The Red Deer is one of the largest deer species. It is a ruminant, eating its food in two stages and having an even number of toes on each hoof, like camels, goats, and cattle. European Red Deer have a relatively long tail compared to their Asian and North American relatives. There are subtle differences in appearance between the various subspecies of Red Deer primarily in size and antlers, with the smallest being the Corsican Red Deer found on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and the largest being the Caspian Red Deer (or maral) of Asia Minor and the Caucasus Region to the west of the Caspian Sea. The Red Deer of Central and Western Europe vary greatly in size with some of the largest Red Deer found in the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe. West European Red Deer historically, grew to large size given ample food supply (including peoples’ crops), and descendants of introduced populations living in New Zealand and Argentina have grown quite large in size and antlers. Large Red Deer stags, like the Caspian Red Deer or those of the Carpathian Mountains may rival the Wapiti in size. Female Red Deer are much smaller than their male counterparts.
Generally, the male (stag or hart) Red Deer is typically 69 to 91 in long and weighs 350 to 530 lb; the female is 63 to 83 in long and weighs 260 to 370 lb. The tail adds another 4.7 to 7.5 in and shoulder height is about 41 to 47 in. Size varies in different subspecies with the largest, the huge but small-antlered deer of the Carpathian Mountains, weighing up to 1,100 lb. At the other end of the scale, the Corsican Red Deer weighs about 180 to 220 lb, although Red Deer in poor habitats can weigh as little as 120 to 250 lb. European Red Deer tend to be reddish-brown in their summer coats. The males of many subspecies also grow a short neck mane (“mane” of hair around their necks) during the autumn. The male deer of the British Isles and Norway tend to have the thickest and most noticeable neck manes. Male Caspian Red Deer and Spanish Red Deer do not carry neck manes. Male deer of all subspecies, however, tend to have stronger and thicker neck muscles than female deer, which may give them an appearance of having neck manes. Red Deer hinds (females) do not have neck manes. The European Red Deer is adapted to a woodland environment.
Only the stags have antlers which start growing in the spring and are shed each year, usually at the end of winter. Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of 1 inch a day. A soft covering known as velvet helps to protect newly forming antlers in the spring. European red deer antlers are distinctive in being rather straight and rugose, with the fourth and fifth tines forming a “crown” or “cup” in larger males. Any tines in excess of the fourth and fifth tine will grow radially from the “cup”. “Cups” are generally absent in the antlers of smaller red deer such as Corsican Red Deer. West European Red Deer antlers feature bez (second) tines that are either absent or smaller than the brow tine. However, bez tines occur frequently in Norwegian Red Deer. Antlers of Caspian Red Deer carry large bez (second) tines and form less-developed “cups” than West European red deer, their antlers are thus more like the “throw back” top tines of the wapiti and these are known as maraloid characteristics. A stag can (exceptionally) have antlers with no tines, and is then known as a switch. Similarly, a stag that doesn’t grow antlers is a hummel. The antlers are testosterone-driven and as the stag’s testosterone levels drop in the autumn, the velvet is shed and the antlers stop growing. Red Deer produce no testosterone in their bodies while they are growing antler. With the approach of autumn, the antler begin to calcify and the stags testosterone production builds for the approaching rut (mating season).
During the autumn, all Red Deer subspecies grow a thicker coat of hair which helps to insulate them during the winter. Autumn is also when some of the stags grow their neck manes. It is in the autumn/winter coat that most subspecies are most distinct. The Caspian Red Deer’s winter coat is greyer and has a larger and more distinguished light rump-patch (like Elk and some Central Asian Red Deer) compared to the West European Red Deer which has more of a greyish-brown coat with a darker yellowish rump patch in the winter. By the time summer begins, the heavy winter coat has been shed; the animals are known to rub against trees and other objects to help remove hair from their bodies. Red Deer have different coloration based on the seasons and types of habitats, with grey or lighter coloration prevalent in the winter and a more reddish and darker coat in the summer. Most European Red Deer wear a reddish-brown summer coat, and some individuals may have a few spots on the backs of their summer coats.
Mature Red Deer usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year. During the mating ritual, called the rut, mature stags compete for the attentions of the hinds and will then try to defend hinds that they attract. Rival stags challenge opponents by belling and walking in parallel. This allows combatants to assess each other’s antlers, body size and fighting prowess. If neither stag backs down, a clash of antlers can occur, and stags sometimes sustain serious injuries.
Dominant stags follow groups of hinds during the rut, from August into early winter. The stags may have as many as 20 hinds to keep from other less attractive males. Only mature stags hold harems (groups of hinds) and breeding success peaks at about 8 years of age. Stags 2–4 years old rarely hold harems and spend most of the rut on the periphery of larger harems, as do stags over 11 years old. Young and old stags that do acquire a harem hold it later in the breeding season than those stags in their prime. Harem holding stags rarely feed and lose up to 20% of their body weight. Stags that enter the rut in poor condition are less likely to make it through to the peak conception period.
Male European Red Deer have a distinctive “roar” during the rut, which is an adaptation to forested environments, as opposed to male Wapiti (or American Elk) which “bugle” during the rut in adaptation to open environments. The male deer roars to keep his harem of females together. The females are initially attracted to those males that both roar most often and have the loudest roar call. Males also use the roar call when competing with other males for females during the rut, and along with other forms of posturing and antler fights, is a method used by the males to establish dominance. Roaring is most common during the early dawn and late evening, which is also when the crepuscular deer are most active in general.
Breeding, Gestation, and Lifespan
Red Deer mating patterns usually involve a dozen or more mating attempts before the first successful one. There may be several more matings before the stag will seek out another mate in his harem. Females in their second autumn can produce one and very rarely two offspring per year. The gestation period is 240 and 262 days and the offspring weigh about 33 lb. After two weeks, fawns are able to join the herd and are fully weaned after two months. Female offspring outnumber male offspring more than two to one and all Red Deer fawns are born spotted, as is common with many deer species, and lose their spots by the end of summer. However, as in many species of Old World Deer, some adults do retain a few spots on the backs of their summer coats. The offspring will remain with their mothers for almost one full year, leaving around the time that the next season offspring are produced. The gestation period is the same for all subspecies.
Red Deer live up to over 20 years in captivity and in the wild they average 10 to 13 years, though some subspecies with less predation pressure average 15 years.
Protection from Predators
Male Red Deer retain their antlers for more than half the year and are less gregarious and less likely to group with other males when they have antlers. The antlers provide self-defence as does a strong front-leg kicking action which is performed by both sexes when attacked. Once the antlers are shed, stags tend to form bachelor groups which allow them to cooperatively work together. Herds tend to have one or more members watching for potential danger while the remaining members eat and rest.
After the rut, females form large herds of up to 50 individuals. The newborn calves are kept close to the hinds by a series of vocalizations between the two, and larger nurseries have an ongoing and constant chatter during the daytime hours. When approached by predators, the largest and most robust females may make a stand, using their front legs to kick at their attackers. Guttural grunts and posturing is used with all but the most determined of predators with great effectiveness. Aside from humans and domestic dogs, the Wolf is probably the most dangerous predator that most European Red Deer encounter. Occasionally, the Brown bear will predate on European Red Deer as well. Eurasian Lynx and wild boars sometimes prey on the calves. The leopard in Asia Minor (now extinct) probably preyed on East European Red Deer. Both Barbary Lion and Barbary Leopard probably once preyed on Atlas stags in the Atlas Mountains, although Barbary Lion is now extinct in the wild, and Barbary Leopard either very rare or extinct.