Red Deer at Langwell
Bob Walker

Deer are ruminant, hoofed animals belonging to the family Cervidae, the main characteristic of this family is that the males have branched antlers, which are shed each year. In Britain we have six species of deer, namely Chinese Water Deer, Hydropotes inermis; Muntjac Deer, Muntiacus muntjak; Sika Deer, Sika nippon; Fallow Deer, Dama dama , Roe Deer, Capreolus capreolus; and Red Deer, Cervus elaphus. The first three are relatively recent introductions from Asia whilst the last two are native, the Fallow is an alien but has been here for centuries. There are Reindeer in the Glen More Forest, but these are not feral, and as such do not count. To be included on the British list a species must exist in a self sustaining population without any help from man.

In Caithness we have Roe and Red deer. The Roe deer is much smaller, less than one sixth the weight of the Red deer. The Roe deer prefer dense cover and live in or on the fringes of woodland. They are quite common on Dunnet Head.

At Langwell we expect to see Red deer in their breeding herds although the rut will be more or less at an end. Near the big house there may be a herd which although wild is fed additional rations by the estate. Langwell used to be famous for its herd of white deer, these albinos were collected in the wild and kept in the field near the house.

Red deer are our largest wild land animal being 165 - 250 cm in length, excluding the tail, 120 - 150 cm at the shoulder, and they weigh 95 - 160 kg. The poorer habitat of the Scottish Highlands is reflected in the fact that the English, Belgian, French and German races can reach weights of 250 kg living in forest areas. While feeding Red deer in domesticated herds can lead to weights in excess of 350 kg. These weights are all for males, the female is usually 25 - 33 % lighter.

In summer the deer are reddish brown, and in winter they turn grey brown. If the tail is raised a white patch of fur is revealed and this is used as a warning signal when deer are alarmed, and perhaps as an identification mark. Their normal habitat is woodland although the Scottish herds have become adapted to living in open moorland. The sexes tend to live separately for most of the year. The hinds form small stable herds dominated by an older hind , in fact the herd often consists of just a hind and her own offspring, these herds will not have a stag with them except during the rut. Outside the rut the mature stags will form loose herds, which may also contain old or infertile females. Old stags are solitary.

In the rutting season the stags try to collect a harem of hinds, their mating call is a deep roaring bellow, and when they are calling they are said to be belling. The hind has a short bark. The stags begin growing their antlers in April and they are normal fully formed by mid July. The velvet covering then starts to fray off and the antlers are fully uncovered by mid September. Antlers are living tissue well supplied with blood vessels. Unlike horns antlers are solid, not hollow. Also in September the stags grow a shaggy mane which they keep until the end of November. The rut runs from mid September until late October. The antlers are shed in late February or March. Each year the antlers grow bigger , reaching their maximum size after several years, when the stag has twelve points he is a royal stag, and the preferred hunting trophy, this can happen when it is only four or five years old. The mature stag has three branches at the top of the antler, these are called the tops, and a stag with his tops is said to have all his rights. A year old stag has two small lumps instead of antlers, at two it has short unbranched antlers, they grow rapidly after that. The function of the antlers is problematic, they could show status or age, and although they are used in wrestling bouts during the rut butting with the forehead is just as important. It is unlikely that they are defensive weapons. It was thought that perhaps large antlers attract the hinds, but this is not the case as antler less stags called hummels breed as successfully, if not more so, than the antlered males. Indeed the hummel having no antlers can often avoid the attention of rutting stags and so does not waste energy in the rut. However if he does have to fight a stag with antlers he will be more likely to win. The first stags to collect a harem seldom keep them long enough to breed with them. The days of constant alertness and regular skirmishes with rival stags mean that the animal can neither rest nor feed, and so weakens. By the time the hinds are ready to mate the stag may not be strong enough to see off his rivals. Usually the stronger more experienced stags only contest for a harem when the hinds come into season. A stag is in breeding condition for a month, but is unlikely to hold a harem for more than a week. Stags can breed from the age of three or four, but size and strength are more important than age. A stag will only breed for a few years, rutting is a very debilitating activity, although it seldom leads to serious injury. There are stories of stags getting their antlers so entwined that they cannot free themselves and starve to death.

The antler question is interesting in that antlers must have some value or evolution would remove them, after all they represent the use of a lot of resources for the stag. Normally these adornments are selected by sexual selection, ie the females seek out stags with large antlers, or stags with large antlers "win" the harem of hinds. However the success of hummels in both of these situations seem to rule this out, and yet if hummels were being more successful then they should be selected by evolution and the antler would disappear!! It would appear that hummel male offspring can have antlers. Perhaps hummels have not been around long enough for natural selection to act in their favour.

Calves are born from mid May to June, and usually there is just one, they have spots on their flanks like other young deer early on but these soon vanish. The stag plays no part in their upbringing. The hinds become sexually mature at three and have their first calf at four. They may calve every year until the age of twelve.

Recent years have seen an alarming increase in the deer population. Mild winters are one of the main reasons for this, although EEC food handling regulations have also made it difficult for estates to market wild venison, and without this market it is not economic to cull hinds and non-trophy stags. Biologically the deer population may pose an ecological threat of over grazing, however as it is still rising it has not yet reached the carrying capacity of the habitat. There are fears that the rising population will lead to habitat damage, and a weakening of the individual members of the population as they have to compete for a finite food supply. I have seen reports that a Red deer cull of anything from 25,000 to 300,000 animals is required to bring the problem under control. I am not sure how many deer a stalker could shoot in a day, or how much it would cost the estates to carry out the cull, but without some financial return from the sale of the animal carcass it is unlikely that the estates will get involved. It has been suggested that the carcasses could go into pet food, but this would hardly cover the costs. Shooting trophy stags will have no effect on the population size as the hinds will still have stags for mating.

Red deer prefer to feed at dawn and dusk, and are by nature nocturnal