Red deer Cervus elaphus

About this pest

KEY CLUES

Distinctive features: Large, red-brown or grey-brown in colour. Round, erect antlers (males only). Short tail, red-brown in colour.

Size: The average weight for male red deer was 103kg, and females 75kg. The average length of a male (nose to tail) is 1.9m, while for females it is 1.8m. Shoulder height is about 0.95m to 1.30m.

Droppings: Round looking, but often more pointed at one end. Occur in large groups of around 100 with the groups often spread over a large area (50 × 60 m).

Footprints: Two pointed toes, rounded heels.

Kill signs: Not applicable (herbivore).

Vegetation damage: Males rub bark off trees with their antlers. They browse the understorey.

Eye shine: White-silver.

Distribution: North Island, South Island, Stewart Island and some offshore islands. Found in forest and high country habitats.

WHY ARE RED DEER PESTS?

Ecological impacts

In New Zealand during the first few decades of the twentieth century, red deer reached extraordinarily high numbers and were often found in herds of 50–150 animals. During this period, there was concern that deer were causing erosion in water catchments. However, it is now accepted that any impacts from deer on erosion are difficult to disentangle from naturally occurring erosion. Herds of this size are rare today.

Red deer can still be abundant in remote forest and alpine environments. Red deer are selective browsers, concentrating their feeding on plant species they prefer to eat. In some areas of native forest this can lead to a change in plant species composition. For instance, deer browsing may lead to the local elimination of palatable herbs, shrubs, understorey woody species, and seedlings (of larger trees) resulting in an increase in the density of less palatable species. Deer can also kill sub-canopy trees by bark-stripping (rubbing their antlers against the tree). In some native forests, deer have reduced the density of woody stems by 50–60% and the density of saplings by 90%.

The impacts of red deer on our forests can interact with impacts from brushtail possums. Possums selectively browse forest canopies leading to dieback; if heavy deer browsing is affecting plant succession in these areas, then this can lead to poor forest health. In the Murchison Mountains, Fiordland National Park, deer grazing of alpine tussocks led to food competition with the endangered takahe. Research showed that while tussocks could cope with the mode and intensity of takahe feeding, deer grazing retarded tussock growth.

Other impacts

In the early 1900s, there were concerns that high numbers of deer would compete with livestock and damage crops. However, these impacts have seldom been realised. Farms on the periphery of forests are most at risk, but because there is little cover for deer on farms, it is easy for the farmer to control problem deer either themselves or through the use of invited hunters. Deer can also impact of production forestry by killing young pine trees.

Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is a risk to the deer farming industry. While TB does occur in wild red deer they are generally thought to be ‘spillover’ hosts i.e. TB is more likely to be found in red deer inhabiting areas where the possums have TB and are at high densities. In the wild, deer to deer transmission of TB is thought to be rare.

Read more about red deer.


Droppings

Separate

Red deer droppings are usually observed as groups of scattered pellets. Sometimes they adhere to each other forming a larger dropping (see clumped droppings). When they are fresh, they have a moist appearance and are either black or dark brown, but over time dry out and fade to a dull light brown colour. The size of pellet groups vary with age and sex of the animal, but in New Zealand they have been observed to vary between 18 and 359 pellets and cover an average area of approximately 50 × 65mm. Individual pellets are approximately 20× 20mm in size. From a distance they look like small balls, but on closer examination are elongated and more pointed at one end.

Can be confused with:
Red deer droppings can be confused with droppings from other deer species in areas where their ranges overlap.

Clumped

Red deer droppings are usually observed as groups of scattered pellets. Sometimes they adhere to each other forming a larger dropping. When they are fresh, they have a moist appearance and are either black or dark brown, but over time dry out and fade to a dull light brown colour. The size of pellet groups vary with age and sex of the animal, but in New Zealand they have been observed to vary between 18 and 359 pellets and cover an average area of approximately 50 × 65mm. Individual pellets are approximately 20× 20mm in size. From a distance they look like small balls, but on closer examination are elongated and more pointed at one end.

Can be confused with:
Clumped red deer droppings can be confused with droppings from pigs and sheep, and occasionally with clumped droppings from other deer species in areas where their ranges overlap.

