• Mervyn

Red Deer - Britain’s Largest Mammal.

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Red Deer - Britain’s Iconic, Largest & most Spectacular Mammal.

- The life and behaviour of Red Deer - Very Educational -

A Stag weighs between 90 -190kg (200 - 420lbs), with the open hill Red species rarely weighing more than 300lbs. The height at the shoulder of mature stags is between 101–137cm (40 – 54in). Females (hinds) are 63 -120kg (140 – 270lbs), up to 107-122cm ( 42 – 48in ) at the shoulder. Female Deer on the open hills in Scotland are also smaller than those in lowland English woodland.

In the UK, Native Red Deer are common in the Scottish Highlands, Dumfriesshire, Lake District, East Anglia and the South-west of England. Feral stock are present in the north of England, North Midlands, East Anglia, the New Forest and Sussex.

The Majestic Red deer are proven survivors, having struggled through the ice age, a period when their natural woodland habitat was buried under ice and when almost every Briton hunted deer.

Red deer are forest dwellers, but they are very adaptive. Their selection of habitat is mostly linked to the availability of food, but other factors such as weather and fly infestation can also influence movement. Red Deer will retreat to higher ground or deeper woodland during the height of summer to avoid flies, returning to lower or more open ground when food becomes scarce and the weather becomes colder and bleaker. They tend, however, to have traditional wintering areas.

They behave in various manners depending on the level of disturbance. In areas where they are particularly targeted they can become nocturnal, however, the usual peak time for movement and for eating is at dawn and dusk, periods in between are spent laying up in dense cover to allow them to chew the cud.

Red deer are grazers by preference, however good grass is not always available so many other food sources are taken advantage of.

These include rough grasses as well as heather, bilberry and dwarf shrubs. If near the sea, seaweed is a very popular delicacy. Heather is of particular dietary importance during the winter months, especially when snow covers the ground. If the weather is especially harsh, Stags can be forced from the hill to feed on farm crops, most usually at night. Stags need calcium, from bones, before the rut to help build their healthy and strong antlers.

Red Deer can swim well, but generally have no need to do so.

Red deer are farmed commercially in Britain, and even more in New Zealand. The meat is venison, and the skin is used for leather products and the antlers for buttons and handles. In many places, research funds are raised through Deer Stalking programmes.

It is normal to see solitary Red stags, however, they are generally gregarious and hinds usually group together each with their calf by their side. On open ground larger single sex groups can be seen regularly, these groups only mix during the rut. Some Scottish highland populations remain in these groups for most of the year.

Their only predators in the UK are Foxes and Golden Eagles, but this is only the very weak and young deer. There is still Deer Game hunting by Man, allowed in certain areas and in sporting estates, but there are many restrictions controlling it, especially with the hinds and when there are young about. There are also Game Meat Laws announced, back in January 2006, updating the control of such practices.

Red stags roar and grunt during the breeding season. Hinds tend to bark when alarmed and moo when searching for their offspring. Calves emit a high-pitched squeal when alarmed and may bleat to the hind.

Deer have antlers that fall off every year, and new ones grow, covered in skin called velvet. The antlers are made of bone, unlike cattle horns, that are made of hoof material-keratin.

Antlers are only on males, except for reindeer. They are ruminants, so digest food in 4 stomachs, and by chewing the cud. Like cattle and other ruminants, they have no top incisors so use their tongues to eat. Deer have hollow hair, unlike cattle.

Courtship Behaviour

Much of Red Deer behaviour relies on scent markings and the use of the various different scents. It is the understanding of scents that aids identification and communication between individuals.

A Stag has many ways of showing his dominance with scent markings. It will thrash around using its antlers to check and reinforce its scent by wiping it on trees, branches and fences etc. It also has scent glands on the base of its eyes, top of the head, on his cheeks and on its cloven hooves, which it uses to continually ensure that only his scent markings are in the vicinity. Random urinating on themselves as well as on their territory also assists in such reinforcement.

The Stag will rut from the end of September through to November and will travel back to the hind’s home range in order to defend his access to the herd of Hinds he has accumulated, which is normally no more than twenty. This behaviour may be considered unusual as Reds are not considered to be territorial, but often the territory can be ‘moving’ and not static, but they tend to claim the most fertile areas that have the most hinds.

