Red Deer Stag (Photo: Laurie Campbell)
The red deer is Scotland’s largest land mammal and one of our most iconic species. It is the only deer species found on Harris and although its origin is uncertain, it is likely that deer were introduced to the Western Isles for sport, as it is unlikely that they could have swum across the Minch. Red deer are currently found on North Harris and on the smaller islands of Taransay and Pabbay in the Sound of Harris, but not on South Harris. However lone stags have a tendency to wander and can swim long distances, so occasionally turn up on other islands. There are over 1000 Red Deer in North Harris, most of which are found to the North and West of Tarbert.
Harris Red Deer are some of the only pure Red Deer left in Scotland
Sika deer, a deer species closely related to Red Deer has been introduced to mainland Scotland from Asia and has started to inbreed with our native Red Deer. However, Red deer were introduced to the Western Isles before Sika deer came to Scotland so we know that the deer brought here were pure Red Deer. The Minch acts as a barrier to the spread of Sika deer so hopefully our Red Deer will remain pure along with red deer population on a few other Hebridean islands.
Red Deer have no predators so their populations need to be managed by us
The North Harris deer herd is managed through stalking in the Autumn and Winter to maintain a stable population. If deer numbers were left to increase without control they would start to have a negative effect on moorland and mountain habitats. Many plants are sensitive to grazing and trampling by deer and struggle to survive as deer numbers increase. Many birds and animals such as grouse and mountain hares need long heather or other vegetation to shelter and nest in. If grazing pressure by deer is too high and plants are kept short by grazing, grouse, hares and other species struggle to find the shelter they need.
In the Autumn Red deer stags compete with each other to mate with females during the Rut
The autumn rut is the most spectacular time to watch deer. This is when stags are competing with each other to herd groups of hinds for mating. Stags will defend their harems night and day against challenging stags, making their presence known by repeatedly roaring or bellowing. These roars and bellows can often be heard from over 1km away echoing around the glens. Challenging deer will try to see each other off by out-roaring their opponents but occasionally when stags are evenly matched fights break out with combatants charging and locking antlers. The Rut is at its peak in October, and the more remote glens in North Harris, particularly Cravadale, and Langadail are the best places to watch this drama unfold. During winter and early spring, harsh weather can force herds down to lower ground and they can sometimes be seen close to the Huisinis road.
Red Deer grow new antlers each year
Antlers grow out from the bone of the top of the skull. Only stags (males) grow antlers, growing a new set of antlers each year. Stags grow their first antlers during their second year of life and grow a new and larger set of antlers each year until they reach about 7 years of age. The antlers start to grow in the spring as soon as the previous year’s antlers have been shed. To begin with the antlers are covered in a kind of skin (velvet) which provides a blood supply for the antlers to grow. Once the antlers are fully grown the skin is rubbed off leaving sharp clean antlers ready for the rut.
Red Deer Herd (Photo: Anna Reid)
Red Deer have a herding instinct
Through much of the year hinds (females) and stags (males) are found in herds varying in size from just a hand full of animals to several hundred. Living in groups means that there are more eyes and ears to detect danger and makes it difficult for predators to single out one animal. Although Red Deer have no predators in Scotland now they evolved a herding behaviour when they shared the landscape with larger predators such as wolves and bears. However, at certain times of year both stags and hinds leave their herd to risk the dangers of living alone. Hinds leave the herd in June to calve and re-join the herd once their calves are strong enough to keep up. They carefully select a safe site to give birth where the calf is left in long vegetation. The mother grazes some way away, only returning to feed a few times a day so not to attract attention to the calf. Stags break away from the herd in the autumn for the rut when they seek hinds to mate with.
Red Deer Hind and Calf (Photo: Laurie Campbell)
Although many deer, particularly hinds will spend their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born they use different parts of the hill ground through the year. During the winter harsh weather often forces them onto lower ground and this is when they can often be seen around the road sides in North Harris. During the summer they become more difficult to see, often retreating on to the higher ground to get away from biting insects and disturbance and to make the most of the short growing season on the higher slopes.
by Robin Reid