Red Deer


Red deer are found in nearly every country in Europe.

The red deer is Britain’s largest native land mammal, and can reach 5 ft (1.5 m) at the shoulder.

Apart from man, brown bears, wolves and Eurasian lynx prey on red deer in Europe, though all of these natural predators are extinct in Britain. Wild boars sometimes prey on fawns.

The Irish pound coin featured a large red deer.

In the UK any male Red Deer under 4 years old is called a Brocket, 4-year-old males are called Staggards, 5 year olds – “Warrantable Stags” and after that they are called Hart Royals.


The Barbary stag or Barbary/North African red deer is the only extant native deer of Africa (Persian Fallow Deer were present in ancient times, but today are extinct outside of Iran). A critically endangered population survives in the Algeria/Tunisia frontier, kept in national parks. Due to the extinction of ancient major predators (Barbary lion, Atlas bear, and Barbary leopard) and the prohibition of hunting, the population has increased in recent decades. Wild boars, which still survive in this region, sometimes prey on fawns.

This animal is extinct in Morocco, but introduced red deer from Central Europe can be found in some nature preserves. There is still debate and confusion[citation needed] over whether the Barbary stag is a legitimate red deer subspecies native to the Atlas Mountains region, or is descendant of the introduced deer from Central Europe.


In Asia, red deer are found from Turkey and Iran through Central Asia, Siberia, Mongolia and northern China.

Apart from man, the same predators (brown bears, wolves, Eurasian lynx, wild boars) in Europe also inhabit Asia except that there are also Asiatic black bears, dholes, Siberian tigers, leopards (including Amur leopards), and snow leopards that prey on red deer and wapitis.


Red deer first appear in fossil records around 13 million years ago[citation needed] in Eurasia somewhere around lowlands and mountain ranges of Central Asia and Western China.

For centuries, the wild deer of Britain were reserved exclusively for royalty to hunt. William I of England introduced the death penalty for killing a deer, and a sentence of maiming for attempting to kill a deer. These harsh penalties were abolished during the reign of Henry III, although deer were still preserved by law for the sport of the monarch until the 19th century.

North America

In North America lives yet another a subspecies of red deer found in the United States called the wapiti, a Shawnee name meaning ‘white rump’. The original meaning of Elk by which they are more commonly referred to in the New World happens to mean Moose in British English; the European Elk is referred to in North America as the Moose Alces alces.

North American elk were once considered a species separate from the Eurasian red deer. Scientists now consider the North American elk and Eurasian red deer to be the same, though distinctions between the two live on in the language. The term wapiti applies to the North American elk and to the wapiti-like red deer subspecies in Eastern Asia where the males resemble the North American elk in their antler structure and mating calls. The American elk, along with Sichuan deer, Alashan wapiti, and Manchurian wapiti were once collectively classified as Cervus canadensis, and the remaining subspecies being classified as Cervus elaphus.

Bactrian deer, although much smaller in size than the American elk and more red deer like, are sometimes called wapiti due to the coloration of the male deer’s coat and rump-patch, which may resemble that of a male elk. European red deer will interbreed with American elk, when penned together, and the offspring are fertile. Remnants of the elk population that moved easterly into North American from the Bering Land Bridge also moved westerly back into Asia, and there are existing populations in mountainous Central Asia that resemble, if not identical to, the North American elk. These Siberian elk, along with the American elk, are the only red deer subspecies where female deer and calves also carry neck manes. Also, unlike most red deer subspecies, female deer grow close to the male deer in size.

Elk weigh 500 to 1,000 lb (230 to 450 kg.) and stand 2.5-5 ft (0.75-1.5 m.) high at the shoulder. Their antlers usually measure 39 to 59 inches (1 to 1.5 m)across, tip to tip. Male’s weigh more than females, but the difference is less compared with other red deer subspecies where the males may weigh twice as much as females.

North American elk are the largest of the Red Deer. The American elk terminology is different from the European, as the males are called bulls; the females are called cows, rather than stags and hinds, respectively. The terminology of stag for males, hind for females, generally applies to all red deer subspecies of Europe, Asia (including the elk/wapiti populations that live in Central Asia) and North Africa. These terms could be applied to elk/wapiti populations in North America, but this is rarely the case. Likewise, the terms bulls and cows can be applied to the elk/wapiti populations that live in Central Asia. Elk/wapiti offspring are called calves and red deer offspring can be called either fawns or calves.