Stags will wallow in shallow scrapes filled with water, mud and their own urine, this behaviour is intended to enhance their presence amongst the hinds and deter any would-be contender from an attempt to fight and to take his territory including his hinds.

The hinds, however, try to be greedy and choose areas that are within at least two stags territories, to keep their options open. The choosing of their mate is then down to cunning as she can flirt with neighbouring Stags and cross the boundaries, while he is not looking.

During this time she can, in theory have many sexual partners, but generally picks the strongest, so that she can rear a young one with the same strong genetics and the best ability for survival. However, the chances of a hind in season being allowed to stray too far away from him, would be very rare, as he would pick up the scent that she was ready for mating and follow her continually. This scent, however, would also attract other Stags, who would also be very interested.

The Rutting Stands are fertile areas with plenty of available grazing, where the hinds choose to be, to ensure they also obtain their peak condition, prior to the rut . A Stag’s pursuit of hinds around the rutting stand, often with neck and tongue extended is called chivying.

Successful mature Master Stags, usually 5 to 11 years of age that possess the major (central ) rutting stands must be very fit, have plenty of stamina and body size, weight and intimidating antler formation. The Antler formation can itself look impressive, but the number of points it has, does not necessarily impress. Usually the number of points increases with age and with age comes experience and cunning. It is more the way the Antlers are used that would have the desired affect. The more strong and intimidating they look, the more the hinds fancy them and the more it deters other Stags to try to force them from their stand. Injuries at this time are commonplace although fighting occurs only when other methods of assessing dominance have failed. Junior stags who try it on, are likely to adopt the parallel walking and loud groaning with the master, without actual body contact being made.

Normally the louder barking of the master would frighten the Junior off. If, however, the Junior or another Master still fancies his chances, he will turn his antlers towards the stand Master and engage in a fierce fight. This can and normally results in a bloody battle, lasting many minutes and can sometimes be fatal for the loser.

When, however, a Master Stag has been dominant for many years, there would come a time when his health and strength would wane and this would be the time that other Masters or Junior Stags would challenge the dominance in earnest.

A Junior Stag becomes sexually mature in only eighteen months, but would not stand much chance in the real mating game until he is about 5 years old.

Once a Stag feels comfortable about his dominance in his stand, the mating will take place with any and all willing hinds that are in season at the time. He will know when the time is right by the sniffing of areas which hinds have either occupied or urinated upon, often associated with the curling of the upper lip.

This behaviour is called Flehmen and Flehming allows the animals to determine several factors, including the presence or absence of oestrous and the physiological state of the animal.

It is the hind, however that will determine the selection of the mating partner, and the time of mating. Mounting only takes place at the peak of a hind’s oestrous, which normally occurs about the third week in October. Most hinds conceive at the first mounting, however, if this fails then, as polyestrous animals, they will come into oestrous up to a further two occasions, with approximately 18 days between cycles. A number of mountings may take place over a period of up to an hour.

Despite the strength of the beast, mating does not last very long. His main concerns are to mate and father as many young as he can, without losing out to his rivals. The Stag will only leave his harem when he has mated with all his reciprocal hinds and therefore all would have finished their season.

Caring for the young

The Gestation period for Red Deer lasts almost 8 months or about 235 days and one calf of approximately 6 kg is born each pregnancy, between mid May and mid July. However, this can differ with hinds that live on the hill, they can sometimes only give birth once in every 2 –3 years. In addition puberty may be delayed in hill hinds until they are 3 years old, whereas woodland hinds reach puberty in their second year.

Immediately prior to the hind giving birth she becomes restless and begins to moan. The actual birth normally occurs with the hind standing. Afterwards the hind will lick the calf clean, clean any contaminated grass and within forty minutes the calf will begin to suckle.

After about an hour and a half the placenta will be expelled and the hind will eat it and clean traces of it from the area. This behaviour is important in concealing the calf from any predators, then the hind will move the calf well away from the birthing area.

