British deer guide

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 
31st August 2017
Fallow deer
Red deer

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.


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.

Roe deer

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.


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.

Fallow deer

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. 


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).

Reeves' muntjac deer

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.


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).

Sika deer

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.  


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'.

Chinese water deer

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.


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.


Autumn is one of the best times of year to see British deer, as leaves begin to fall and the rut begins. Find out more about this great spectacle here.

To find out more about Britain's deer species, head over to the British Deer Society website


Main image: ©Getty

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