There are two types of native deer in Scotland – red deer and roe deer. The majestic red deer is our largest terrestrial mammal, and undoubtedly one of the most impressive wildlife spectacles of Scotland; their sights and sounds are enjoyed by locals, tourists, and Autumn-watch viewers alike.
The striking and delicate roe deer is found throughout mainland Scotland wherever there is a tiny patch of cover where they can hide by day. Roe deer are increasingly being seen in towns and cities, with some now even living close to the centre of Glasgow – a treat for city-dwellers, but also a reason to watch the road carefully when you’re driving near wooded parks.
Fallow and sika deer have also been introduced to Scotland through deliberate releases and escapes from country parks.
Wild deer are a huge asset to Scotland – they are one of Scotland’s most iconic species, and play an important part in our rural economy and culture, an integral part of Scotland’s biodiversity, and provide us with healthy food and recreational opportunities.
Habitats, distribution and abundance
Red deer are selective grazers of grasses, sedges, heathers and woody species. They are found in woodland and on moorland to the tops of mountains. They are widely distributed in Scotland although are absent from the Northern Isles, other outlying islands and much of the central belt and the south-east.
Roe deer are selective browsers and will seek out favoured herbs, dwarf-shrubs and tree shoots. Roe deer are absent from the Western and Northern Isles and many of the islands off the west coast including Arran and Mull. They are widespread on the mainland occurring in every 10km square.
There are no comprehensive figures on national populations or trends; data on woodland deer being particularly sparse. Red deer appear to have experienced a modest range expansion in the last 30 years, while roe deer have also expanded particularly in central Scotland.
With no natural predators remaining in Scotland, deer populations need to be managed to limit their potential impacts on crops, woodland regeneration, biodiversity and to prevent road traffic accidents. Most deer control is carried out over the autumn and winter. More information on managing deer can be found on our site.
Woodland red deer are generally bigger and more productive than hill deer due to access to better quality foods and shelter. Groups can number in their hundreds on the open hill, while woodland red deer tend towards smaller group sizes. Stag and hind groups are usually separate other than during the ‘rut’.
Roe bucks start becoming territorial from February through to mid-August and are therefore generally solitary, although they may form small groups in the winter. Roe does are accompanied by kids for most of the year, but will actively drive them out in readiness for the birth of that years fawns. Normally does give birth to 1-2 kids.
Impacts on biodiversity and conservation
Red deer are a ‘keystone’ habitat-shaping species, particularly in the uplands. Grazing by red deer can help to maintain some communities, to create niches for seedling regeneration and provide a source of dung and carrion used by other species. However, too much grazing and trampling can have negative consequences for important habitats and the species that rely on them.
Roe deer are associated with limiting native woodland regeneration and establishment, particularly in the lowlands and upland fringes of central Scotland. They may also impact on more palatable woodland ground flora, for example bramble and on coppice re-growth. Due to their smaller group sizes, smaller body sizes and more selective browsing than red deer, they are not commonly associated with negative grazing and trampling impacts on open ground habitats.
Both red and roe deer are thriving in Scotland. The greatest threat to them is a subtle one. The sika deer, from Japan, hybridises with the red deer although not all hybrids are obvious from their appearance. Recent research has shown that the appearance, genetic make-up and behaviour of Scottish red deer could gradually change as hybrids become more common. To protect the native red deer, refuges are being strengthened on some of the Scottish islands, with current and proposed legislation to prevent the release of non-native and hybrid deer.
We must also guard against the introduction of muntjac and Chinese water deer in Scotland. Both types are present in England already. The muntjac has a great impact on the flowering plants in the woodlands where it occurs.