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Deer, red (Cervus elaphus)

The magnificent red deer is our largest native land mammal.

Scientific name: Cervus elaphus

Family: Cervidae

Appearance

Standing four feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 200kg, there are few sights more impressive than a red deer stag. The species has red-brown fur, with a cream-coloured rump. Adult males have branched antlers, which may have up to 16 points.

Where and how to spot

Scotland is the red deer’s stronghold and is home to roughly 70% of the UK population. Elsewhere, they are most common in East Anglia, south-west England and the Lake District, with scattered populations across the rest of the UK. The species can be found in both woodland and open terrain such as moorland and open hillsides. Our Loch Arkaig site is a perfect example of Scottish red deer habitat.

Watching red deer can be difficult or relatively easy, depending on how accustomed they are to people. You have more chance of spotting the species in open habitat than in dense woodland.

Feeding

Red deer mainly feed on grass and shrubs, but will also eat tree shoots and bark. Find out more about what deer eat and other facts here.

Behaviour and breeding

Red deer typically give birth to a single youngster, known as a calf, in late spring or early summer. Calves are born with white spots to provide camouflage when left alone by their mother. For most of the year, adult males and females live separately, with females forming herds and males living in smaller bachelor groups. In the autumn, stags enter the rut and will fight for the opportunity to mate. The strongest males will mate with a number of females, known as a harem, which they defend against other stags. On average, red deer will live up to 16 years.

Threats

Red deer are one of only two native deer species in the UK (the other being roe deer). Hybridisation with the introduced sika deer threatens the genetic purity of red deer, with concerns that pure reds will eventually only be found on Scottish islands where sika have not been introduced.

The extinction of large carnivores in the UK means red deer have no natural predators. As a result, deer densities can reach extremely high levels. It is thought total deer numbers are higher now than at any point in the past 1,000 years - with a potentially negative impact on the environment. For example, over-grazing can prevent the re-generation of woodland, thereby affecting woodland structure and tree species composition. This has knock-on effects for other species of woodland flora and fauna. As a result, some populations are culled to control their spread and reduce habitat damage. See our position statement on deer.

Did you know?

  • Stags shed and re-grow their antlers every year.
  • Rutting stags will roar and even brush areas of vegetation with their antlers so foliage gets stuck in them, making the deer appear larger to its opponents!
  • Deer in woodland are bigger than those in more open habitats due to superior food quality.