A firm favourite on everything from postcards to paintings and, simultaneously, recognised as one of the most significant barriers to natural habitat maintenance, Red Deer loom large in the consciousness of rural Scotland. As a native species, long freed from the threat from natural predators, Red Deer are common and conspicuous across much of their range, with the 2018 Mammal Society 2018 Review of the Population and Conservation Status of British Mammals providing an estimate of 346,000 individuals. The population had been thought to be broadly stable over recent years following sustained increases during the second half of the twentieth century, and although Red Deer are found in a range of locations through England and Wales, the overwhelming majority of animals are in Scotland.
Red Deer are a substantial driver of changes in Scottish habitats, especially in unenclosed upland areas, such as heather moors, bogs and mountains. Deer Management Groups monitor Red Deer numbers and liaise over management. Densities measured very can be high (for example, over 31/km2 in Glenartney in 2019) causing concerns for impacts on habitats such as Caledonian pinewoods and upland dwarf shrub heath or for erosion, including on peatlands. Deer may be fenced out of forest plantations during the first few years following establishment, at significant expense. However, on estates managed with nature conservation as a major driver, management more usually takes the form of culls to reduce numbers. This includes on “rewilding” estates, with Red Deer densities on Glenfeshie, a well-known example, being reduced to 2/km2, sufficient for natural regeneration of trees and shrubs to have resumed.
Although Red Deer populations across the range are at historically very high levels (perhaps higher than at any point in the past), the species is not without threat to its status. Sika Deer were introduced to UK deer parks from 1860 and escapes have led to populations established in several parts of the UK, including in Argyll, Highland region and the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Sika spend more time within forest than do Red Deer, so are harder to monitor and count. Nonetheless, the population, recently estimated at 103,000, is on the increase. The threat from Sika to Red Deer comes through hybridisation. Although both Sika and Red Deer most often mate with their own species, sufficient hybridisation events have occurred for populations in some parts of the range to comprise hybrid swarms of animals with genes from both species. The consequence for Red Deer is of animals decreasing in size. Management through selective culling aims to slow the spread of Sika into new areas but it may be that island populations, such as the long-studied animals on Rum, take on even greater significance as refugia free from hybridsation threat.
Perhaps the largest source of Red Deer mortality is through planned culls. These may be either carried out by professional deer stalkers for land management, such as to aid forest establishment, or as sport hunting by paying clients and large areas of Highland Scotland are managed with this as a major part of the land use. Over the past 25 years, annual cull numbers in Scotland have ranged between 55,000 and 80,000 animals.
Red Deer mortality also occurs as a result of road accidents. It is difficult to be sure of the numbers killed, as many go unreported. However, Red Deer can make up a substantial proportion of deer-vehicle collisions in the areas where they occur in large numbers, such as in Highland Scotland. Deer-vehicle collisions also lead to injuries and fatalities for human road users, though data on relative importance of different deer species for such impacts on humans are not available.
We know quite well where most Red Deer live and they can be easy to find in such areas through sightings or tracks and signs, such as footprints or droppings. However, continued recording, for example, using Mammal Mapper app, will help to maintain this knowledge. In some more remote areas, there is potential to find Red Deer in areas where they may not have been recorded for some time, while wandering animals may be recorded away from core ranges and represent exciting finds in sites where they are not expected. Be careful with identification, though, especially if in an area where Sika may be present, and also be aware of the risk of escaped animals from deer farms. However, most Red Deer are straightforward to identify and, indeed, you may be lucky enough to come across the iconic Monarch of the Glen himself.
Nick Littlewood is a Lecturer at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). He is the Mammal Recorder for Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and was lead editor of the Mammal Atlas of North-East Scotland and the Cairngorms.