Lets have a look at Roe Deer.

One of the things that I look forward to most during the winter is a good old tracking session through the woods in the hope of getting a glance of my favourite UK mammal, deer (in the family- Cervidae). As the autumn leaves have fallen

and we head into winter there is nothing more exhilarating in my view than going for a gentle stroll through the woods. You can see your breath, and your nose is cold… Your senses heighten as sounds become clearer in the clean winter air. The woodland floor is dead and dying and there’s the rustle of leaves, the snap of a twig, and you glance up to see a deer face staring back at you. There are two white dots just under the nose, it has a black moustache, a white chin, and a beautiful long slender neck.. instantly because of this you know it’s a Roe.

Roe Deer in our woodlands in Oxfordshire

I’d like to focus a little on the Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) in particular for this blog however lets look at the whole family of deer living in the wild in the UK just briefly… I’ll share a few facts that you may not know but hopefully will help you when tracking this winter.

There are 6 species of deer living wild in the UK, only 2 of which are Native. The Red and the Roe.

The others are Sika, Fallow, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer. This later deer, usually shortened to CWD, are unique in our family as they are the only deer with no antlers. There has also been substantial hybridization between Sika and Red.

When you are tracking deer it is well worth remembering a few facts.

Helpful Deer Facts

Deer have an incredible sense of smell. For example a mature Red deer in the appropriate weather conditions can scent a human 1 mile away. If you imagine my little pooch Quercus, well she has around 200 scent detectors in her nose, Red Deer have a sense of smell 5 times more powerful than this, so over 1000 smell detectors. This means that getting downwind of your sighting is vital to make sure that they do not smell you, the easiest way to feel this is to make sure that when you are looking at the deer, the wind is in YOUR face and not behind or to the side of you. If they do scent you and bolt, here’s my hint- go uphill. Unless there is an obvious danger or barrier then deer will generally bolt into the wind so that they can continue to scent danger, and if the opportunity is there they will head up hill to gain a vantage point.

They will feel very vulnerable when feeding. This is because their primary sense, smell, is deadened by the action of feeding from the ground. I would suggest this may be the reason they have evolved to store their food and then re-gurgitate it later when resting. This would be a good defence mechanism against predators…. Here’s another fact for you, they will always digest, or “chew the cud” whilst laying down.

Although the sense of smell is their primary sense, it is a common misconception that deer have poor eyesight. They do not, they have a poor range to pick up colour, however they have excellent vision for movement… so if you see them, freeze. I’ve literally been motionless 10 foot away at dusk standing next to a tree and not been spotted. However, check out the Roe and her behaviour, she has a wonderful tendency to drop her head to pretend she’s feeding, wait a second, and then look straight back up to check for movement, I have seen this too many times for it to be a coincidence.

If you’re in a spot where there is deer activity but you haven’t seen anything yet, follow my hints here. If its after dawn and before dusk then check out areas that are on the lee side of a rise to the wind… you’ll increase your chances as they tend to rest in these area’s to give them a good chance of smelling danger from one side and seeing it from another. On our tracking course each morning I take the group out to the East facing side of our woodland which is always a good trick. Deer want to warm up much the same as we do and so heading over to the area facing where the sun rises is going to be the warmest spot. However they will pick up on patterns so if you have a game keeper that arrives at the wood every morning at 08:00, the deer will know and they’ll head away from that spot during this time. You can also use this to your advantage when selecting a Sit Spot.

With the exception of Chinese Water Deer, all deer cast antlers annually, the oldest deer will usually cast first. Have a look at the line drawing here (Roe Skull) , where the antler joints the skull is called the pedicle. On a Muntjac in particular these are very pronounced (I will blog about this species soon), the base of the antler may have a coronet on it for Roe and also pearling. On all the deer the antlers grow in velvet which can be another identifying feature you can use, the Red, Roe and Muntjac will be velvet brown, the Fallow will be grey and the Sika black. Unlike the other deer species the Roe Deer will actually start to grow his antlers again in the winter, whereas other species will wait until there is more food in the spring. Once again the older male will have mature Antlers first, but they will be in full antler by March and April in time for him to start marking out his territory.

Roe Deer Skull

Another identifying feature of deer can be the caudal patch if the deer is side on or rear facing to you. For example on the Red the patch will be visible up on to the back also, the Fallow will be lined with black with a tail, the Roe will be white with no easily visible tail.

Less of an identifying feature on most species are the scent glands, which will either be facial, sub orbital and or interdigital (between the toes). However the Metartascal glands on the outside of the rear legs off Sika are a good clue as they will show clearly on the hind legs, usually white.

Unfortunatly on such a highly populated island then road traffic can be a major cause of death and injury, particulaly in lowland UK, however natural death usually occurs as a result of teeth wear and therefore the associated problems of eating and digestion.

Lets take a closer look at just the Roe Deer in particular.

