Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


A brief description will be given of those aspects of the biology of deer species stocked on farms which are most useful to the manager in his daily activities.

The deer family (Cervidae) has almost a world-wide distribution, having been introduced into Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and some other, smaller islands. They do not occur in Africa south of the Sahara.

The normal dentition of all deer is either 32 or 34 teeth. Canines are present in the lower jaw of all species and in the upper jaw of red deer, wapiti and musk deer. Grinding teeth consist of three molars and three premolars, top and bottom, on each side of the jaw. All deer have six incisors and two lower canines at birth, which are milk teeth.

All deer are four-toed; the two middle toes make up a cloven hoof. The stomach is four-chambered and ruminating. A gall bladder is absent, except in musk deer. All deer possess facial glands situated in front of the eye which discharge a strong-smelling secretion.

The males of the various deer species have antlers with the exception of the musk deer. Only in reindeer do females have antlers. Antlers consist of true bone and are produced annually from two outgrowths from the frontal bone of the skull, known as pedicles. In most species new antlers begin to grow as soon as the old ones are discarded. In young males first-year antlers are always small and simple and in the majority of cases, consist of a single spike.

Female deer have four teats and normally produce only one, rarely two calves. Females are generally slightly smaller and more delicately built than males.

Two pelage changes normally take place during the year, the winter coat being longer than the summer one.

The sex ratio at birth is usually 1:1, but this may not always hold in captivity.

Different names are used for males, females and young - depending on the species. (See Table 1). Antlerless stags are known as hummels.

Table 1
Names of male, female and young deer

Red Deerstaghindcalf
Fallow Deerbuckdoefawn

Opinions still differ about how many species and subspecies of deer should be recognized. Recent views are that the reindeer of the Old World and caribou of the New World are one species, Rangifer tarandus (Whitehead, 1972). While some specialists prefer to see the wapitis of North America and eastern Asia grouped with the red deer of Europe and the Middle East as one species (Cervus elaphus), others prefer to classify the wapiti as a separate species (Cervus canadensis). The latter approach is followed in this manual. The musk deer is described as one species (Moschus moschiferus) by some authors and as three species by others. The former approach is adopted here. More detailed information can be obtained in ‘Deer of the World’ by Whitehead (1972).

The following deer species are now being farmed in various parts of the world: red deer (maral), wapiti or elk, fallow deer, sika, musk deer, rusa deer, and reindeer. Each species will be described in some detail. The biology of deer species belonging to the genus Cervus is generally similar.

2.1 Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)

Original and Present Range: This species formerly occurred throughout Europe, where it still occurs except in Finland and Portugal. There is a small population in Tunisia. In the Near East it is called maral and is present in Turkey, the Caucasus and Iran. In Asia, small populations occur in Kashmir, Chinese and Russian Turkestan, North Afghanistan and East Tibet. The populations of Sardinia, Tunisia, Turkey and Iran, as well as some in Asia have become much reduced. Red deer have been introduced into New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentine.

Physical Characteristics: In summer the general colour is a glossy reddish brown and in winter it is a drab grey-brown. The rump patch is yellowish brown in both sexes. Calves are spotted. The underparts of the body and between the thighs are generally creamy. Measurements vary greatly: the largest specimens occur in eastern Europe and the Near East.

Shoulder Height of the Stag: 1.2-1.5 m

Adult Weight of the Stag: 95 kg (Scotland) to 300 kg (E. Europe).

Habits: Gregarious, most of the year the sexes remain in separate herds. During the winter, the older stags keep to themselves and the hinds and younger animals from herds. During the rut stags collect as many hinds as they can in ‘harems’ and develop roars and bugles with which they challenge each other. Fights between stags often occur, sometimes with lethal results. The social system is matriarchal; an old hind is usually the leader of a group.

Habitat: Red deer prefer open, grassy glades in the forest, but frequently use woody cover.

Food Habits: Grasses, forbs and herbs are the preferred food, but in winter browsing of twings is resorted to. Leaf browsing occurs in spring and summer.

Rutting Season: September-October.

Gestation Period: 233 days.

Parturition: May-June.

Sexual Maturity of the Female: 1½ - 2½ years.

Length of Oestrus Cycle: 18.2 days.

Number of Offspring: One, rarely two.

