Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000
Key Identification Features
Fallow deer are Ireland’s second largest deer species after the red deer. The main distinguishing feature of the fallow deer is the arrangement of the antlers. Males known as bucks grow flat palm shaped antlers with several points. Antlers are shed each spring and begin to re-grow immediately shedding the protective velvet skin by autumn in time for the rutting season. Older mature males will grow the largest most elaborate antlers although development may be hindered by a poor diet or periods of sickness. In Ireland there is a wide variation in the colour of individuals which is unusual for a wild species, this may have been due to selective breeding in the past in order to satisfy the demand for different hunting trophies. There are now five different colour types of fallow deer with coats ranging from black to brown, menil, yellow and white. Most will have the distinctive white heart shaped rump with all colour types having paler underbellies in comparison to the flanks. Regardless of the colour each deer will moult its coat twice per year first in May or June and again in September to October. Fallow deer also have a distinctive long tail with a black strip running from it up along the back. Larger than the sika but smaller than the red deer adult males measure up to 1.8m in length, stand at 1m at the shoulder and can weigh up to 100kg. Females known as does are smaller standing up to 85cm at the shoulder and weigh considerably less at around 45kg on average. Tracks known as slots measure an average of 6.5cm in length for adults but this can vary depending on the age, sex and gait of the individual animal. Fallow deer are a vocal species with vocalizations outside of the rutting season ranging from a short alarm bark emitted by the females to a more relaxed bleating whicker. Fallow deer move with a walk, trot or canter type style changing to a gallop or stott when alarmed. They are strong in the water and can swim for long distances. They have a well developed sense of smell with good hearing and excellent eyesight which can distinguish a range of colours from medium to long distances and unusually for a deer species can differentiate between stationary objects which makes them more difficult to hunt.
In Ireland the fallow deer mainly resides in mature deciduous or mixed woodlands which are close to open grassland. Sometimes they will be found in coniferous areas if it provides dense undergrowth and some adjacent open clearings. Open parklands are an ideal habitat type offering the deer’s entire habitat requires. The pattern of habitat use can vary throughout the year depending on the season or the particular area in which the deer are located providing different foraging opportunities. Therefore fallow deer will sometimes be seen in marshland or on open meadows. An individual’s home range will depend on the quality of the local habitat and the sex of the animal with females roaming smaller areas of up to 90ha with males being more mobile covering a range up to 250ha in preferred habitat locations.
Food and Feeding Habits
Fallow deer are mainly grazers with a large part of their diet consisting of grasses and herbage. Seasonal variations to their diets show an increase in the consumption of acorns, beechnuts and berries in the autumn turning to tree bark, heather and holly in the winter months. They also eat planted cereal crops and can dig out root crops. Feeding times will vary depending on the location of the herd. Parkland groups who are more accustomed to human presence will be more active by day with more isolated populations feeding in the early morning and evening. Older males are more active by night when not part of the herd which accounts for a large part of the year. Most herds will lie up near a grazing site at the woodlands edge and also spend time ruminating in the open. Fallow deer are a highly social species that spend most of their time in large herds which show a high degree of sexual segregation depending on the time of year. Female herds are often led by a dominant doe and will contain offspring of both the current season and the previous year. Male only herds will gather before the rutting season begins. Herd sizes will vary depending on the habitat with small groups moving through covered woodland areas while large temporary groupings of up to eighty individuals will gather to graze on open grassland.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The rutting season begins in October and runs to November. Males at this time gather and become more vocal emitting a low moaning sound which varies to a cough like belche which sounds like a groan. They will compete for display areas by digging holes in the ground in which they urinate and spread scent markings on vegetation. Fights between males are more common than those between sika or red deer males with confrontations usually occurring between bucks of similar size and stature. Fights consist of head butting with combatants attempting to push their opponents backwards. Dominant males employ two main mating strategies at this time depending on the habitat type they are occupying. Some bucks will attempt to defend a specific area known as a rutting stand while other males will congregate in groups and attempt to gather females to them by emitting calling signals. The herding of females does not occur as it does with sika deer. Due to the dominance of older males most bucks will not successfully mate until they are five years old, females will generally breed from one and a half years onward. If mating is unsuccessful early in the rut females will mate again at three-week intervals for the remainder of the breeding season until successful. Once pregnant gestation lasts for seven and half months with newborns known as fawns arriving in June and weighing on average 3.5kg. Births usually consist of a single fawn but sometimes twins will be produced. Often the fawn will be left hidden within vegetation for up to three weeks before it is strong enough to join the herd. This is a survival strategy which evolved to counter large predators at this vital time of the year. Fawns are suckled for six to eight months with parental care given only by the female. The maximum lifespan of a fallow deer in the wild is 16 years.
The fallow deer species first originated in the Middle East in modern day Turkey and Iran. They have spread largely due to human relocation and releases and now occupy large areas of central Europe, Britain and Ireland and can be found in pockets in some southern European countries. They have been recently introduced to both north and south America and New Zealand. They are currently absent from most of Scandinavia and Iceland. There is evidence of their existence in pre-glacial Britain and Europe but they did not survive in these areas during the last Ice Age. They were re-introduced to Britain by the Romans and came to Ireland with the arrival of the Normans. Fallow deer are now Ireland’s most widespread deer species perhaps due to their use as a park deer by wealthy estate owners. Over time they escaped or were deliberately released and have spread to most woodland and lowland habitats in the country. They can now be found in all four Irish provinces. In recent decades they have been utilized for their meat in numerous deer farms further increasing their numbers here. Population densities in an area vary depending on the habitat type and time of the year with one per 7ha2 being the average in good quality habitats, this increases to one per 4ha2 in the winter months when larger herds may form.
Large local populations of fallow deer can cause damage to commercial forestry especially on younger plantations where they eat leader shoots and strip bark off tree trunks to gain access to the inner more nutritious material. Their preference for root and cereal crops can cause damage to cultivated areas as does their trampling of young delicate plants. The recent practice of importing the closely related Mesopotamian fallow deer species to deer farms to improve the genetic variation of the herds may have a negative effect on wild populations if escapes occur as cross breeding may result in smaller animals with less colour variation and less well developed antlers. The main number of premature fallow deer deaths in Ireland results from predation of fawns by feral dogs and foxes, also a number are killed from accidental traffic collisions. A small number of males can die from injuries sustained during the rutting season. Generally fallow deer in Ireland have a low natural mortality rate. Their use as a domestic species in deer farms and the increase of their preferred habitat type through recent reforestation should insure their continued spread and high population numbers here. The fallow deer species is protected under the Wildlife Act although they are listed as a quarry species and can be hunted under license at certain times of the year. This will continue to be the main method of population control in Ireland.