Suckling occurs every two to three hours during the first few days and reduces gradually thereafter. While suckling, hinds will eat the faeces and urine of their calves, once again minimising the risk of scent attracting predators.

All caring for the young is carried out by the hind and calves are weaned after five to seven months. The calf is left lying alone except while feeding initially.

Often there is a 'crèche' of several calves within large groups of hinds which help to protect and care for them.

Calves gain weight rapidly during the autumn months after their birth, putting on as much as 30kg before November. Afterwards weight gain slows considerably during the winter months and this is probably governed by food availability and the higher energy levels required to keep warm.

When the Stags leave the harem after the rut, they have absolutely no part in the bringing up of their offspring. They either remain alone for part or congregate in bachelor groups and build up their strength and body weight after the demanding exertions connected with the rut. They can loose about 20% of their body weight during the 6 weeks or so, connected with the rut.

As both Stags and hinds are herd animals, they find extra comfort in remaining in single sex herds to, whenever necessary, collectively fight off would-be predators.

Bonding Processes

During their whole existence, there is mutual Sniffing and Licking. Both hinds and stags spend a considerable amount of time sniffing and licking each other. As mentioned earlier, the importance of scents has an enormous part to play in the behaviour and communication patterns of all Red Deer. The young will know the scent of its mother from birth and will panic when they cannot find that appropriate scent. While very young, no other scent will do; they would not follow a hind with a different scent. This licking and sniffing is also grooming and bonding behaviour. As they get older, they get to know other scents that they can trust, especially in a crèche environment.

The vocal communications between hind and calf are very important. Hinds tend to bark when alarmed and moo when searching for their offspring. Calves emit a high-pitched squeal when alarmed and may bleat to the hind.

The longer a calf emits a high pitched squeal, the more it would alert an opportunist predator, of a possible easy meal. It is therefore, very important for the hind to always be aware of the whereabouts of her young calf. There is less pressure for her when the calf will be able to follow her, from about 7 to 10 days old.

Red Deer Calves have spotted markings at birth but generally loose these spots after about 2 months.

Not only do the Stags have a system of dominance, with every stag fighting to improve his position; the hinds have a matriarchal existence, with a group of dominant hind and dependent offspring. Each one must always know their place in the order.

There is never a bond between a Stag and his calf and it becomes very necessary for the mother and calf relationship to end just prior to the hind becoming a mother again.

The hind would strongly force and chase away her mature daughters and any previous female offspring to adjacent overlapping ranges. If they were sexually receptive, the blood line would be kept pure and strong by being mated by any other Stag other than its father, or even a brother. It would also satisfy her maternal instinct, as she would, at least still have some contact with her.

The hind would also be very keen to shun any male offspring and convince them to leave the herd even further a-field, before the Master Stag does the job for her, with a lot more aggression and possible harm.


As Red Deer are herd animals and not exotic, they are rarely found in Zoos. They are farmed for both meat etc and as they are not endangered, for sport, as mentioned earlier. Their natural behaviour can be replicated in a captive environment and the controlled selection of future master stags to be kept to the minimum, in order to satisfy a more peaceful status quo.

The bonding and imprinting would not vary between a Wild or a Captive environment and existence. Their inbred maternal instincts would be the same and the survival rate will greatly increase due to the lack of natural predators, providing that large quantities of their natural foodstuffs are available for them. Their whole captive environment would be relatively stress free, once they are used to human intervention.

Deer Management

Control of the deer population is needed in many areas, and is an essential part of deer management. Where deer population are too high, the environment suffers and deer begin to starve. The total Woodland management is as equally important. The husbandry work involves not simply controlling the deer population for its own good, but helping the financial needs in the hunting of deer for pleasure! The majority of hunters are thoughtful and understanding of the animals they shoot and have a deep love of nature. They understand that deer have to be controlled and try to do so in the most sensitive way.

I have spent time over the years studying the Life and behaviour of the magnificent Red Deer and have enjoyed getting to know more about them. They are wonderful creatures and it is worth getting to know more about them, but only from a distance. When you have researched their traits, please behave with much caution when approaching them, especially the Stags, when aroused, as their Antlers are a formidable Weapon.

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