British deer guide: how to identify and best places to see

Just six species of deer live in the British countryside, but it can often be difficult to tell which is which – learn all about these spectacular animals with our deer identification guide, plus discover the best places to see the autumn deer rut.

Fallow deer

Britain’s deer populations are expanding, yet most of us see them rarely as they are secretive woodland dwellers. During the autumn deer rut, they are much more noticeable due to their need to mate.

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Here’s our guide to the six deer species found in the British countryside, including best places to see and how to identify.

1

Red deer

Red deer migrated to Britain from Europe 11,000 years ago, making them one of two of the country’s truly indigenous species. Since their arrival, populations have risen and fallen with the loss and creation of suitable habitat. One of the UK’s most adaptable mammals, red deer are currently expanding in both range and numbers – while preferring woodland and forest habitats in England and southern Scotland, their opportunism has led to their inhabitation of open moor and hills too.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) stag in forest
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) stag in forest ©Getty

Red deer facts

  • Habitat: Prefer forests and woodlands, but have adapted to live on open moor.
  • Distribution: Scottish Highlands, Southern Scotland, Lake District, East Anglia, Northern England, Midlands, East Anglia, the New Forest, Sussex and south-west England.
  • Behaviour: In forests, red deer are mostly solitary or exist in small groups, largely active at dawn and dusk. In open moorland, namely the Scottish Highlands, populations group in larger numbers in the day, dropping into the valleys at night.
  • Diet: Grass, young shrubs (like heather), tree shoots and crops.
  • Breeding season: End of September to November.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 137cm (females up to 122cm).
  • Weight: Up to 190kg (females up to 120kg).
  • Lifespan: Up to 18 years.
  • Fun fact: They are Britain’s largest land mammal.
2

Roe deer

This native British deer is rusty brown in the summer months, turning grey, pale brown or sometimes black in winter. The small antlers with three prongs on males are known as tines. Roe deer are easily startled – their rumps bounding through forests and crops are a familiar sight to walkers and cyclists. They became extinct in England in the 1800s due to forest clearance and over-hunting, though the species remained in parts of Scotland. These days, they are widespread and abundant.

a roe deer in a field of heather
A roe deer in a field of heather ©Getty

Roe deer facts

  • Habitat: Prefer woodland and forest but also spend time in open fields.
  • Distribution: Throughout the British Isles, thinning out in parts of the Midlands and Kent.
  • Behaviour: Generally solitary animals, but group together in winter. Active 24 ours a day, though more inclined to venture into open space at night. Males rut in breeding season, while courtship between the buck and doe involves chasing.
  • Diet: Herbs, brambles, ivy, heather, bilberry and young tree shoots.
  • Breeding season: Mid-July to mid-August.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 75cm.
  • Weight: Up to 25kg.
  • Lifespan: Up to 10 years.
  • Fun fact: They bark, much like a dog, when alarmed.
3

Fallow deer

This medium-sized deer has palmate antlers. Coats vary in colour, from black and caramel to the more common tawny and white-spotted coat. Does and young have short barks, while bucks emit a deep groan, especially in mating season. Not a truly native species, as they are thought to have been introduced by the Normans in the 10th century.

Fallow deer, Dama dama, male, Kent
Fallow deer in Kent ©Getty

Fallow deer facts

  • Habitat: Deciduous woodland and thick, low-lying vegetation.
  • Distribution: Found throughout Britain, particularly in England, with numbers rising.
  • Behaviour: Live in both single-sex and mixed groups.
  • Diet: Prefer grasses but will graze young shrubs.
  • Breeding season: Late September to October.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 94cm (females up to 91cm).
  • Weight: Up to 94kg (females up to 56kg).
  • Lifespan: Up to 16 years.
  • Fun Fact: They are the only British deer with palmate antlers (meaning a similar shape to hands or feet).
4

Reeves’ muntjac deer

This small, hunched deer was brought over from China in the early 20th century, spreading from Bedfordshire to populate large swathes of England. Unlike other deer species, muntjac have little impact on agricultural and timber crops. They breed all year round and are able to have kids when they are seven months old.