2.2 Wapiti (Cervus canadensis):

Original and Present Range: Wapiti or elk have a wide range in North America and Asia. In North America they formerly occured from the Pacific almost to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Mexico and Georgia to Alberta and Manitoba. They are now present in over 20 States in the U.S.A., with the biggest populations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. In Canada they occur in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. Wapiti have been introduced into New Zealand and Australia.

In eastern Asia, wapiti occur in the border areas between Siberia and China, and between Mongolia, the U.S.S.R. and China. They also occur in Altai to Transbaikalia in Siberia and on the Tibetan/Chinese border. The ranges of all Asian wapiti subspecies have been reduced and their number has dwindled because of the demand for antlers in the velvet.

Physical Characteristics: The summer pelage is light bay, with the legs and head being darker in colour. In winter the pelage assumes a somewhat darker shade, with the colour on the lower part of the body varying from a light to a very dark grey. Wapiti have a light coloured rump patch. Cows are more uniform fawny grey than bulls. Calves are spotted at birth.

Shoulder Height of the bull: 1.4 – 1.5 m.

Adult Weight of the bull: 200–450 kg.

Habits: Social behaviour patterns similar to those of red deer. Bulls will start to bugle about the last week in August; bugling lasts until early November. Polygamous; during the rut bulls attempt to round up as many cows as they can. Bulls use mud wallows during the rut.

Habitat: Grassy areas in woodlands are preferred.

Food Habits: Grasses are their staple food. In winter, mostly browsing on twings of shrubs and trees, and peeling of bark of trees when food is in short supply.

Rutting Season: September-October.

Gestation Period: 249–262 days.

Parturition: May-June.

Sexual Maturity of Female: 1½ years to 2½ years, depending on nutritional status.

Number of Offspring: One, rarely two.

2.3 Sika or Japanese Deer (Cervus nippon);

Original and Present Range: The sika has a wide distribution in eastern Asia: China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Viet Nam, and Manchuria. Some thirteen different subspecies are recognised. Many of these, and in particular those forms present in China, are now considered endangered. The North China sika may only be preserved on deer farms. Sika have been introduced and become established in New Zealand, Morocco, Great Britain, Denmark, France, Austria and Poland.

Physical Characteristics: The colour of the summer pelage varies from a rich chestnut-red to a yellowish-brown, with white spots on both sides. In both winter and summer pelage a white rump patch is present. Along the neck, back and extending to the tail is a dark stripe. The young are spotted.

Shoulder Height of the Male: 65 - 109 cm.

Adult Weight of the Male: 45 - 80 kg.

Habits: Breeding habits similar to those of red deer. During the rut males utter a kind of whistle which may change to a high-pitched scream.

Habitat: Open woodlands.

Food Habits: During the summer the principal food consists of buds, leaves and seeds. In winter they eat bark and bamboo grass.

Rutting Season: September-October.

Gestation Period: 222 – 246 days.

Parturition: May-June.

Sexual Maturity of the Female: 1½ - 2½ years.

Number of Offspring: One, rarely two.

2.4 Rusa Deer (Cervus timorensis):

Original and Present Range: It is widespread in occurrence in the Indonesian archipelago and it has been introduced to South-East Kalimantan, New Guinea, the Bismarck archipelago, New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand.

Physical Characteristics: General colour greyish to yellowish brown, browner on the hindquarters and thighs.

Shoulder Height of the Male: 1.10 m.

Adult Weight of the Male: 102 kg.

Habits: Similar to those of red deer.

Habitat: Grassy plains bordered by woodlands.

Food Habits: Mainly a grazer but also browses, depending on season and availability of food.

Rutting Season: No definite season, rutting may take place at any time of the year.

Gestation Period: Approximately 8 months.

Sexual Maturing of the Female: 1½ years.

Number of Offspring: One.

2.5 Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus):

Original and Present Range: The reindeer has a wide distribution throughout Northern Europe and the U.S.S.R., from Norway in the west to the Bering Sea in the east and south to Northern Mongolia. It is present on most of the arctic Islands and the Sakkalins. Most herds in Europe and many in Siberia are semi-domesticated. Both the forest and the tundra reindeer are herded in Siberai. The original range was somewhat more widespread. Reindeer have been introduced into South Georgia in the sub-antarctic, Alaska and Canada, Greenland and Iceland, and the Kerguelen islands.

