British deer: A guide to identifying the six species found here and where to stalk them
Although Britain is a small island it offers huge variety in its wildlife and landscape
The deer stalker in Britain will find a greater wealth of sporting species than many of our continental neighbours.
In this small island can be found red deer, roe deer, sika deer, Chinese water deer and muntjac. It’s hardly surprising then that this country is one of the top international stalking destinations. Particularly as every deer species offers a different challenge and a different location. Stalking in the UK can take place from the wild Scottish Highlands through to the marshes of East Anglia and the heathland of Dorset.
1. Red deer
The red deer is Britain’s largest mammal. Fully grown stags can weight up to 190kg – by comparison the average adult male in England weighs 79kg. The antlers of the stag are distinctive and the branches grow as the stag becomes older.
The species has been hunted by man for 11,000 years and was used by Mesolithic man for food, clothing and tools. As agriculture developed red deer retreated to the Scottish Highlands, the south-west of England and other specific areas. Although reds prefer woodland and forests they can adapt to open moorland and hills. They eat grasses and small shrubs such as heather but will eat bark and tree shoots when food is limited.
The lifespan of a red deer can be up to 18 years. Only stags over five years old tend to mate. Woodland hinds calf after eight months gestation from mid-May to July, but hill hinds may only calf every two to three years.
Stalking red deer in Scotland
Hill stalking was born in the Scottish Highlands and it is still viewed by many as the top stalking location by hunters from all over the world. Red deer go to the hills during the day and retreat down to shelter at night.
The magnificent red deer species is found in the Highlands and south-west Scotland. Also some of the Scottish islands. Despite the wildness of the landscape, getting there is relatively straightforward. Perthshire and the southern Highlands can be reached easily, so even a day or two stalking is worthwhile. If you’re looking for extraordinary scenery then try the Trossachs and southern Grampians.
Atholl Estates remains one of the classic stalking venues, encompassing over 100,000 acres divided into five separate beats, together taking some 350 stags a season. A little further north, the Cairngorms provide yet more spectacular stalking. There is tough hill climbing on estates like Gaick, with steep slopes that suddenly open out into a high plateau where you can truly feel on top of the world.
Travel west towards the Great Glen into Inverness-shire and the hill becomes noticeably wilder and more remote. South of Loch Laggan, Ardverikie’s 45,000 acres provides three beats of exceptional stalking, marching to the west with equally famous Corrour and its views down into Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. On the west coast the stalker is spoilt for choice, but one special gem is Ardnamurchan, the furthest point west on the British mainland and an estate noted for the huge bodyweight of its red stags, a result of the fertile volcanic geology of the district.
The deer rut takes place during September and October when the hill resounds to the roar of the stags as they battle for possession of their harems. This is prime letting time for lodges. Stalking may be let by week along with traditional lodge accommodation, or by the individual stag. When the stag season closes in the third week of October, attention turns to the hinds. These are usually let by the day, often with an expectation of two or more beasts per rifle. Weather conditions in late autumn may be more challenging, but the stalking is just as exciting and still offers particularly good value for money.
A word of caution. If you’re contemplating stalking red stags in Scotland then make sure you’re fit. You’ll be walking up steep hills all day and you’ll marvel at the fitness of the chief stalker leading your party.
2. Sika deer
Sika first arrived in the UK in 1860, imported from the Far East. It is thought that almost all English, Scottish and Irish sika are descended from a single stag and three hinds which arrived in Viscount Powerscourt’s deer park at Enniskerry, Eire in 1860.
Today the sika deer can be found all over the UK. The deer species is widespread in Scotland and thriving and there is a population in bands across the north and south of England and Northern Ireland. Adult stags weight between 40-70kg and hinds 40-45kgs.
The sika breeding season runs from the end of September to November and much depends on the deer’s environment. Typically stags defend a rutting territory, much like fallow deer, and often maintain a harem of hinds.
Calves are born early May to late June after seven and half months gestation. The species is known to be relatively unsocial, living alone for most of the year and forming small herds in winter. The sexes self-segregate and only come together to made.
More and more sika are mating with red deer producing hybrid sika, which is an area of concern.