The vocal apparatus and mating call of the elk is also different from that of the red deer, in that the elk “bugle” as opposed to “roaring”. This is an adaptation to the more open (less thickly wooded) environment of the elk, allowing high-pitched sounds to travel further. Asian red deer and Asian wapiti-like red deer have mating calls that may resemble European red deer, American elk, or both. Vocal apparatus and mating calls are unique to each red deer subspecies. The Central Asian highland red deer subspecies, such as the Kashmir stag, due to their mountainous habitat, may have mating calls that resemble both European red deer and American elk. The Manchurian wapiti is similar in ecology to European red deer in occupying dense forests. Its mating call is a “bugle” like the American elk, but distinctive in sound from the American elk due to their forested habitat. (Great book sources for wapiti and red deer are Elk Country and Deer of the World, both books written by Dr. Valerius Geist).

The current elk population of the United States is estimated to be about one-tenth of the historic level. The population along with most other North American game animals reached a low point around 1900. However populations have rebounded with controls on hunting. There were estimated to be 782,500 elk in North America in 1989. About 72,000 then lived in Canada. Some 20,000 are in ranches where they are raised for meat, antlers, or for hunting.

One of the most important uses of farmed or ranched elk is production of Velvet antler. Most elk live in the west, especially the Rocky Mountain region. As of 2005 approximately 7,500 elk live in the wild in the United States east of the Mississippi River and that population is spread over seven states. The population is similarly small in eastern Canada. However, both areas have in very recent years experienced a good population growth and even dispersal into wide areas that the elk were not originally transplanted to. It should be noted that of the aforementioned eastern U.S. population, 5,500 are found in the state of Kentucky, which has a tremendously successful restoration program and whose herd has been growing at the yearly rate of 15%.

Cultural aspects

The elk is an important totem animal to many American Indian tribes. Among the Oto people Elk is described as cross-dressing in several origin legends and is considered to be the original two-spirit; consequently, two-spirits in this culture always belong to the Elk clan. Black Elk is the name of a famous Lakota shaman.


Audubon’s Eastern Elk

Elk do not appear in the North American fossil records until about 120,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering land bridge. The elk originally inhabited the Bering land bridge, which was a large steppe that linked Eurasia to North America. Once elk reached the North American continent they moved south and east. Around 70,000 years ago they were isolated into four different populations. One of these was found in the Alaska / Yukon region, one in the Washington / Oregon coastal region, another in western California, and the largest population east of the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, extending to the Appalachian Mountains and into southern Canada and northern Mexico. The elk that crossed the Bering land bridge back into Asia moved south and west towards the mountain ranges of Central Asia west of Lake Baikal.

With the arrival of the Europeans to North America and the migration of man toward the west came the need for food and the hunting of what seemed like unlimited game, mainly buffalo and wapiti. Hunting for meat progressed into sport hunting and the wanton slaughter and extinction of the Eastern elk, and the near extinction of the Rocky Mountain elk. Merriam’s elk eventually succumbed to extinction after hunting brought the numbers below viable breeding populations. In the early 1900s concerned sportsmen foresaw the eventual demise of many game animals and sought, and implemented, hunting seasons and limits, which saved many species which would have otherwise perished.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made a gift of elk to New Zealand, where they were released into the southwestern part of the South Island.

North American subspecies

Of the six North American subspecies of elk, two are extinct: the Eastern elk (through hunting, habitat loss and human settlement), and the southwestern or Merriam’s elk (through hunting and increased desertification). A population of Merriam’s elk existed in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas (present herds of elk in the mountains of Texas were released in 1928 from North Dakota). Of the Eastern elk, the last individual in eastern Tennessee was shot in 1865. The last free elk in Iowa were recorded in 1871.

