Species of the month – red deer

The roar of red deer stags across a Highland glen is one of the most evocative sounds of a Scottish autumn. For many of us who take to the hills at this time of year, hearing that wild sound and perhaps seeing the outlines of a herd silhouetted against a far horizon makes our day on the hill seem complete; the quintessential Scottish wildlife experience, seemingly timeless and eternal. But appearances can be deceptive, for the ecology of this, our largest native land mammal, has been changed beyond all recognition through its interactions with man.

Red deer have been in Scotland for at least the last 10,000 years – the end of the last ice age. But they evolved as a herbivore of the woodland edge, not as an animal of the open hill; they probably became more dependent on open moorland as man felled more and more of the native tree cover of Scotland.

However, it seems red deer never quite lost a penchant for their original habitats: from the 1970s, as commercial afforestation began to significantly build up Scotland’s woodland cover once again, red deer began to cause increasingly serious damage to the new plantations. Tall deer fences are often used to protect the new trees, but these can bring problems of their own – particularly in respect of birds like capercaillie and black grouse, which can be easily killed when they fly into the wires. Large numbers of red deer can also limit the expansion of new native woodlands in Scotland, and potentially affect the biodiversity of valued open habitats.

Man’s reliance on the species goes back a long, long way, even as far as the mesolithic period – as shown by the presence of red deer bones in middens from the west coast island of Oronsay, which may be as much as 6,000 years old. And today red deer are, of course, an important economic asset for many Scottish estates; venison is a source of healthy, low-fat meat from free-ranging animals.

However, red deer have no natural predators left in Scotland, the last Scottish wolves being killed around 300 years ago. This means that red deer numbers need to be managed by man to limit their potential impacts. Most deer control is carried out over the autumn and winter; you can find out more at http://www.snh.gov.uk/land-and-sea/managing-wildlife/managing-deer/

So, perhaps you saw a red deer on the hill today. But can you be sure it really was a red deer? In parts of Scotland – particularly in Argyll – hybrids between red and sika deer have become common, and they’re often very similar in appearance to ‘pure’ reds. Sika deer aren’t native to the United Kingdom, having escaped from collections brought across form Asia. In order to conserve some red deer populations that are as free from sika genes as possible, islands off the west coast of Scotland have been designated as red deer refugia. Today, islands such as Arran, Jura and Rum hold notable populations of red deer.

To some a wilderness icon, to others a tourism asset or an economic resource; sometimes a road traffic hazard, sometimes a woodland pest. Whatever your perspective, there can be few other species in Scotland that mean so many different things to different people.


Further information:  the red deer is one of the iconic species and habitats featured in our Scotland’s Nature app which  is compatible with Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch and can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store.


It also features in our Big 5 app which is supported by a mobile website – you can find this at http://www.scotlandsbig5.co.uk/

Image credits – top image ©BertieGregory/2020VISION, second and third  image ©Laurie Campbell/SNH, Fourth image (c) Lorne Gill/SNH.

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