Chinese muntjac, Muntiacus reevesi, male, Wales
Muntjac deer in Welsh forest ©Getty

Muntjac deer facts

  • Habitat: Prefer woodlands but have adapted to live in urban areas and overgrown gardens.
  • Distribution: Abundant in England, particularly the east, increasing in both number and range.
  • Behaviour: Solitary or found in pairs, mostly active and dawn and dusk.
  • Diet: Herbs and shrubs.
  • Breeding season: All year round, leading to rapid population growth.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 52cm.
  • Weight: Up to 18kg.
  • Lifespan: Up to 19 years.
  • Fun fact: Muntjac deer have both antlers and tusks (enlarged upper canines).
5

Sika deer

Also known as Japanese deer, this medium-sized species arrived on Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1860. Escapees quickly spread through Britain, forming strongholds in much of Scotland. Like fallow deer, their coats vary from pale to dark, and they often have white rumps.

Sika Deer Buck in Rut, taken at arne in dorset
Sika deer buck in Rut, Dorset ©Getty

Also known as Japanese deer, this medium-sized species arrived on Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1860. Escapees quickly spread through Britain, forming strongholds in much of Scotland. Like fallow deer, their coats vary from pale to dark, and they often have white rumps.

Sika deer facts

  • Habitat: Acid soils such as conifer woodlands, moorland and heath.
  • Distribution: Increasing across the UK, with large populations in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Behaviour: Live in single-sex groups.
  • Diet: Grasses and dwarf shrubs, sometimes eating bark and young tree roots.
  • Breeding season: Mate from September to November and give birth between May and July.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 95cm (females up to 90cm).
  • Weight: Up to 70kg (females up to 45kg).
  • Lifespan: Up to 12 years.
  • Fun fact: Like red deer, female sikas are know as ‘hinds’.
6

Chinese water deer

A small russet-coloured deer, turning light grey in winter. Found in wet areas, as their name suggests, these non-native deer are without antlers (though the males do have tusks). Introduced into the British countryside in the 1890s, they have spread through south-east England.

Chinese water deer, Hydropotes inermis, single mammal on grass, Bedfordshire, February 2013
Chinese water deer in Bedfordshire ©Getty

Chinese water deer facts

  • Habitat: Lakes, riverbanks and reedbeds.
  • Distribution: Mostly eastern England.
  • Behaviour: Generally solitary, coming together during mating season. Active all day, though mostly at dawn and dusk.
  • Diet: Unfussy, eating grasses, herbs and woody vegetation.
  • Breeding season: Late autumn, between November and December, giving birth in June and July.
  • Shoulder height: Up to 55cm.
  • Weight: Up to 18kg.
  • Lifespan: Up to 13 years.
  • Fun fact: This non-native species to Britain now accounts of 10% of the global population.

The British Deer Society (BDS)

BDS promotes deer education, research and management best practice to ensure a healthy and sustainable deer population in balance with the environment; a key feature of the biodiversity of the UK landscape. www.bds.org.uk


Best places to see the autumn deer rut in Britain

The annual deer rut is one of Britain’s most exciting autumn wildlife spectacles – find out where you can see these magnificent animals in action with our guide to the UK’s best deer rutting destinations.

New Forest, Hampshire

All six of the UK’s deer species found in the wild have been spotted in the southern oasis of the New Forest. Be sure to catch the fearsome action this autumn, watching these great creatures lock antlers at renowned rutting grounds that date back as far as a century.

Roe deer in wheat field
Roe deer doe standing in the middle of line in the wheat. (Getty)
Buttermere autumn

Lyme Park, Cheshire

The National Trust estate of Lyme Park is thronging with strutting deer fighting for domination within this ancient hunting park. With tree guards in place to protect the woods from being on the receiving end of their powerful antlers, these grounds are a perfect place to glimpse the rutting rivals.

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Deer in park
Young deer in the grounds of Lyme Park in Cheshire. (Getty Images)

Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries and Galloway

Galloway is bursting with red deer, the largest of our UK species. Catch a sight of the roaring stags at the Red Deer Range. The visitor centres at Kirroughtree, Glentrool and Clatteringshaws will advise on the best and safest routes to follow.

Red Deer, Deer, Cervus elaphus - Rut time.Red Deer, Deer, Cervus elaphus - Rut time. Fighting of two stags.
Red deer lock horns ©Getty

See more deer watching locations