The Red deer has a long history in Britain - one of only two native deer species in the UK, it’s a beast highly prized by hunters, naturalists, artists, poets and photographers alike. Renowned Scottish artist Archibald Thorburn summed up the situation nicely in his 1920 book British Mammals, in which he wrote that the Red deer “is unquestionably the grandest wild animal we now possess in the British Islands.”
That which follows is a brief summary of Red deer natural history. To learn more, please select from the “In Detail” menu on the right. 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 Q/A - 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 Red deer at a glance
Binomial name derived from both the Latin (Cervus) and Greek (elaphus) for “deer”. Ten subspecies proposed, although validity uncertain.
Size: Adults usually between 1.7 and 2.6 m (5.5 to 8.5 ft) long; full-grown stag stands about 1.2 m (4ft) at the shoulder, while hinds are slightly smaller, at 1 m. Weight 90 to 260 kg (200 - 570 lbs) - seasonally variable. Scottish hill stags smaller than those in English broadleaf woodland. Broadly, woodland animals are more productive than hill/heathland animals.
Colour: Red-brown summer coat; grey-brown winter coat. Rump patch yellowish colour; stags (males) develop mane during winter. Stags have large antlers that are shed and re-grown each year.
Distribution: Found throughout Europe; introduced to parts of America, New Zealand and Australia. In UK (native), most common in the Scottish Highlands, although they do exist in isolated pockets across the island. Population estimated at 350,000+; growing at ca. 0.3% per year.
Longevity: Max. age limit considered to be ~25 years; records of wild individuals living beyond 13 to 15 years are rare.
Sexing: During much of year males can be identified by presence (or development) of antlers. Females tend to be of slighter build than males. Males are stags, females hinds and young are calves.
Antler Cycle: Antlers cast March to mid-May (peak mid-March to mid-April). Grown during the summer and velvet shed July/August.
Activity: Primarily crepuscular; may be seen resting, grazing or wallowing during the daytime. Some evidence of nocturnal activity in heavily persecuted populations.
Habitat: Considered primarily a species of woodland, particularly river valleys, although often encountered on open, grassy hillsides, meadows or heathland/moorland where habitat management has reduced tree cover. May feed in open during day, moving to woodland at night. In Scotland during summer, primary daytime habitat is high ground with new heather growth; typically, move to lower ground during winter. Sexes live apart during most of year; hinds monopolize grassy area, stags confined to nutrient-poorer heather regions.
Territory/Home Range: Non-territorial, although will defend groups of females (and thus area on which they graze) from competitors during rutting (breeding) season. Establish “stands” during the rut, which comprise a group of females that the stag will move with and defend against other males. Outside of rutting season, males move in loose groups. Home range varies according to habitat (smaller in woodland) and feeding and resting stations; may vary sexually (e.g. Scottish highlands males = 800 ha/2,000 ac.; females = 400 ha/988 ac.) and seasonally.
Diet: Opportunistic omnivores. Diet includes: grasses, heather, lichen, shoots, bark, leaves, herbs, rushes, buds, nuts, fungi, fruit and berries. Diet changes seasonally (e.g. grasses, sedges and rushes in summer, shrubs in winter). Carnivory known.
Reproduction: Rutting season weather-dependent but typically covers late September to late October (peak around 10th October), although matings may continue into December if there are un-mated hinds (esp. in deer parks), with a single (rarely twins) calf produced after 8 month gestation. Most calves born in June, but may start as early as May and very young calves have been found in late September in recent years, possibly reflecting a breeding season shift mediate by climate change. Calf suckled for ~6 to 9 months and is independent at about 1 year old. Rutting call (sometimes called “roaring” or “bolving”) is a low frequency vocalisation ending in pulses in Europe and “bugle” whistle in North America - click below to listen.
