The roe deer, smallest of our native species, is a shy animal, hiding away for most of the time in woodland thickets.
The graceful roe deer, smallest among our native species of deer, is found in most of the forested areas of Great Britain with the exception of Wales and Northern Ireland. It is as much at home in the sombre conifer plantations of the Scottish highlands as in the open hazel thickets of southern England.
Without practice in spotting them, roe deer can be difficult to see, even in the open. This art of remaining ‘invisible’ is one of the qualities that has earned them the nickname, ‘Fairies of the Woods’. A single thistle can be enough to break up the deer’s outline and, once suspicious, the roe may stand motionless until quite certain that its presence has been discovered. Only then will it bound away, displaying a prominent patch of light-coloured hair on the rump. This hair can be puffed up as an alarm signal to other roe in the area. Identification The actual size of these little deer is deceiving. Although the bucks weigh less than a large dog, and are little more than 60cm (24in) in height at the shoulder, they often give the impression of being much larger, possibly because of their graceful build and fine bone structure.
The roe can be distinguished from the similar-sized muntjac (barking deer) by its lack of spots and absence of tail. The bony points (pedicles) from which the antlers grow are short by comparison with those of the muntjac.
A typical adult roe buck has antlers with three branches or points on each side, making six points in all. The total length may be as great as 30cm (12in). The size and the number of points depend more on feeding and health than age and heredity. In the early part of the year, while the antlers are still growing, they are covered in furry skin (velvet). When growth is complete, the antler hardens; the velvet dies and is rubbed off by the buck. He does this by scraping his antlers up and down on a tree of a suitable size; this action, which is known as fraying, damages the bark and may distort or even kill the tree. Even after the antlers are cleaned of velvet the buck persists in this activity, which is ritualised into a demonstration of aggression.
In woods inhabited by roe, signs of their occupation are everywhere for those with eyes to see them. Their cloven hooves leave tracks (slots) in muddy places and on their favourite paths. Well-trodden tracks may sometimes be seen around a single tree or bush, especially in summer. These are known as ‘roe rings’ and may be related to courtship behaviour.
When the deer have been running or jumping, the marks of the two dew claws, vestigial digits slightly above the hoof, may also register on the ground. If disturbed, roe make off in a series of terrific bounds and up to 16 metres (17 yards) may be covered in a single spring. In forest rides, your eyes may be attracted by the peeled stem of a small tree or shrub where a buck has been marking his territory. At the base of the tree there is often a triangular scrape where his flailing forefeet have dug into the earth. If you look more closely, you may see his signature in the shape of a hoof mark stamped clearly into the centre of the scrape.
Other bushes and low-growing herbage of all kinds may have been nibbled. If there seems to be an inexplicable lack of leaves up to a certain height from the ground, the reason is that deer have eaten everything within their reach. This is called a browse line, and whenever you come upon one that is about one metre (roughly three feet) high, you can be fairly sure that roe are numerous in the area.
Unlike the larger breeds of deer, roe do not normally form herds but live on their own or in small groups, unless they are forced in winter to congregate in the limited areas where there are food reserves. From about April to August the doe and buck each have their own territories, which may overlap or be quite separate. The doe’s territory may overlap with that of several bucks and vice versa. Parts of the doe’s territory may also be shared with other females.
The buck defends his territory vigorously against other bucks by aggressive displays of barking, fraying and scraping up moss and leaves with the forefoot. Fighting between two evenly matched bucks can occur in summer. Although this usually takes the form of a pushing match, with the loser soon disengaging and bounding away, fights to the death sometimes occur. The victim is nearly always stabbed repeatedly, even after he is lying prostrate on the ground. In spite of the simple form of their antlers, two roe bucks occasionally become entangled during a fight and, if they are unable to disengage, death for both adversaries is inevitable. Ideally, a roe territory should contain ample food and cover, with some open space. The size of the buck’s territory depends not only on the density of deer in the area, but also on visibility. In thick woodland, he may have only a couple of acres, while in more open moorland, where visibility may be several hundred yards, he can defend a much larger area from incoming bucks.
Like all deer, roe are ruminants. They generally feed at dawn and dusk, resting between these times to chew the cud. In undisturbed areas, feeding and ruminating take place throughout the day.
Roe are primarily browsing animals rather than grazers, preferring twigs to grass. They are, however, far from fussy in their choice of foods. Probably their favourites are the twigs and leaves of brambles (or roses, if they can get them!), and the leaves of willow, rowan, hazel and other broad-leaved species. They also eat conifer needles and buds, especially the softer varieties such as cypress and Douglas fir.
Roe deer can also be seen grazing in fields, particularly in spring when food in the woods is still scarce. They have been known to eat mushrooms and hedge fruit, as well as many herbs.
The mating season or rut of the roe is in late July and early August. One of the strangest features of the breeding cycle, unique to this species, is that the fertilised egg does not immediately implant in the uterus wall, but stays free-floating, increasing only gradually in size, until December when implantation takes place. After that, development at the normal rate leads up to the birth of the fawns in late May or early June. The total gestation is therefore 10 months, although the female is only visibly pregnant for about half that time.
Does usually give birth to twins, but triplets are not uncommon, and singles occur in areas of poorer feeding. The fawns are born with spotted coats which camouflage them as they lie motionless in the dappled shade of the trees. By the time they are about three months old, they have acquired the normal adult coat and, apart from being lighter in build, may be difficult to distinguish from their parents.
Male fawns sometimes grow tiny spikes or buttons of antler in December of their first year. These are hard and clean in January and are shed early in February, when the regular yearling antlers begin to grow.
A heavy toll
The survival chances of the young roe are poor. Mortality in the first year may be as high as 50%. Some fawns, particularly young ones, fall victim to foxes and dogs. The doe defends her young vigorously against these predators, but she can do nothing to protect them against disease. In areas heavily populated by roe, parasitic pneumonia, caused by lung-worm, can kill large numbers of fawns in early spring. In May, when the new season’s fawns are due to be born, the buck and doe drive out their young of the previous year. The banished yearlings then have to wander about until they find somewhere else to live. In the meantime they are exposed to increased risks from cars, dogs and, not least, from people who have shooting rights over the land they cross.
Friend or foe?
The roe’s liking for newly-planted forest trees, for both fraying and browsing, has brought it into sharp conflict with landowners. In the past, the deer population was kept in check by bears and wolves but. With the absence of these natural predators, this is now the job of the forester. If roe deer were to become completely protected they would soon become an unbearable pest. As it is, with careful management, we can expect these graceful creatures to inhabit our woods for many years to come.