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Footprints and Tracks

Hooves

Like all other species of deer, red deer have cloven hooves, meaning each hoof is divided into two parts called toes or cleaves. Dew claws, small claw like digits, are positioned slightly higher up the leg to the rear of the hoof.

Red deer footprints are often seen in muddy patches of the forest floor or alpine tops, and in sand on river berms. They characteristically show two pointed toes, although on harder ground, a poorly defined heel is sometimes all that is visible. Sometimes if the ground is very soft, or the deer has been moving quickly, the toes become splayed and impressions for the dew claws are left.

Can be confused with:
Adult red deer footprints will be larger than most other deer species in New Zealand (with the exception of Wapiti). However, the footprints of smaller, younger animals and some small hinds will look similar to other deer species. They may also be confused with goat, sheep, cattle (calf) and pig footprints. Deer footprints tend to be narrower than those left by cows or pigs.

Trails and Runs

Red deer repeatedly use the same tracks and trails through the forest and these can become well worn. If trails are recently used, fresh droppings will be seen along them. Because red deer are good route finders and are large animals, off-track trampers commonly find themselves following deer trails. In fact, many established tramping tracks, particularly in areas like Fiordland, were based on established deer trails, as the deer had already worked out the best way through rugged gorges and steep terrain. Red deer are one of the taller deer species, so their trails may be clear of vegetation nearly to human head height.

Can be confused with:
Red deer trails can be confused with the trails of other deer species and pigs where they occur together. Wallabies can also make trails. The height of vegetation clearance can indicate which species use the trail.

Wallows

During the breeding season, male red deer wallow (bathe) in muddy pools, in which they repeatedly defecate and urinate. They use this as a scent for attracting females. The mud also gives them a larger, darker appearance which may be more attractive to females, and more intimidating for rival males.

Can be confused with:
Other species of deer and pigs also make use of wallows.

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Vegetation Damage

Understorey (less than 3m)

In the understorey, red deer prefer to eat certain plant species (this is known as selective browsing). Examples include tree species like broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis) and weeping matipo (Myrsine divaricata), and herbs such as Astelia nervosa. Over time, this selective browsing can lead to the removal of these species from the forest, changing vegetation composition and leading to an increase in unpalatable ‘browse resistant’ species.

Red deer most commonly browse vegetation from ground level to about 2m above the ground, but can reach higher if they can stand on something with their front feet. However, they won’t climb as high as goats.

Can be confused with:
Red deer browse can be confused with browse by other deer species, sheep, cows, and goats.

Bark

Male red deer (stags) often rub bark off a tree using their antlers. This can kill the tree, particularly if the bark is removed from right around the tree (ring barking). Stags rub their antlers on trees for two main reasons: 1) to remove the velvet from their antlers (autumn), and 2) and to mark their territory.

Red deer also bite the bark off trees, which can also kill a tree, particularly if the tree is ring barked. It is not sure why red deer bite off bark. It could be partially territorial marking, but in deer farming situations they can strip bark because of a nutritional lack of a specific mineral(s) that the bark helps remedy.

Can be confused with:
Bark rubbing by red deer can be mistaken for bark rubbing by other species of deer and hide rubbing by pigs. The height of the rubbing might help distinguish which species is responsible.

Leaves

When red deer have been browsing leaves, several of the leaves will be removed from the stem and some remaining leaves will have been bitten in half.

Can be confused with:
Red deer browse is difficult to distinguish from other species of deer, goats, sheep or cows. Often the best way of determining which species has been browsing leaves in an area is through a process of elimination i.e. by determining which species inhabit the area, and looking for footprints and droppings.

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Kill Sign

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Other Clues

Smell

Red deer have a distinctive musky smell that can be strong smelling to humans when the animals are wet. Stags also have a distinctive odour during the rut from urinating on themselves and wallowing.

Can be confused with:
The smell of other deer species.

Sound

Red deer are mostly silent. However, during the breeding season (March–April), stags will roar, acting as a declaration of size and strength over other males in the area. Hinds (and stags) will bark when alerted, and fawns make a distinctive ‘meow’ call.