A Red deer (Cervus elaphus) stag roaring (bolving) during the rut in the UK. - Credit: Marc Baldwin
The high-pitched rutting call of North American Red deer (Cervus canadensis), aka the wapiti or elk. This call often ends with a "jerking cough" and is typically called a "bugle". - Credit: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Behaviour and Sociality: Hinds live in groups for most of the year (leaving only to have young). Hierarchical system present; single dominant hind with her yearlings and mature daughters from previous matings (possibly with own offspring). Males spend most of the year either solitarily or in small “unstable” bachelor groups and feed voraciously during spring and summer. Males become antisocial during breeding season, engaging in roaring contests and parallel walking; disputes involve rearing on hind legs and kicking with front feet when antlers growing (and in hinds) and locking of antlers once antlers velvet is cast. Males and females known to use mud wallows.
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 also killed or seriously injured upon collision. Sometimes come into conflict with forestry or private land owners because of the damage they can do to trees and flowers. In USA, competition for winter grazing with cattle outside national parks such as Yellowstone. Possibly biggest threat to species as a whole in Britain is hybridization with Sika deer - two species can cross-breed to produce fertile offspring. Currently mixed data on the how widespread Sika genes are in the Red gene pool, but anatomical data suggest hybrids are intermediate of parent species—i.e. intermediate body weight, jaw length, incisor arcade breadth, etc.—that may result in a different nutritional ecology. Mostly appears to be Sika stags breeding with Red hinds.
A Highland Deer Herd and its Habitat - by Jos Milner; Jim Alexander; Cy Griffin
Red Lion House -- 2002 -- ISBN: 978-0951263150
A Life for Deer: A deer vet tells their story and his - by John Fletcher
Victor Gollancz Books -- 2000 -- ISBN: 978-0575070905
Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - by Multiple Contributors
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
Collins Field Guide: Mammals of Britain and Europe - by David MacDonald and Priscilla Barrett
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-0002197793
Deer - by Norma Chapman
Whittet Books -- 1991 -- ISBN: 978-1873580356
Deer - by Raymond Chaplin
Blandford Press -- 1977 -- ISBN: 978-0713707960
Deer - by John Fletcher
Reakton Books -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1780230887
Deer of Britain and Ireland: Their origins and distribution - by Peter Carne
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
Grazing in Temperate Ecosystems: Large Herbivores and the Ecology of the New Forest - by Rod Putman
Croom Helm -- 1986 -- ISBN: 978-0881920710
Highland Deer Forest - by Lea MacNally
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. -- 1970 -- ISBN: 978-0330234665
Kia – A Study of Red Deer - by Ian Alcock
Swan-Hill Press -- 1999 -- ISBN: 978-1840370317
Living with Deer - by Richard Prior
Andre Deusch -- 1965 -- ISBN: 978-0727401175
Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook, 4th Edition - by Stephen Harris and Derek Yalden (eds)
The Mammal Society -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-0906282656
The natural history "bible" covering all British mammals with detailed coverage of their biology, behaviour, ecology and taxonomy written by experts in the field and referenced to the primary literature.
Mind the Gap: Postglacial colonization of Ireland - by John L. Davenport, David P. Sleeman & Peter C. Woodman (eds)
Irish Naturalists' Journal -- 2008
Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131
Red Deer: Behaviour and Ecology of Two Sexes - by Tim Clutton-Brock; Fiona Guinness; Steve Albon
Edinburgh University Press -- 1982 -- ISBN: 978-0226110578
Scottish Red Deer and their Conservation - by Victor Lowe
Hayloft Publishing -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1904524939
The British Mammal Guide - by Steve Evans & Paul Wetton
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 Mammals of the Palaearctic Region: A Taxonomic Review - by Gordon Corbet
Cornell University Press -- 1978 -- ISBN: 978-0801411717
The Natural History of Deer - by Rory Putman
Christopher Helm -- 1988 -- ISBN: 978-0801422836
The New Amateur Naturalist - by Nick Baker
HarperCollins Publishers -- 2004 -- ISBN: 978-0007157310
The Story of a Red-Deer - by William Fortescue
MacMillian and Co. -- 1897 -- ISBN: 978-1507576755
The Watcher and the Red Deer - by Richard Perry
The Country Book Club -- 1972 -- ISBN: 978-0715353851
UK Mammals: Species Status & Population Trends - by The Tracking Mammals Partnership
JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271