Stalking sika in Scotland
Sika stalking takes place mostly at dawn and dusk, when the animals move between the different forest blocks or show themselves among the tawny orange grasses and multicoloured mosses along the burnside between the forest plantings. It is a game of stealth that calls for great care on the part of the stalker, not to mention a good slice of luck. Alternatively, most forests have a number of strategically placed high seats or towers commanding a view over two or more forest rides. Rosehall Estate, overlooking Strath Oykel, was where sika first started to populate this part of northern Scotland and it is a good place to find this species today. There is still a plentiful population here, inhabiting the large forest blocks with which the area is now planted.
Scottish sika have rapidly expanded their range throughout Argyll, northwards from Inverness to Sutherland and eastwards into Aberdeenshire, with a further colony in Peebles that has extended eastwards across the Scottish borders. In the far north-west of Scotland they are creatures of the dark and dense coniferous forest and have thrived in response to the creation of perfect habitat via afforestation since the 1980s.
Sutherland does not have the tall peaks of the Highlands. Instead it is a region of low hills and lochs, of poor quality rough grazing interspersed with huge tracts of commercial forest. It is hard, tough, remote country, but it is a great place for sika and supports a plentiful population including many good quality stags.
Stalking sika in England’s ancient southern forests
Alternatively you can stalk the sika deer species in the south-west of England. In Dorset is a flourishing sika population that derives from deer that escaped from introductions to Brownsea Island and Hyde House Park, Wareham in the 1890s. Today they offer appealing stalking opportunities.
3. Fallow deer
The Romans brought the elegant fallow deer to Britain from the Western Mediterranean to ornament their deer parks. When the Romans left these deer became extinct. Then in the 11th century fallow deer were reintroduced again to be kept as exotic herds. Little by little the population increased and aristocrats prized the venison. Over the next few centuries deer parks became unfashionable and the fallow deer escaped, forming the population of today’s free herds.
Fallow are abundant and increasing in number through England and Wales, although their presence is limited in Scotland. Sexes mix in large herds year along, preferring agricultural environments. The species is active day and night but activities peak at dawn and dusk. The males, known as bucks, weight from 46 to 93kg, the females (does) 35-56kg. When alarmed the does and young give short barks.
Stalking fallow deer
Fallow deer have their heartland south of a line from the Bristol Channel to Cambridge, though they are present throughout the East Midlands, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
The forests and chases of the south-including such historic areas as Cranborne Chase, the New Forest and Ashdown Forest – are classic fallow country. Oak, birch and open heathland transforms further east in the Weald of Sussex into a hilly patchwork of ancient woods of oak, ash and beech, intersected with small pastures and arable fields that provide rich feeding for the fallow herds.
Fallow are inextricably involved with the history of the New Forest, where sporting tradition goes back a thousand years, and in the Verderers Court at Lyndhurst the fallow heads hanging on the walls are a reminder of the forest’s origins as a Royal hunting ground.
The Leconfield Estate at Petworth has a splendid population of fallow used both to establish new deer parks and to improve existing bloodlines in many different countries. The estate runs to 14,000 acres and offers high quality professionally guided stalking. A further notable centre for fallow is Epping Forest to the north-east of London, from where the deer herds have spread out into the wooded Essex countryside.
4. Roe deer
The roe deer is an adaptable species and while they may prefer small, mixed woodlands, they are perfectly at home in larger coniferous forests. Spring is the prime season for roebuck, the best and largest of which will normally be in hard antler by the opening of the buck season on April 1.
Roe stalking in southern England
The south of England, and especially the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset have long been associated with high quality roe stalking. After the species died out in southern England in the Middle Ages, roe were re-established at Milton Abbas in Dorset in the early 1800s and have spread out from there to colonise the whole of the south and south-west of England. A further introduction was made near Thetford in 1884, which became the foundation of the east of England’s roe population. I
Most stalking estates take their prime bucks in April, when the woodland understorey is still sufficiently open to see through, and the bucks are busy establishing or re-establishing their territories.
Alternatively, good bucks can be taken during the rut in late July, while there is also excellent sport to be had in winter during the all-important doe cull.