Roosevelt Elk on Redwood Creek gravel bar

The Washington / Oregon population later evolved into two different subspecies, the Olympic elk of southwestern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and northwestern California; and the Tule elk of central California. As the Wisconsin Glacial age ended around 10,000 years ago, a population of elk was isolated from the large eastern population and became the now extinct Merriam’s Elk of Mexico and the southwestern United States. As the Great Plains evolved the remainder of the eastern populations became separated again. One of these populations may have evolved with the Great Plains to become the Manitoba Elk. At the same time the eastern population was separating into two more groups, those of the eastern deciduous forests became the now extinct Eastern Elk; those of the western mixed coniferous forests became the Rocky Mountain Elk. These six subspecies inhabited most of North America when the Europeans first arrived. One of the oddities this species has is that two molars are located just below the eye socket. The purpose for these molars is currently unknown and apparently unused.

According to the Cervid researcher Dr. Valerius Geist, the difference in these subspecies is a result of their environment [citation needed], the genetic difference being minute. Because of this, he says they will all look alike after a few generations if they are kept in captivity under similar conditions. He maintains that while crossbreeding does produce hybrid vigor, in which the offspring are larger than either parent, hybrid vigor lasts for only a few generations. Therefore, all the American and Asian subspecies (Altai and Tianshan wapiti) are collectively Cervus elaphus canadensis.

However, some biologists [citation needed] strongly disagree with Dr Geist for the following reasons:

  • North American elk are dramatically larger than most types of Eurasian red deer.
  • Typical antler configuration is different, and elk antlers tend to be larger than red deer antlers (except for the Russian “maral”).
  • Vocalization is different.
  • Coat coloration is different.
  • Elk kept in pens for several generations do not turn into red deer, and red deer kept in pens in similar environments do not turn into elk, because their differences are clearly genetic, not simply environmental.

The scientific definition of a species is fairly loose, and is often dependent on consensus and tradition, but one definition of species is “a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which is reproductively isolated from other such groups”. Therefore, it may be justifiable to consider the North American elk as an entirely separate species from European red deer, since the elk are reproductively isolated as well as being genetically distinct from red deer. Certainly, there is at least sufficient genetic difference to justify the elk as a separate subspecies. Nevertheless, in defense of Dr. Geist’s position, elk and red deer will interbreed and produce fertile offspring, with characteristics between those of the parents.

A similar argument may be made for the various red deer subspecies in Central and Western Europe, and North Africa to be collectively Cervus elaphus elaphus. The distinction between red deer subspecies in Europe is unclear due to hybridization with East European red deer, Asian red deer’s, Wapitis, and with the closely related sika deer. Part of this is also due mixing of indigenous red deer populations with man-made introductions of red deer from other locations in Europe. The Scottish red deer and Norwegian red deer might be distinct subspecies. As mentioned earlier, the sub specific status of the Barbary stag is questionable.


One of the largest North American and Asian game animals, they live in open forest and near forest edges in similar environment as deer. In mountain regions, they are known for living in rugged high elevations during the summer, and in winter they gather in lower areas with more shelter.

Formerly widespread throughout southern Siberia, Central Asia, and North America, in taiga, temperate forests and grassland, elk are found throughout North America, especially in Rocky Mountain region. Western elk have been brought to several states east of the Mississippi River including the Appalachian area where the now extinct subspecies Eastern elk Cervus elaphus canadensis once lived, most commonly Rocky Mountain or Manitoban elk because of their similar habits and size. In recent years the elk have dispersed steadily from Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee into neighboring areas like Virginia and West Virginia and these herds appear to be growing slowly but steadily in population. The elk of southern Siberia and Central Asia are restricted to the higher elevations of the mountain ranges west of Lake Baikal such as the Sayan Mountains and Altai Mountains of Mongolia and the Tianshan Mountain region that border Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China’s Xinjiang Province.

Rocky Mountain elk

Contrary to popular belief, the Rocky Mountain elk was not an animal of the plains that retreated to the mountains because of the encroachment of man. Elk always lived in the Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain elk currently inhabit the Rocky Mountains from central British Columbia and Alberta through Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northeastern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, the western portions of North and South Dakota. There are scattered populations of transplanted animals in many other states; western Nebraska, northeast Minnesota and northern Michigan among them. The current North American elk population is about 800,000. The largest herd of elk lives in Yellowstone National Park. It consists of about 30,000 elk the gather together from about 7 herds to spend the summer.