For both sexes the Summer coat is smooth and red brown. During Winter this changes to a longer & greyer coat with a paler underbelly. As they are changing from Winter to Summer coat in the spring they can appear very very scruffy and for the novice it may look like they are a particulaly unhealthy animal… but it makes tracking a lot lot easier as you pick up a lot of sign of the tufts of hair being shed.

They are born with spots which fade after 8 months to the brown winter coat. The younger will change their coat first and the usual signs start at the shoulders. Most Roe have a whitish patch on their chest although not all, this is called a “Gorget Patch”- however I have found that this is not a reliable ID feature though as it is not always easy to see. However the black “Mexican Moustache” running from nostrils to corner of the mouth is, and the white chin with two spots under the nostrils is an absolute identifier as no other deer has this.

You can also pay attention to the ears which will be trimmed black and have hair inside.

If the deer is rear end on to you it will appear that they have no tail (or very small tail in comparison to other species). Again a clear identifier, Muntjac will raise their tail and fallow is very clearly marked, the other two species that may be mistaken from a distance if you are looking at old/young. The Caudal Patch is kidney shaped with the top edge just above the anus, the Doe (female) Caudal patch shows a downward pointing anal tush of hairs at the lower edge towards the vulva (I’m sorry but I am not going to go around taking photo’s of that). The patch can vary in colour between white and lemon, this can be flared when alarmed and is more prominent in the winter coat. They will flare it to make themselves look bigger than what they are.

Antler growth
Buck Antlers are a different shape to the other 6 species. The Roe will cast each year in November/December (as already discussed a lean time in which to grow new ones!) and will begin re growing them immediately. A lot of things can influence the shape and size of the antler, including food availability and weather, one of the most dangerous for the animal is to develop what is called a Perruque Head, where velvet does not stop growing. This is usually a sign of injury to the testicles and/or change in testosterone levels. If you are following a track that just doesn’t look right to you in the late spring then this may be one of the causes, look for rubbing and attempts at shedding in the area on trees. The velvet can droop down and cause blindness and the soft mass is attractive to flies and infection. This will often lead to death.

Key Facts

Average life span-10 years

Habitat- The Roe is archaeologically dated to have existed in the UK since 400,000BC and is considered Native along with the Red. They are widespread throughout Great Britain but not in Ireland. the Roe is a selective browser and are found in deciduous & coniferous woodlands, aswell as moorland and agricultural land. They do not need large cover due to their size and so browse mainly on the edge of woodland and hedgerows.

The favourite foods in our Oxfordshire woodland appear to be Bramble shoots, followed by ivy, nuts, berries, and fungi. They are also known to like shrubbery shoots, cereals, and herbs.

When you are looking for feeding sign it is worth considering that when they eat leaves and stems they will tear it, leaving a ragged edge. However when eating acorns they will grind the shells between their lower teeth and hard upper palate to release the nut, and then they will discard the shell so look out for debris.

In terms of what they, eh em, leave behind… the scat will usually be cylindrical with a dimple one end and a nipple on the other (just think to those old interchangeable crayon pens you used to have back in the 80’s) and individual pellets will lay together in a spread or pile. However, Roe Scat can sometimes cluster (I have had people suggest to me “oh its clustered so it must be Fallow”, this is incorrect as it can also be Roe). This clustering is caused by a change in diet with the changing seasons.

Roe couches (where they lay to chew the cud and sleep) are one to look out for in particular. In nice weather they will simply lay down on soft ground in the grass, whereas in colder weather they will move more under the canopy, however what makes them unusual is that they will scrape away the vegetation to lay on the bare earth, a classic tell tale sign that it is Roe and not Fallow!

If you are really lucky you can sometimes here them communicating- They will bark with a single deep note repeated occasionally when alarmed, it is a very different sound to the muntjac bark. The female will call to the kid with a “Fiep”.

Other notable behaviours for tracking- 

The Buck will mark his territory by scraping at the bowl of trees, laying scent from the interdigital glands.

They are not Herd animals, often just Buck, Doe and last years Kid.

They will adopt a territory in around May- size varies with the variety of food and shelter. The buck will drive any young buck out at this time, the females will eject last years kid.

The rut takes place in July and August
The Doe will entice the Buck by entering his territory and making him chase her, often round and round a tree. Again this is unique to the Roe. The Doe is oestrous once and will mate often at this time, even another Buck. The Doe has evolved a delayed implantation, the egg is kept in the overies until December and then implanted in the womb otherwise with a 5 month gestation the kid would be born in winter, this method means the kid is born in May/June. This again is unique to Roe.

Two kids are normal and three is not uncommon. The kids are hidden until strong enough to run with the doe. The doe will clean the surroundings and the faeces from the kid to prevent discovery by predators. The kid will be left but the doe will often be in eye sight. I have taken a group once before right next to a kid, it was curled up fast asleep.

I hope you have found this interesting, a little insight into one of my favourite past times, I will try and get some more information on a blog as soon as I can but I hope you appreciate I am out in the woods more than what I am in front of the computer!

Jason Ingamells- Boss man… (so Joanne lets me say)…

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