Wildlife Photography – Red Deer

Red Deer Hind

Red Deer are a common sight across much of the British Isles, and indeed in many parts of the world. However, it is perhaps little known that in Europe they are under threat of extinction.

The Red Deer is the largest terrestrial mammal in the United Kingdom. They are instantly recognizable, particularly in the summer and autumn because of their red-brown fur, and that mature stags sport impressive-looking antlers, which can span up to 1m in width.

Mankind’s Impact on Red Deer

Red Deer are threatened with extinction in UK and Europe. This is not the result of excessive hunting by man. Instead, it is the hybridization of the species with the Japanese Sika deer.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a trend developed amongst the gentry of hunting exotic species. In the UK, it is a little unclear whether it was the 2nd Duke of Westminster, or his predecessors, however, his family established a deer park in Scotland at the Rosehall Estate. At this, they kept herds of Red, Fallow, & Sika deer for many years. During the late 1920s, the estate fell into disrepair and the estate, together with the deer, was abandoned. The Sika deer escaped the estate grounds, and have subsequently impacted Red Deer populations in several ways. Sika deer:

  • Have a much higher fertility rate than the native Red Deer.
  • Are prolific feeders, and will eat heather, leaves, pine needles, moss, branches, gorse, bark.
  • Are actively hybridizing with the native population of Red Deer.
  • Sika deer are solitary by nature and have the ability to more readily create harems of female deer than their Red Deer counterpart.
  • Unlike the Red Deer, the fertility of males is not impacted by the population density of deer in an area.
  • They are experts at remaining hidden, and the reforestation in the Sutherland area has created an oasis for Sika deer to breed.

Similar problems existed across Europe, and consequently, it is now calculated that 80% of Red Deer populations have been hybridized with Sika deer.

Red Deer Diet

They eat leaves, grasses, heathers, and rushes. In the winter they sometimes eat tree bark.

Red Deer Stag
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Habitat

Red Deer favor forests, hillsides, and moorland. They are a common sight in many parts of England including the Pennines, Cumbria, New Forest, the Peak District, Hampshire & East Anglia. They are most prominent across Scotland.

Note: Map data is intended only for rough illustration of distribution.

Behavior

Males (stags) & Females (hinds) normally remain in separate groups except during the mating season, with the hinds living in rich grassy habitats, and the stags in less inhabitable heather areas. The female groups tend to be groups of dependent offspring, whilst the males are disparate individuals. Stags grow to a height of around 175 to 230cm with a weight range of 160 to 240kg.

Notably, animals living in hilly areas do tend to be smaller than their forest counterparts. As well as being smaller, it is perhaps the harsher environment that tends towards the hinds only bearing young every other year versus every year with the forest counterparts.

Red Deer Hind

Only the stags grow antlers, which shed each winter. Each year, their antlers grow more ornately and don’t form a crown until the 4th or 5th year. The antlers consist of bone, and can grow up to 2.5cm during the spring months, but shed during the late winter. In summer deer coats are a reddish-brown color, and in winter they are more grey in appearance.

The easiest time to spot them is during the winter months, as they move to lower more sheltered grounds, returning to higher grounds during the summer months.

They mate between September and November; this period being known as The Rut. Whereby mature male stags leave their groups to seek out rutting sites and to find hinds. A stag will normally attempt to create a harem of 10-15 hinds to stop other stags from mating with them. During this period males engage in roaring contests as well as locking of antlers. Following the rut, stags and hinds separate back into independent male/female groups. Hinds typically bear a single calf, which is weaned within 8 months.

Longevity

The Red Deer life-span is normally around 16 years. They can live for up to 20 years, though this is rare.

Natural Predators

Red Deer have no natural predators in the UK. However, they are an important source of food as carrion for Golden Eagles, Common Buzzards, Pine Martens, Badgers, and Foxes.

Where & When To Photograph

Because Red Deer are so wide-spread in the UK, they are one of the easier mammals to get photographs of. For wild photographic backdrops, you cannot beat the Scottish Highlands, Cumbria, Peak District, and the Southwest of England. There are also many deer parks located across the UK.

The best time to photograph Red Deer is in October during the rutting season. Activity is greatest during the morning, and with the right conditions; such as fog and mist, can make a great backdrop for shots. mid-winter can also be a great time if you are looking for snow shots, but obviously, most of the stags will have lost their antlers by this time. If you are looking for young fawn shots, then the best time to shoot is during the summer.

If you are photographing in the wild, try and stay downwind, don’t wear clothing that is too bright, and be conscious of the amount of noise you are making. Never approach stags too closely, this is particularly true in rutting season; they will chase/attack humans. If you are photographing in parks, the deer tend to be more tolerant to human presence, but still, heed warnings about not getting too close to stags.

Camera & Settings

Because you are photographing quite large objects, you don’t need a super-telephoto. Anything in the 100-400mm range is adequate. However, if you are shooting in the wild, then the extra reach up to 600mm can prove beneficial.

I tend to photograph in auto-focus and on AI Servo so that I can continuously track movement. Many people use. center-point focus, I have found I get a better success rate using an expanded center point. I use speed priority as a general rule and set the speed based on the focal length of the lens as well as the amount of activity of the animal.

References:

  1. People Trust For Endangered Species – PTES.org
  2. Map distribution data interpolated based upon JNCC data

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