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How will deer populations adapt to climate change?

Jon Snowdon ponders some research on the habits of deer in the face of changing climatic conditions

Young deer are being sighted earlier than in previous years

A colleague recently sent me some extensive research on deer and hunting. It made for interesting reading, though, to quote Basil Fawlty, parts did seem to be “another MA in the blindingly obvious”. The research was carried out over a 10-year period and involved 65,000 monitored hunting days. When dealing with wildlife, that is probably the minimum time in years and outings from which any relevant and meaningful conclusions could be drawn.

We have global temperatures rising, which, depending on the part of the world, will in the short term be beneficial for many species of deer. Certainly in northern England, my part of the country, spring seems to be arriving earlier and young deer appearing earlier than I have ever seen them.



A picture was also sent to me recently by a friend. It was of a male roe kid taken on 1 May. It was obvious that it had been born some time in April and, looking at the picture, probably the last couple of weeks of that month. While that may, on occasion, have been seen further south, I have never seen a kid that early in the year up here in Northumberland. Is it a sign of global warming? Possibly. That deer are producing young a couple of weeks earlier than in previous years would need decades of recorded first sightings to prove a notable change, though I believe they are.

In the short term of a warmer climate (by short term, I mean a decade or more), the amount of rich early vegetation growth that would have appeared in the past around mid to late May is now being produced a week or two earlier. That will result in deer reaching good body weights earlier, being more fertile and, more importantly, being able to give birth earlier.

This is when those perfect mineral and sugar-rich buds and leaves are at their best and the roe doe is able to create her rich nutritious milk for the newly born. They, in turn – even twins – will survive, grow faster and be in better shape to survive the coming winter. I am sure, despite global warming, we will still experience the odd vicious winter.

Longer term, it may become detrimental to many species if the predictions of wetter winters and drier summers come to pass. The research also studied how weather, time of year and even days of the week affect the recreational hunters’ (not my favourite term) success. Here are some of the findings:

Wind – Ask yourself if you would choose to be out there, even in a moderate gale. I have certainly been out in some strong winds, and on occasion had some success. Strong winds are not our preference, however. Surprise, surprise, nor are they that of the deer. They, on the whole, will be in cover in the lee of the wind. The hunter will certainly have to call on all of their knowledge and experience to find those secret woodland havens that deer have up their hock for such conditions. They will more than likely have less success in such conditions.

Rain – Again, ask yourself if you would choose to go for a walk in heavy rain. For most of us, I believe the answer is no. At the very least, we would be likely to wait until it eased off. Deer? Yes, you’ve got it – in most cases, that’s exactly what they do. They potter about until the rain slackens off, shake the water off their coat in a shower of droplets and pop out to the woodland edges.

Temperature – Contrary to belief, deer do not like hot temperatures. Once again they will be couched up in their favourite haven, where there should be a delightful cooling breeze and a ‘parasol’ above. When the heat of the day has burnt off, they will step out at dusk to forage. Don’t forget that often this type of weather is in the summer months when deer are not desperately searching for food, which is in abundance, and they are in very good condition. Why not have
a shady spot to while away the day soaking up the peaceful forest atmosphere?

Deer will still venture out to find food in snowy conditions

Snow – While long periods of snow can be a problem, deer usually do not suffer too badly in it. Snow appears when the fodder is at its lowest. Even though deer metabolism slows down in the winter, they still need to feed and feeding bouts tend to be more often because the nutrition is at its lowest and they need to bulk up, eating large amounts of the vegetation that is still available. For the hunter, even though the daylight hours are shorter, such conditions often result in more deer being seen and therefore more success.

Time – There are periods in the life of roe deer, both male and female, when there isn’t much happening. Weekends, for example, when people are out and about in the woods, disturbing the usually quiet life of the deer. Those stalking recreationally often have no choice but to go out, no matter what the weather conditions, day or time of week. These dates will most likely have been set a good time in advance, so be prepared to accept that such circumstances may well lessen chances of success.

The study covered several hunting areas and various hunting methods. It involved numerous hunters sharing data. The results are interesting in that they seem to verify what many experienced deer managers have known for years. Whatever the chances of success, time spent in the woods is never wasted; and what a rewarding way to spend time, whatever the day, week or weather.

On hot days, deer prefer shady havens and forage at dusk