Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red deer stag roaring during rut

(http://www.arkive.org/red-deer/cervus-elaphus/)

  • Name: Red deer
  • Latin: Cervus elaphus
  • Classification: Mammal
  • Origin: Europe and Asia
  • Lifespan: 10-12 years

Taxonomy

  • Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (vertebrates)
  • Class: Mammalia (mammals)
  • Order: Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates)
  • Family: Cervidae (deer)
  • Genus: Cervus (native to Eurasia)
  • Species: Cervus elaphus (red deer)

Apperance

  • Height: Male – 105-135cm (41-53in) Female – 100-120cm (39-47in)
  • Weight: Male – 190kg (418lbs) Female – 120kg (26lbs)

The red deer is Britain’s largest land mammal. It has a reddish-brown summer coat and the males have thick, noticeable manes. The males start to grow antlers at the beginning of spring and are shed at the end of winter. New antlers have a soft covering (known as velvet) to protect them while they are still growing. Antler growth is driven by testosterone. When levels of this hormone drop in the autumn, the velvet is shed and the antlers stop growing. On the lead up to autumn, the antlers begin to calcify and the stag’s testosterone levels increase in preparation for the oncoming rut.

During the autumn, the deer grow their thick winter coat to provide insulation against the cold. The winter coat is greyish brown with a yellow rump patch. This thick coat sheds as summer begins.

Relatives

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  • Fallow deer (Dama dama) -LEAST CONCERN-
  • Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) -LEAST CONCERN-
  • Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) -NEAR THREATENED- 
  • Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi) -LEAST CONCERN- 

Habitat & Distribution

The red deer occurs mainly in and around woodland and forest areas although it has also adapted to life on open moors and hills. They can occur throughout Asia, North Africa and Europe. In the UK, populations of this deer exist in Scotland, the Lake District and the south west of England (mainly in Exmoor).

The red deer also occurs as an alien species in New Zealand and Australia. They were introduced onto the island of New Zealand from Scotland by hunters. Between 1851 and 1914, there were 200 releases of these animals. They were originally a protected species so the herds expanded out of control. In 1930, a bounty was put on the red deer by a Deer Menace Conference. There are now freely hunted throughout New Zealand and Australia.

UK map of distribution of the red deer

Diet

Red deer are primarily grazers and can eat large quantities of heather, grass and other ground-hugging plants. They will also eat the fresher shoots of bushes and trees if ground food is scarce. Red deer can cause a great deal of damage to large areas, affecting the survival of other plant and animals species. Deer will eat pine seedlings, preventing the growth of new trees. Entire pine forests can disappear when the old trees die.

Behaviour

Red deer tend to live in large, single sex herds, the size of which can depend on habitat type / quality, deer density, disturbance, time of year and weather. Individual stags will leave their herds and move into hind areas as the rut approaches.

Stag groups tend to have a linear hierarchy while females are more matriarchal, meaning they are led by a dominant female. Stags can roam up to 40km throughout the year around their range, although moorland deer will stay on high ground during the summer to avoid flies and midges. The hinds may wander several kilometres to and from their lying areas to feeding places daily. Deer movement is affected by the time of day, the season and weather.

Reproduction

The Rut

The rut occurs from August into early winter. During this time, individual males will move into hind areas and compete for the right to breed. They will challenge opponents by belling and walking parallel, this allows them to size each other up, assess antlers and body size. If neither stag backs down, a clash of antlers will occur which can lead to serious injury and sometimes death.

Dominant stags can have as many as 20 hinds to protect from rival males. Only mature stags can successfully defend a harem and breeding success for red deer peaks at about eight years of age. Stags can lose up to 20% of their body weight during the rut, defending his females from rival males.

Stags will roar throughout the rut to keep his harem of females together. The females tend to be more attracted to stags who can roar the loudest and the most often.

Breeding

Stags will usually require several mating attempts before making a successful one. Also, like many other animals species, the red deer can exhibit homosexual behaviour (such as dolphins, penguins and swans).

The gestation periods of a red deer hind is 240-262 days and will produce one or two offspring. Each new-born fawn will weigh around 15kg (33lbs).  The fawns will join the heard after two weeks and are fully weaned after two months. Like other deer species, the young are born spotted and will lose their markings by the end of the summer. The offspring will remain with their mother for nearly a year. The young females will tend to stay put, while the stags will leave to join bachelor herds.

Red deer fawn suckling milk from hind

(http://www.arkive.org/red-deer/cervus-elaphus/image-A22765.html)

Adaptations

  • The stags have large antlers which are used to show off their size to other males when competing for females. They are also used to engage in battle with equally matched stags.
  • When the antlers of the male first begin to grow they are covered in a fine layer of velvet. This protects the antlers while they are still growing and is shed as the rutting season occurs.
  • The adult males are a rusty brown (giving them their name) which provides camouflage in the woodland areas they live in. The young’s spots are also a camouflage adaptation.
  • Red deer have very acute senses of sight and hearing. Their eyes are located on either side of its head giving it a wide field of view. It also has manoeuvrable ears. Combined, its sight and hearing make it very difficult for predators to sneak up on a deer.

Threats

The red deer’s natural predators include bears, lynx and wolves (however, these are now extinct in Britain and so red deer thrive). Eagles and foxes will also occasionally prey and very young fawns. Hybridisation with sika deer can also cause a decline in pure red deer genetics. Red deer can also contract liver worms from alien species imported into Europe from North America.

In Mongolia, the red deer are hunted for their velvet, genital organs, foetuses and female tails which are all used in traditional medicine and sold for high prices. This alone has caused a 92% population decline in the last 18 years. Here, red deer are also threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, human disturbance from mining and infrastructure development and trophy hunters.

In China, large numbers of red deer are poached for their antlers, tendons, unborn fawns, male reproductive organs and tails which are then used in traditional Chinese medicines.

Conservation

  • IUCN Status: Least Concern

The red deer are protected under appendix II of the Bern Convention and appendix IV of the EU Habitats and Species Directive. They also occur in many protected areas outside of its natural range where it has been introduced.

Subspecies of the red deer are also protected by CITES. Cervus elaphus hanglu is protected under appendix I, cervus elaphus bactrianus under appendix II and Cervus elaphus barbarous under appendix III.

In Britain, the lack of natural predators and led for a huge increase in the population of red deer, so much so that they decimate acres of land making it unsuitable for other animal and plant species to survive. The red deer is actively culled in Britain due to its sheer numbers and to protect the environment.

Fun Facts

  • Male: Stag, Hart, Buck
  • Female: Hind, Doe
  • Young: Fawn
  • Group: Herd, Mob
  • The red deer is the largest, non-domesticated mammal in the UK.
  • The stags antlers grow at a rate of 2.5cm (1 inch) a day.
  • A stag can produce 10-15kg of velvet every year, which is then collected and sold for holistic medicines.

References

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