The Roe deer is now among our most familiar deer species, a common sight in woodland, farmland and even gardens across the UK. The Roe's current population boom is remarkable considering that it was considered extinct in all but a few wooded areas of Scotland during the 1700s. Indeed, all current English populations of Roe are believed to be descended from introductions. This small to medium-sized species of deer is one of only two cervids found in the wild that are native to Britain, the other being the Red deer.
That which follows is a brief summary of Roe 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 Roe deer at a glance
Originally thought a single species with a European and Siberian subspecies, but the Siberian Roe deer has been considered a separate species, Capreolus pygargus, since mid-1990s. Multiple subspecies proposed but considerable uncertainty and perhaps five valid: capreolus (most widespread in Britain and Europe); italicus and garganta in southern Europe; and caucasicus north of the Caucasus Mountains and coxi in north and Near East. Binomial name translates from Latin to “little goat”, while English name “roe” appears derived from Anglo-Saxon ro, meaning 'red haired' in reference to the summer coat.
Size: Adults between 95cm and 1.3 m (3 - 4 ft) long; males (bucks) stand 64 to 67 cm (2 ft) at shoulder. Weight between 15 to 35 kg (33 - 77 lbs).
Colour: Colour variants are occasionally found. Piebald animals (sandy brown with large white patches) have been recorded in Yorkshire and Norfolk and a white (non-albino) doe in Somerset during 2010. Melanistic (black) individuals are rare, albeit locally relatively common in Germany.
Distribution: Common (native) throughout UK (except Ireland) and Europe except Iceland, northern Scandinavia and Mediterranean Islands; range extends east to Asia. Apparently absent from areas of the midlands and Wales. Population increase estimated at ca. 2.3% per year; current (2008) population estimated at 800,000+, making it the most numerous deer species in Britain.
Longevity: Ave. in wild 5 to 7 years, with max. wild of about 12 yrs. Max. age of 20 yrs (in captivity).
Sexing: Males have antlers, which grow to max. ~30cm with 3 tines per antler typical; antlers grown in winter and shed during autumn. Sexed by shape of rump patch; females have tail-like mass of hair at the base of tuft (called the “tush”), males don't. Males are bucks, females does and young are kids.
Antler Cycle: Antlers cast October-December (peak in November) and re-grown during winter; velvet shed mid-February/March.
Activity: Feed throughout day and night, but peak of activity is crepuscular. Long periods where deer “lie up” to ruminate.
Habitat: Spend much of time in shelter of woodland, particularly in upland areas and will move to long grass and shrubby undergrowth for browsing. Make more use of open spaces at night. Found in farmland, especially in England and Wales. In Europe there's some evidence that there are two “ecomorphs”, one that lives exclusively in woodland and the other in arable farmland. A common relatively urban species, although less so that muntjac, particularly in areas with green spaces such as commons and cemeteries.
Territory: Maintain exclusive territory during mid-July to mid-August (rut), may begin establishing territories during late May. Home range varies with season and sex (5 to 100 ha / 12 - 247 ac.). In good habitat defended territory ave. ~7 ha (non-territorial males ave. ~15 ha / 37 ac.); does ave. ~7 ha (17 ac.), which overlaps with related individuals.
Diet: Herbs, bramble, tree shoots, flowers and ivy. Some evidence that food selected based on nutritional value.
Reproduction: Rut runs from mid-July to mid-August (peak around 7th August), although can be affected by weather (appears to require warm, humid conditions). Some, more sedate, rutting documented during the autumn (usually mid-Sept. to mid-Oct, but sometimes into December) known as “false rut”. During rut, buck will usually mate with several does. Young (kids) produced after 6 or 7 month (diapause during winter) gestation; peak kid birth in late May/early June. Twins common (ca. 75% births), single kids less common (ca. 20%), triplets occasional (ca. 5%) - up to 5 well-developed foetuses found in does in Italy. Kids lie in grass for first week; suckled for first 2-3 months and independent by following spring (1 year old).
Behaviour and Sociality: Generally solitary; may form groups during winter; does frequently accompanied by kids and home ranges may overlap with other females. Any sociality seems scent-mediated. Bucks may fray trees and shrubs with antler and face glands during the rut. Bark (click below to listen), especially at dawn and dusk, when disturbed - not descriptive of sex, although males tend to bark more than females.
A roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) barking during the rut in the New Forest. - 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. Sometimes come into conflict with forestry or private land owners because of the damage they can do to trees and flowers. Study in Sweden found high kid mortality from agricultural mowers. Some evidence that they may be displaced by muntjac (number ~20% lower when Muntiacus present) and less competitive in habitat containing Fallow, Sika and, especially in conifer plantations, Red deer.
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 Raymond Chaplin
Blandford Press -- 1977 -- ISBN: 978-0713707960
Deer - by John Fletcher
Reakton Books -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1780230887
Deer - by Norma Chapman
Whittet Books -- 1991 -- ISBN: 978-1873580356
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
Highland Deer Forest - by Lea MacNally
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. -- 1970 -- ISBN: 978-0330234665
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.
Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131
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 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
UK Mammals: Species Status & Population Trends - by The Tracking Mammals Partnership
JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
Urban Mammals: A Concise Guide - by David Wembridge
Whittet Books -- 2012 -- ISBN: 978-1873580851
Urban Wildlife - by Peter Shirley
Whittet Books -- 1996 -- ISBN: 978-1873580233
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271