Rut during October (peak around 20th) and a single calf is born after 230 day (~33 wk / 8 mo.) gestation (typically during May/June); twins rare (<1% births). Calf suckled for 6 to 9 months; stays with doe for first year. During the rut, bucks produce a loud rasping “groan” or “belch” (click below to listen), the frequency of which betrays the caller's size to both competitors and females, although some evidence that bucks may be able to “cheat” and make themselves sound bigger than they are.
A Fallow deer (Dama dama) buck groaning (belching) during the rut in the UK - Credit: Marc Baldwin
Behaviour and Sociality: Generally speaking a gregarious species that live in groups of, at times, a hundred individuals. Social structure in does, with single dominant female, although social structure highly variable with environment. Mixed sex groups may form at good feeding sites. Females and fawns make short “meeping” calls while gathered in group and when herd is moving (click below to listen).
While gathered in a herd, Fallow does and fawns will make a "meeping" or "chirping" call. As this call is frequently observed while the herd is on the move, it is believed to be social contact calling to help the group keep together. It seems equally likely to have the potential for exchange of social information, akin to that observed in some birds. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
Threats: Hunted for sport in parts of their range, although stag hunting with hounds is now illegal in the UK. Roads can pose threat to deer; people often killed or seriously injured upon collision with deer - Fallow more frequently hit by cars than other deer species. Sometimes come into conflict with forestry or private land owners because of the damage they can do to trees (esp. ancient woodland), crops and flowers.
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Pelagic Publishing -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-1784272043
Britain’s Mammals 2018: The Mammal Society’s Guide to their Population & Conservation Status - by Multiple Contributors
The Mammal Society -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-0993567339
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HarperCollins Publishers -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-0002197793
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Deer - by John Fletcher
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Deer - by Raymond Chaplin
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Swan-Hill Press -- 2000 -- ISBN: 978-1840370911
Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology - by Valerius Geist
Stackpole Books -- 1998 -- ISBN: 978-0811704960
Deer Watch: A Field Guide (Revised Edition) - by Richard Prior
Swan-Hill Press -- 2007 -- ISBN: 978-1846890130
Deer: Law & Liabilities (2nd Edition) - by Charlie Parkes; John Thornley
Quiller -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-1846890475
Gardens and Deer: A guide to damage limitation - by Charles Coles
Swan-Hill Press -- 1997 -- ISBN: 978-1853109652
Highland Deer Forest - by Lea MacNally
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Isabelline Films -- 2015 -- ISBN: N/A
The Deer of Great Britain & Ireland: An account of their history, status and distribution - by Peter Carne
G. Kenneth Whitehead -- 1964 -- ISBN: None
The Encyclopaedia of Mammals - by David MacDonald (ed.)
Brown Reference Group -- 2006 -- ISBN: 978-0199206087
The Natural History of Deer - by Rory Putman
Christopher Helm -- 1988 -- ISBN: 978-0801422836
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New Holland Publishers Ltd. -- 2009 -- ISBN: 978-1847734549
The New Amateur Naturalist - by Nick Baker
HarperCollins Publishers -- 2004 -- ISBN: 978-0007157310
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JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
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Whittet Books -- 2012 -- ISBN: 978-1873580851
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271