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Red Deer

An indigenous species and the largest wild British land mammal, the Red Deer Cervus elaphus has a uniform dark red to brown summer coat and a dark brown winter coat, with a creamy white rump. The male (stag) carries wide spreading antlers during the autumn and winter which are cast in the summer, increasing in size with every year’s re-growth; females (hinds) do not have antlers.

For most of the year hinds and stags live in sexually segregated groups. Late summer and early autumn is the rut, when stags will round up and defend a harem of hinds for breeding. By early winter the rut is over and calves are born in late May to June the following year.

Food consists of grasses and young shoots of trees and shrubs, and occasionally wild Red Deer cause damage to crops.

Natural predators for adult Red Deer are long extinct. In the wild young calves may be taken by Foxes Vulpes vulpes, and in Scotland Golden Eagle Aguila chrysaetos and Wild Cat Felis silvestris.

There are currently no indigenous wild populations of Red Deer in Durham or Northumberland; however parkland herds or feral deer exist in both counties. Major wild populations occur in Scotland and southwest England with smaller populations scattered throughout England and Wales. Our post-2000 distribution map shows parkland animals, escapees or incorrect identifications.

One particularly adventurous 1883 escapee from the Chillingham herd made it to Holy Island where it was captured by a fisherman who: “saw him and went in chase in a boat and got him by the tail and let the stag pull the boat to land and then lassoed and tethered [him] at Old Law” (Bolam, 1934).

Red Deer by Terry Coult

The Forestry Commission occasionally records escapees of Red and Fallow Dama dama Deer within their Northumberland and Durham plantations and once in the mid 1990s a Sika Deer Cervus nippon in the Kielder Forest, presumably from the Jedburgh deer farm (Philip Spottiswood, pers. comm., 2012).

Prehistoric Red Deer remains have been found in the Whitburn Cave (Howse, 1880) and Moking Hurth Cave in Teesdale where they occur as a prey item amongst the bones of contemporary Wolf Canis lupus and Brown Bear Ursus arctos (Simms, 1974). The size of Red Deer has declined since the prehistoric period probably due to anthropogenic influences including deforestation. Evidence comes from antlers and skeletal remains found in peat bogs, the most famous of which are the antlers found in Creswell Bog around 1883. Pringle Hughes (1898) who found the head reported its find amongst other antlers and the bones of Red Deer “one foot taller than the Red Deer now extant”. Another such large head was found at Bolton Bog, near Broom Park, Alnwick (Whitehead, 1964).

Red Deer have long been an important human resource as food, raw materials (hide, antler, bone) and for recreational hunting. As a result their remains occur in archaeological records from the Mesolithic era onwards, for example a Neolithic antler pick from Durham City and a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age perforated antler mace from Newsham near Blyth (Huntley and Stallibrass, 1995).

Greenwell (1894) describes a Bronze Age dwelling in Heathery Burn Cave, Stanhope where Red Deer remains are present as a food item and as domestic items made from bone and antler. In the medieval period bones of both Red and the newly introduced Fallow Deer are found together for the first time in the North East and Huntley and Stallibrass (1995) consider them to be indicators of high status, well fed, secular and ecclesiastical settlements.

Leland records Red and Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus in the Cheviots in 1535-1543 (Toulmin, 1907) and Wallis (1769) states that there were forests at Cheviot, Rothbury, Reedsdale [sic], Eresden [sic], Lowes, Allendale and Knarsdale which formerly had Red Deer. Wallis (1769) saw Red Deer in Knarsdale himself, probably in the latter half of the 18th century, and Mennell and Perkins (1864) speculate that they may have persisted to the beginning of the 19th century. The exact date of extinction of wild Red Deer in Northumberland is not known.

The Boldon Book mentions the Prince Bishops of Durham hunting deer with great pomp and ceremony in the Forest of Weardale but by 1476 these hunts had ceased (Stephens, 1907); however some hunting continued into the 19th century with the Chillingham Staghounds kennelled at Chillingham Castle in the late 1830s and the Cleveland Staghounds at Raby Castle in 1844 (Whitehead, 1980). In Durham, the 1538 Return records 140 head of Red Deer in the Teesdale Forest, and Whitehead (1964) considers that at that time all the Durham dales were “tolerably well stocked with Red Deer”. In 1673 the Teesdale herd was reduced to 40-50 animals due to a great snow and probably became extinct not long after this date (Whitehead, 1964).

By this time however some deer had been emparked including the herd in Raby Castle Park near Staindrop, which has an unbroken lineage since Norman times, with occasional infusions of new blood (Raby Castle Website, 2012).

The deforestation of Weardale was complete by about 1511, but by this time Red Deer were already emparked in the Bishop of Durham’s two hunting parks at Stanhope and Wolsingham. Stanhope Park is reported to have contained about 200 Red Deer in 1575 but only 40 remained in 1595, and by 1647 neither Red nor Fallow Deer remained in Weardale (Stephens, 1907).

Red deer small

In Northumberland, Hulne Park near Alnwick was stocked with Red, Fallow and Sika deer in 1824, including a white strain of Red Deer from Germany. All of the Hulne Park deer were disposed of during the First World War and the Red Deer herd in Chillingham Park was disposed of around 1900 (Whitehead, 1964). Whitehead concludes that at the time of his writing in 1962 there were no Red Deer either wild or emparked in Northumberland. Chillingham Park is still without Red Deer (Sir Humphrey Wakefield, pers. comm., 2012) but Red Deer have been returned to Hulne Park and Lunn (2004) records them as present. Red Deer numbers in Hulne Park have been much reduced very recently and some deer have escaped, so that currently there is a very small population based on the park. Lunn (2004) also records another captive herd in Kielder Forest west of Wark. In Durham there was formerly a herd of Red Deer at Barningham Park near Barnard Castle which was reduced to just five stags and two hinds by 1892 (Whitehead, 1980) and which subsequently disappeared. There was a park herd of Red Deer at Whitworth Hall near Spennymoor from about 1981 to 2011 but they have recently been disposed of. The Raby herd thus remains the only park herd still extant in Durham.

There is currently a fashion for small-farm deer herds as farm diversification projects, novelty farms and for the venison market, and these can be found scattered across both Northumberland and Durham. Escapees from such small ventures and the still existing parks are likely to be the source of the occasionally reported, wandering Red Deer such as the stag and five hinds which occupied central Weardale throughout the summer of 2011, and the Rising Sun Country Park stag in North Tyneside in 2010-11. Escaped animals are subject to unregulated shooting and poaching with dogs and it is unlikely that they could establish viable feral populations.


Written by Terry Coult (last updated Nov 12)