Identifying British Deer

Britain has a rich number of different deer species which still astonishes me in such an “overcrowded” country with so few real wild places left but it seems many deer species are surviving alongside man without too many problems.

There are generally believed to be 6 species of deer in Britain at present. They are:

– Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
– Fallow Deer (Dama dama)
– Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
– Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)
– Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)
– Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Fortunately identifying these species and telling them apart is, in general, reasonably simple and so with only a tiny glimpse one can have a reasonable chance of a correct identification, particularly if you take into account the habitat in which you see a deer.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red Deer stag, Cervus elaphus on the south side of Beinn Eighe
Creative Commons License photo credit: Shandchem

Red deer are the largest deer in Britain and most frequently are found in “wilderness” areas most commonly the hills and glens of Scotland. Other populations do exist in the UK, such as in Norfolk and of course the semi-wild population in Richmond park.

The red deer has a characteristically shaped head and a thick, powerful neck while the males of course develop powerful antlers.

Fallow Deer (Dama dama)

Fallow Deer 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: ahisgett

Fallow deer are quite a bit smaller than red deer and more typically frequent broadleafed woodland than open hillsides. In colouration they may range between almost white right through to a melanistic version though a ginger colour with white spots on (classic Bambi) is the most common colour form seen.

The males develop characteristic antlers in the breeding season and fallow deer may often be seen grazing near woodlands in small groups. Two to five individuals is common though they may congregate in far larger groups of several dozen individuals in some situations.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Alasdair Middleton

The roe deer is probably Britains most common deer species and can be found in a wide range of habitats from woodland to grassland. The roe deer is characterized by a pale yellow or white rump which is typically seen disappearing into the distance as the roe deer gracefully hops away, and by the large black nose. Again, this is the deer you are most likely to see and may even be seen feeding near roads or on farmers fields where woodland cover isn’t too far away. The roe deer is normally solitary.

Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)

Sika stag on Brownsea Island
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian D Nolan

The introduced sika deer is still reasonably rare so you are far less likely to encounter this species than other “British” deer. Also the habitat of this deer is characteristic as it prefers conifer forests and heathland. Whilst it does resemble a red deer to a degree, this species is typically smaller in size and the colour will normally help to separate the sika deer from other species as the coat is typically far darker appearing almost black in many cases.

Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)

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The muntjac and chinese water deer are both small introduced species, typically around the size of a domestic cat or medium-sized dog though being far more delicate and elegant in appearance.

Whilst rumour has it that they escaped into the East Anglian fens originally both these deer species have spread rapidly and can be found in a wide range of habitats from wetlands through to many British woodlands.

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)
Creative Commons License photo credit: cliff1066™

The chinese water deer can be identified by the elongated fangs present in the males of this species which are absent in the muntjac. Equally, the male muntjac has horns while the water deer does not and the appearance of the face is very different between the two species. Lastly, according to the British Deer Society, the chinese water deer is currently restricted to just Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

Why not leave me a comment and tell me what your favourite deer species is, and why?

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