Facts about Deer

At a glance

There are six species of deer in Britain and the Mammal Society’s 2018 status review confirms that all deer have increased in population size and geographical range in the last 20 years, making them among the most successful British mammals.

Only two deer are actually native to the UK: Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) and Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus). The other four species are termed as  'invasive non-natives' and were brought into Britain by humans.The 'invasive' part of that phrase means that (technically) they have a negative impact on the environment, the economy or human health.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) are our largest deer species, and males (stags) are larger than females (hinds). They are named for their beautiful (unspotted) red-brown coat colour. The antlers of males are usually branched (not palmate like Fallow Deer), with up to 3 branches.  In Britain most Red Deer are found on the moorlands of the Highlands and offshire islands of Scotland, although scattered populations are found elsewhere such as north west England, East Anglia, Exmoor and Ireland. Their range and numbers were greatly reduced in historic times by hunting pressure and land clearance, becoming extinct in much of England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands by the end of the 18th century. Their populations have increased as estates encourage them for shooting and the colonisation of forestry plantations. Red Deer are an important source of food (in the form of live prey or as carrion) for animals including Golden Eagle, Buzzard, Pine Marten and Fox.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)  are medium-sized and are reddish brown in summer, turning more grey in winter. They often appear tail-less with a white/cream rump patch which is especially conspicuous when the deer is alarmed. Males have short antlers with no more than three points. Roes are widespread throughout Scotland and much of England, and in many areas are abundant (much to the irritation of some famers and foresters) and are perhaps the deer species that people are most likely to see.  They are still increasing their range and spreading but are not yet established in parts of the Midlands and Kent. They have never occurred in Ireland. They are generally found in open mixed, coniferous or purely deciduous woodland, particularly at edges between woodland and open habitats like rough pasture and fields.

Fallow deer (Dama dama) were deliberately released into the wild for hunting by the Normans and have been here so long now that many people consider them naturalised. With their spotted coats they are widely recognised – and generally loved. Our most numerous species Fallow Deer are common in deer collections and a feature of many Royal Parks. Woodland habitat can be significantly impacted and they are frequently involved in road traffic accidents.

Sika deer (Cervus nippon) have been present in Britain since 1860 and have a patchy but expanding distribution across Britain. Sika deer are medium in size, standing up to a metre tall at the shoulder. In summer, they have a similar coat colour to the fallow deer: yellow-brown with white spots; changing to a greyish-brown during winter. They have a small head in comparison to their body, with a ‘furrowed brow’ that gives them a rather grumpy and almost angry expression. Only males have antlers. Sika deer can cause damage to forestry and crops but also have a negative impact through hybridisation with the native Red Deer.

Muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi), also known as Reeves’ muntjac, is a small stocky species introduced to Woburn Park in Bedfordshire at the start of the 20th century. Deliberate releases and escapes from Woburn, Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire has led to the establishment of feral populations with a patchy presence in Britain, being more common in England, sparse in Wales and with only a few records in Scotland. It has impacts on biodiversity, forestry and can be involved in road traffic accidents.

Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) became established in the wild after escapes from private collections including London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo. They are still largely confined to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk with a few scattered sightings elsewhere. Water deer do not have antlers but have prominent tusks which are used for display and as weapons in a similar way to antlers in other deer species. They show a preference for wetland habitats, e.g. along rivers or reedbeds. Britain now holds a high percentage of the global population of the species they are declining in their native range ( E China (Yangtze flood plain) and the Korean peninsula).

Deer get a mixed press – they are loved by most of the public and loathed by a smaller section of farmers, foresters, and land managers.

While it’s of course true that any non-native species can cause damage (the 50 million non-native pheasants the shooting industry release every year are testamant to that), it’s typically the case that the ‘damage’ is economic and often the case that those same ‘land managers’ ahve spent centuries removing natural predators that would have stopped populations building up in the first place. 

Britain has long been stripped of native large predators like the Eurasian Lynx or Grey Wolf that could take down a deer. While some biologists and rewilders argue that these predators should be reintroduced to assist with deer management, they are often fiercely opposed by the very same ‘land managers’ who insist on killing deer themselves.

Stag Hunting

Despite being banned by the Hunting Act 2004 there are still three registered packs of staghounds in Britain:

‘Hunts’ are typically long chases – taking many hours – ending only when the hunt have had their ‘day out’ and the exhausted animal is finally cornered and shot (read – The brutal reality of stag hunting).

Hunts are exploiting an exemption in Schedule 1:9 of the Hunting Act called ‘Research and Observation’, which allows hunting with two dogs ‘… for the purpose of or in connection with the observation or study of the wild mammal.’  This exemption this places no obligation on the hunters to explain why they wish to ‘observe or study’ the wild mammal, nor why they have to hunt it in order to do so. We want a Proper Ban on Hunting which would replace the Hunting Act and remove this exemption forever - learn more here.