Wildlife watch: roe deer

David Chapman / 14 September 2016

The roe deer is the smallest of the UK's two native deer species, and at night it can emerge from the woods to forage for food in gardens.



Roe deer in the UK

The roe deer is one of only two native British deer species, the other is the red deer. The other deer species we see in the UK today (fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water) were introduced for hunting or fun. 

The roe deer was once common across Britain but it is thought that it was hunted to extinction in England by the beginning of the 19th century. The planting of commercial forests in the 20th century along with several Victorian reintroductions have given this deer the opportunity to spread and in recent years it has responded well. It is now the most widely spread of our deer species being found across mainland Britain though its population is still patchy in Wales.

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Spotting the roe deer

It is surprising how so many deer can stay so well hidden but being secretive is what makes the roe deer so successful. Compared to our other native, the red deer, the roe is very small standing at only about 65cm to the shoulder and weighing about 20 to 25kg, about the weight of a medium dog. 

Its reddish-brown pelage helps the roe deer to stay well camouflaged in woodland, where it spends most of the day. At night, and possibly early or late in the day, roe deer might emerge from the cover of woodland to browse foliage along hedgerows and even in gardens.

Roe deer can be recognised by their distinctive face, with a black nose and white chin which combined with dark eyes give it an attractive appearance. Its relatively large ears are incredibly mobile, rotating independently on the spot to pick up sounds from any direction. Bucks have small antlers with a maximum of three points which reach their peak in summer and are shed in the late autumn.

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Breeding season

The breeding season for roe deer takes place in July or August. This is when the male roe deer, or buck, will try to maintain a territory around one or two females, or does. The rutting of roe deer doesn’t have the same spectacle as that of red or fallow deer. Roe deer bucks mark their territories by rubbing scent glands found on their foreheads, hooves and legs against tree saplings, this helps warn off competitors. Nonetheless the roe deer bucks are territorial in summer and will fight their ground if necessary.

Once mated the doe delays the implantation of the egg in the womb so that she can give birth the following summer, typically May or June. The doe will usually produce one or two fawns. The fawn has rows of white spots along its back and flanks to help camouflage it and when newly born, it will lie still amongst grasses or other vegetation for safety.

Diet

Roe deer eat a wide range of food including heather shoots on moorland; cereal crops on farmland; fruit and nuts in woodland; grasses and flowering plants in meadows; brambles in hedgerows and the freshly grown leaves of trees. This can bring them into conflict with foresters and gardeners because they can cause quite a lot of damage to newly-planted woodlands and garden shrubs.

Signs roe deer are visiting your garden

If you have roe deer visiting your garden there are several ways of spotting their signs. Their footprints, or slots, are typically about 5cm long and 4cm wide, much smaller than the fallow or red deer. Their droppings are shiny, black pellets pointed at one end, similar to those of other deer. When alarmed roe deer, both buck and doe, will bark. Commonly you will see grazed foliage from ground level up to about a metre high.

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