Rocky Mountain elk bulls weigh 300-370 kg (700-800 lb) and cows 200-250 kg (450-550 lb). Bulls may stand five feet at the shoulder, with legs three feet long and body lengths of eight feet. Their coloration is generally tan with dark brown legs, neck, head and belly, with a buff colored rump. Bulls may be lighter colored than cows, appearing silver at times. White and silver colored animals do not appear in the wild. Antlers of mature bulls usually have six or more points per side with main beam lengths of 1.5 m (5 ft), inside spreads may reach 48 inches.

Life cycle

The Breeding season for an elk starts in August and goes through October. This time of year for the elk is known as the rut. At the start of the rut a mature bull elk will gather a harem of cows to breed with. He and other bulls will also fight for the leadership of the harem and also over cows so that they can make their harem bigger. An experienced bull may gather a harem of up to 60 cows. And sometimes a bull will let a younger bull join his herd as they move down into the valleys and lower lands for winter.

Young bulls usually will not get a cow to accept them until they are two or three years old so they will hang out with the herd or a larger more mature bull.

The gestation period for a cow is around 8 ½ months. The cows usually give birth to one or more calves in May or June. The newborn calves usually weigh about 30 pounds.

The time of the rut is also when the bull will lose the velvet on his antlers. This will fall off eventually or is helped when the bull attacks a tree when he wants to fight.

The bull usually loses his antlers in the spring. And then starts to regrow them during the summer. Elk live up to 18 years old but the average is between 7 and 10.

Elk habitat and food

In the summer the elk usually graze and live in the high mountains in the forest and deep brush. They will also occasionally wander into some of the high meadows to feed; while keeping close to the cover of the trees for protection.

In the summer they usually graze on grass and small tree sapling and green twigs. When the grass dries they chew on bigger saplings, eat mushrooms, and also eat on berries. Elk generally feed an hour before to an hour after sunset and the same at sunrise. The rest of the day they mainly stay bedded down in heavy cover and sometimes they will move around. And graze a little bit in the middle of day if they feel safe.

In the fall and winter they migrate to the lower valleys and wooded slopes. And they eat dried grass and shrubs. They also eat berries and the bark off of small trees.

In the spring elk begin to migrate back up to the higher lands where the bulls lose their antlers and rest up from the rut. At these times you won’t see a single bull for quite a few months since they are so tired. During this time they eat the fresh grass and chew on young trees and get very fat and the end of the summer is when elk weigh the most.

Rutting behavior

Adult red deer usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year (males form ‘bachelor herds’, females groups are often matrilineal), coming together to mate during October. During the mating ritual, called the rut, mature stags compete for the attentions of the hinds and will then try to defend hinds that they attract. Rival stags challenge opponents by bellowing and walking in parallel. This allows combatants to assess each other’s antler and body size and fighting prowess. If neither stag backs down a clash of antlers can occur, and stags sometimes sustain serious injuries. Either stag might invite contact during the parallel walking by turning to face his opponent or lowering his antlers but only well-matched stags will fight. Opponents push vigorously, trying to gain advantage of a slope, if present. Fights continue until one stag withdraws and runs off; if one slips, the other will attempt a killing or debilitating attack.

Dominant stags follow groups of hinds during the rut, from August into early winter. The stags may have as many as 50 hinds to keep from other less attractive males. Males spend the summer in bachelor herds, but in late August the mature stags over 5 years old become increasingly intolerant of each other and from mid-September the stag groups fragment; stags move off individually to their traditional rutting grounds. Only mature stags hold harems (groups of hinds) and breeding success peaks at about 8 years of age. Stags 2-4 years old rarely hold harems and spend most of the rut on the periphery of larger harems, as do stags over 11 years old. Young and old stags that do acquire a harem hold it later in the breeding season than those stags in their prime. Harem holding stags rarely feed and lose up to 20% of their body weight. Stags that enter the rut in poor condition are less likely to make it through to the peak conception period.

After the rut the stags (bulls) and hinds (cows) separate. The fawns (calves) are born the following June and are usually weaned by eight months, although they may stay with their mother after this time. Their mothers leave the newborn fawns for long periods in long vegetation; their mothers return at intervals to feed them.