Stalking roe in the north of England
The north of England is noted for our native deer species. The roe in this part of the UK can claim to be truly home grown, having derived from native stock that spread from the Scottish borders and south of Hadrian’s Wall; the vast forests of Northumberland and Cumbria are a roe stalker’s paradise. Northumberland in particular is so often overlooked by field sportsmen intent in their haste to travel across the border to Scotland. Yet here, in Kielder and Wark forests and the gorgeous, relaxed countryside of the Northumberland National Park, is roe stalking to rival that which you will find anywhere.
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Stalking in eastern England
Over the past half century, East Anglia has become a stronghold for five out of our six deer species. The establishment of Thetford Forest in the 1920s provided a foothold from which red, roe and muntjac could spread into the adjoining countryside, while in the south of the region, fallow spread from Essex into the wooded estates of south Suffolk.
Thetford Forest and the light, sandy heathlands of the Norfolk and Suffolk brecks are still as good a place as any to find first-class stalking in the east of England. The Forestry Commission itself offers a limited amount of guided stalking, while BASC members can enjoy roe and muntjac stalking under the guidance of experienced professionals on ground leased under the association’s deer stalking scheme at Kings Forest near Thetford. Both hunting on foot and high-seat shooting are possible, and there are few better places in which a newcomer to the sport can experience the thrill of woodland stalking for the first time.
The 10,000-acre Euston estate has large populations of roe, muntjac and red deer; the latter being of exceptional quality. The deer are managed both to keep the herds in good order and to control damage to the estate’s productive farmland. Red and roe in particular are managed with trophy quality in mind, and Euston is noted for its CIC medal quality heads. Stalking here is focused upon the large ancient woodlands at the heart of the estate, and is well organised by Euston’s professional stalking staff.
5. Chinese water deer
A small species that weight between 11 to 18kg. Male and female deer are of similar size and weight. Chinese water deer do not have antlers but males (bucks) have prominent ‘tusks’ and females less visible ones.
Chinese water deer spread initially from the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn estate, and the adjoining Beckerings Park today specialises in stalking this species. There is a big CWD population on the property, including many gold and silver trophies, and stalking there is conducted both on foot and from high seats.
The Chinese water deer (CWD) is expanding steadily in East Anglia and the British population is thought to comprise 10% of the world’s total. Well-established in Cambridgeshire and the broads of Norfolk and Suffolk, it is increasing its range both in the Suffolk river valleys and out across the neighbouring farmland. Stalking Chinese water deer in the Broads is a unique experience. This secretive species is usually found in the tangled alder carrs and the reed beds, which closely match the habitat in its native country. Waiting in the misty dawn for one of these small deer to creep out into the open, or stalking around the fringes of the marsh, where the quaking reed rise up into the arable countryside, is something every stalker should add to his or her list of ‘must do’ hunts.
This small deer has a reputation as a pest. Full grown males (bucks) weight between 10 to 18kg and females (does) 9-16kg. Muntjac have no close season. Males have small antlers. The does can breed from seven months old and deliver a single kid after seven months gestation. The species is generally solitary or found in pairs. Muntjac are also known as ‘barking deer’ and will scream when scared. They are active 24 hours a day but peak activity occurs during dawn and dusk.
To the experienced stalker the species represents a rewarding quarry that is always on the move and demands concentration, plus decisive and accurate shooting. Most challenging is stalking on foot early in the morning or at last light, and it is particularly satisfying to take a good animal with a standing shot off the sticks that you have perhaps spotted only seconds before. High-seat shooting can be equally rewarding and productive, and is perhaps a better choice for those tackling this species for the first time.
Widespread throughout the south and east of England, muntjac can be stalked in a wide variety of locations, but the Midlands consistently produces good quality animals. Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire has a strong muntjac population and Cornbury Park on the edge of the forest offers good stalking both for this species and for fallow deer.
A little further south, Hungerford Park in Berkshire is a good venue for similar sport. With year-round breeding and no close season, muntjac may be stalked in any month, but their small size makes them difficult to spot once the grass and ground cover has grown up during the summer, and from early autumn to late spring is the best time to hunt them.