Can be confused with:
Red deer roars could be confused with cattle bellows during the rut.

Body covering

Sometimes deer hair can be found where they have been rubbing against a tree, and on the ground in bedding areas and caught in barbed wire cattle fences where they have ben crossing into paddocks.

Can be confused with:
The fur of red deer could be confused with the fur of other deer species.

Eye shine

White-silver.

Distribution

Red deer are the most widespread large mammal species in New Zealand. They are found in both the North and South Islands and on Stewart Island. They are also found on several offshore islands near to the mainland as they are good swimmers.

They mainly inhabit native forest or alpine areas. In the South Island they are widespread in the Southern Alps and in all national parks and significant areas of native forest. In the North Island, they are widespread on the volcanic plateau, Ureweras, Coromandel Peninsula and in the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges. They have recently invaded Northland, Auckland, Taranaki and the King Country. However, they have been eradicated from Auckland.

Other

Antlers cast by stags are often a reliable way to distinguish between deer species.

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MORE ABOUT RED DEER

Origin

Red deer inhabit most of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, Iran and parts of Asia. Red deer in New Zealand deer are descended from the British subspecies, Cervus elaphus scoticus which are found throughout the central and western highlands of Scotland, in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and in parts of England and Ireland.

Description

Male red deer are called stags and have antlers, while female red deer are called hinds and do not have antlers. Stags are much larger than hinds. Both sexes are red-brown or grey-brown in colour, with a short tail which is red-brown in colour. Stag antlers are erect and can have 10 or more points (tines)

Their hooves are black. Newborn fawns are brown or reddish-brown, with a dark dorsal strip, and white spots on their back and flanks. These spots disappear within the first few months.

Size and weight

The average weight for a stag red deer is 103kg, and for hinds 75kg. The average length of a male (nose to tail) is 1.9 m, while for females it is 1.8 m. Shoulder height is about 0.95m to 1.30m. These size data come from red deer shot in south Westland over more than 5 years prior to 1974. However, the growth rates of red deer have increased, due to greater food availability, with the increase in hunting. So red deer can now be considerably larger than this.

Behaviour

Female red deer form herds, but in intensively hunted populations females will persist in smaller groups of 2–3 deer. Males can also form groups, but these disband prior to the breeding season (known as the ‘rut’) which is during autumn (March–April). During the rut, males establish separate territories in which they gather harems by roaring. It is during this period that they most frequently use wallows.

Diet

Red deer browse and graze. On farmland, they can live entirely on pasture. In sub-alpine areas leaf browse makes up 20–30% of their diet (with the remainder being tussock grazing), while in forest interiors leaf browse is about 70–80% of their diet.

Habitat

Red deer are found in high alpine areas, steep hill country, river valleys and coastal lowlands. They are mostly associated with indigenous forest, and native scrublands and grasslands at high altitude. However, they are also found in many exotic forests. Deer also like to graze improved pasture, but hunting pressure usually excludes them from such areas.

Distribution in New Zealand

See distribution clue.

How to get rid of red deer

Contact your local DOC or Regional Council office for advice (see Next Steps). The most efficient way to get rid of deer is through hunting. Hunting from helicopters as part of the venison recovery industry has kept red deer at low enough levels to allow the recovery of many palatable plant species. Removing red deer from islands close to the mainland can be very difficult if there are adjacent mainland deer populations, because deer are very good swimmers. As with other species of deer, red deer can be very susceptible to incidental by-kill from aerial 1080 drops targeting possums and rabbits. However, with the exception of 10% 1080 foliage gel, no other poisons are currently registered for use on deer in New Zealand.


 RED DEER PAGE SPONSORED BY: Wildlands x57


FIND MORE INFORMATION IN:

Nugent, G., & Fraser, W. (2005). Red deer. In King, C.M., (Ed.), The handbook of New Zealand mammals (pp. 401-420). Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, G.H., Wardle, J.A., & Burrows, L.E. (1987). Forest understorey changes after reduction in deer numbers, northern Fiordland, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, l0, 35-42.