Physical Characteristics: The colour of the pelage varies considerably, especially among domesticated animals, and ranges from a dark, greyish brown to completely white. The underparts are white. The annual growth of cow antlers is about six months out of phase with that of bull antlers.

Shoulder Height of the Bull: 1.1 – 1.4 m.

Adult Weight of the Bull: up to 320 kg.

Habits: Reindeer are almost constantly on the move; tundra reindeer will migrate over long distances. They are highly gregarious and during certain periods of the year they are sexually segregated. They assemble in herds of hundreds or thousands of individuals during the post-calving and fall migrations. Bulls collect harems of 5-40 cows in the fall.

Habitat: Tundra reindeer live either in the tundra throughout the year, or winter in the forest. Forest reindeer live mainly in the taiga forest.

Food Habits: Lichens are a preferred food, but grasses and twings and leaves of trees and shrubs are also eaten, and occasionally mushrooms and birds'eggs.

Rutting Season: September-October.

Gestation Period: 240 days.

Parturition: April-June.

Sexual Maturity of the Female: Usually in the Second year.

Number of Young: One, occasionally two.

2.6 Fallow Deer (Dama dama):

Original and Present Range: The subspecies now widely kept on deer farms and parks orginates from the Mediterranean region of Europe and Asia Minor. It is found in the wild and in captivity in most European countries and it has been introduced to the U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand, where feral populations have formed. The native subspecies, of Iran and Iraq, is virtually extinct in the wild.

Physical Characteristics: The normal pelage colour is a rich fawn with white spots in summer and a uniform greyish brown, with little or no spotting, in winter. Among captive fallow deer there are many colour varieties, ranging from black to white. The tail is long, black on top and white beneath and surrounded by a white rump patch. The antlers are flattened and palmate with numerous points.

Shoulder Height of the Male: Up to 1 m.

Adult Weight of the Male: 50 – 80 kg.

Habits: Fallow deer are extremely timid and very nervous. They have a bouncy gate when alarmed. Mature bucks tend to live apart from the does until the start of the rut, when dominant bucks herd groups of does and mate on their territories. During the rut they mark out these and rutting stands.

Habitat: Open woodlands, shrub areas and grassy glades.

Food Habits: A wide variety of grasses and herbs are eaten. Although fallow deer are more grazers than browsers, twigs and leaves of many woody plants are consumed.

Rutting Season: September-November.

Gestation Period: 226–230 days.

Parturition: May-July.

Sexual Maturity of the doe: Two years.

Number of offspring: One, rarely two.

2.7 Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus):

Original and Present Range: Found in central and northeastern Asia, including China, Korea, Eastern Siberia (including the Amur region and the Sakhalin Islands), Western Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, North India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim. Several subspecies are recognised. This deer has been much reduced in numbers and range in the wild, because it has been persecuted for its valuable musk for many centuries. Its habitat has also been destroyed in many places.

Physical Characteristics:

The body is covered with long, thick, bristly hairs. The colouration is quite variable but generally rich dark brown. The chin, inner borders of the ears and insides of the thighs are whitish. Antlers are lacking, but the upper canine teeth are developed as tusks: about 75 mm in length in males and smaller in females. A musk gland is situated in the abdomen of the male.

Shoulder Height of the Male: 60 cm.

Adult Weight of the Male: 9–12 kg.

Habits: This species is generally solitary, more than two or three almost never found together. A male and a female are only found together during the mating season. They are most active in the morning and evening. They are shy and timid, territorial in habits and can run fast and jump high. Adult males are aggressive toward each other.

Habitat: Woodlands and scrub areas at elevations ranging from 1 000 to 4 200 m. They usually inhabit coniferous forests or mixed coniferous, broadleaf tree stands, but also less commenly, broadleaved forests.

Food Habits: A variety of vegetation is eaten, such as grass, moss, and tender shoots; in winter twigs, buds and lichens. More than 90 species of plants are consumed regularly.

Rutting Season: Usually late November - early January, but it can extend from September to April.

Gestation period: 178 – 192 days.

Parturition: April-June, occasionally until early September.

Sexual Maturity of the Female: 1½ years, but breeding normally starts at 2½ years of age.

Number of Offspring: Usually two, rarely one or three.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page