When you think of deer, you might conjure up the image of a dark silhouette of a large, majestic stag, pictured against the backdrop of some snow topped mountains, rising his head to let out a misty bellow to the morning sun. Or maybe, you think of a cute, cuddly, little white dotted fawn, taking its first unsteady steps on thin spindly legs?
Either way, deer have long been a part of our history and culture, with their image depicted on cave walls by early man. Indeed, deer were an important resource in terms of both food (what we nowadays call venison), skin (buckskin) and even the bone from their antlers being used as tools.
Although venison isn’t eaten as widely as it once was, it is still farmed today – the countries farming deer in the greatest numbers are New Zealand, Ireland, the UK and Germany.
In addition to farming deer, there are still many people today whose lives are intrinsically linked with species of deer: The Innuit people live alongside the Caribou and the Sami and other Northern Asian nomadic peoples have the Reindeer.
As well as a good food resource, deer have become ingrained into our culture. Their image adorns many a coat of arms and they are a popular design in heraldry. Many paintings depict these fine beasts, including a famous series by the artist, Edward Landseer. It’s easy to see why the image of the deer is so popular – they are graceful, majestic and strong.
Deer have also featured in mythology and religion. In Japan, Sika deer are believed to be the messengers of the gods. The Chinese see them as important in medicinal terms and the Irish feature them in their legends – indeed the name Oscar comes from the Irish for Friend and Deer and the term Ossian, used to describe art featuring deer, derives from this.
In modern times, deer have featured in literature; in such tales as Aesop’s Fables – Stag at the Pool and The One-Eyed Doe – the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the white stag generously grants wishes and of course, Walt Disney’s animation – Bambi, to name but three. It would be most remiss of course to forget Santa’s reindeer (I don’t want to be left off his good list!!), the most famous of which being our festive, red nosed friend, Rudolph.
The word deer is believed to have been derived from Old and Middle English, Norse and old Germanic languages, were the root of the word simply referred to a wild animal. This is still true of German and Norwegian today; however, the word deer in English now refers to our chums here.
A little confusingly, there are several terms applied to deer eg male deer can be referred to as bucks, bulls or even harts and if they are Red deer, stags. Female deer also enjoy a choice of terms, including, does, cows and hinds. Not to be left out, the youngsters get to choose from fawns or calves.
Deer are what is known as a hooved ruminants and come from the Cervidae family. There are two groups of deer: Cervinae, which include the Elk, Muntjac, Fallow deer, Chital and Roe deer; the other branch is the Capriolenae, which include the Moose, Reindeer, Mule deer and Chinese Water deer.
All male deer over a year old grow antlers, with the exception of the Chinese Water Deer. The only female deer managing to raise a cranial decoration is the Reindeer (go girls!) Antlers are used by the male deer to show off their strength and prowess in the breeding season (yes boys we’ve seen it all before!) The deer sporting the largest antlers are Fallow and Reindeer, with an average 8g per kg (0.2oz per lb) of body mass. The antlers emerge as soft velvety structures, before hardening off to become tough weapons that also provide protection (used by elks to fend off wolves for instance) – you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of those babies!!
Mentioning babies, leads us to the gestation period for deer, which is, on average, 10 months, with breeding (sometimes referred to as the rut) taking place in autumn/winter. Fawns commonly have those cute little white spots that are lost during their first winter – perhaps those spots provide good camouflage for the youngsters, as mum will hide them in long grass for their first week until they are strong enough to join her in the field.
Deer are the second most diverse species in the world. They inhabit a range of various landscapes from artic regions to the tropics. Deer are very adaptable and are able to survive in a broad spectrum of terrains including, tundra, forests, grasslands, swamps and mountain ranges.
Asia is the region that boasts the highest diversity of deer populations, with Europe having the least. Africa has just one kind – the Barbary Stag. The country that has the highest density of deer is Canada (especially in the Rocky Mountains), so no shortage of our cervine creatures there. Conversely, there are no native deer species in Australia; however, mankind has seen fit to introduce six species to the country.
Deer like to munch on grasses, shrubs, lichen, fungi and trees. They are somewhat picky eaters and are selective about plucking out the choicest morsels. To do this, they use their 32 teeth. Whilst ruminating on the deer dentistry, I must mention the mysterious Chinese water and the Muntjac deer – both who have large canine tusks! These protrude out in the Chinese Water deer, giving them a slightly sinister air and earning them the term of vampire deer!!
Deer have quite a battle when it comes to predators, with canines and large cats of all kinds continually eyeing them up for dinner, together with bears also seeing them as a tasty treat.
The smallest deer in the world is the Pudu, which measures a tiny 17 inches (43cm) in height and is a lightweight 9kg (19lbs). Conversely, the largest deer in the world is the meaty Alaskan Moose, coming in at 7ft 8in (2.3m) in height and tipping the scales at a substantial 1,800 lbs (800kg).
The rarest of the deer species is the Visayan Spotted deer with sadly less than 2,500 individuals thought to be in the world; whilst the commonest is the Red deer, whose ranks swell to an impressive 1.7 million.
In the US, deer hunting is popular and generates $700 million in licensing per annum. Sadly, there is also the issue of road traffic accidents to the number of 1.5million per year, resulting in costly damage.
There are six species of deer in the UK – the Red, Sika, Roe, Muntjac, Fallow and Chinese Water Deer. It seems that deer in the UK are getting a little too big for their hooves and their population is now the largest it’s been for over 1,000 years. They have no natural predators and shooting them as vermin was banned in the ‘60s. Although deer hunting is permitted, it is strictly regulated under license and this has led to a bit of a population explosion, with over 2 million to date, resulting in deer culling becoming necessary.
Culling can be a contentious issue – the advocates for this state that the deer are causing damage to woodland, resulting in the decline of the woodland bird population; there are 74,000 road accidents involving deer per year and they also cause damage to crops and nature reserves alike.
Even if deer are getting a little too commonplace for some, it still thrills me to spot one in the countryside (they were a rarity when I was a child) and they definitely bring a smile to my face, with their grace and poise.
So there you go