Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus): Handsome yet very shy.
BEYOND THE SHAFTS OF SHIMMERING SUNLIGHT that filter their way through the naked branches, a native is watching you. Long before a snapping twig or the crunch of leaves underfoot betrayed your presence, the roe deer will have scented you and will be on full alert, watching your every move through large black eyes. If you stand still and assiduously survey your surroundings, you may catch a glimpse of those eyes staring back at you, resting above a round, black nose and characteristic white chin; if you are hasty, your lasting memory will be nothing more than a large, powder puff white rump bounding off into the woodland's under-story, often accompanied by a gruff, rasping bark.

It is incredible how easy it is to lose sight of an animal the size of a small goat -- Capreolus is the Latin for small goat -- even amongst a broad leaved woodland in good daylight, yet the roe deer's ability to blend into its surroundings with slow, stealthy movements and a coat that perfectly matches the seasons makes it almost invisible at times. Even when not immediately obvious to the naked eye, their presence in a wooded area is often given away by a number of clues, the easiest to detect being footprints, known as slots, that show two parallel marks, curved inwards and pointed at one end, each covering an area of three centimetres wide by four-and-a-half centimetres long. If you find a track, look for groupings of small, shiny black droppings along its course, or even a shallow depression in the ground, lined with the course, silver-brown fur known as guard hair, where the animal has laid down to rest.

Living mostly solitary lives, roe deer do not actively seek each others company until late summer, normally from mid-July and into early August when the buck and doe will come together to mate. This is know as rutting and it is at this time of year that the buck looks at his most handsome, with prominent, knobbly antlers jutting from the top of his head and sporting a magnificent chestnut hued coat. For the next few weeks, the buck will pursue the doe wherever she takes him, the pair often looking skittish and playful when he is led a merry dance and made to work hard for her affections. It is during this courtship that 'roe rings' are formed; peculiar circular tracks left around the bases of trees or bushes after the pair have chased around it repeatedly, apparently for no particular reason.


The shyness and acute senses of these mammals makes them difficult to observe in the field, although a careful study of a suitable, well-wooded area should reveal their presence. Dawn and dusk are by far the best times to catch a glimpse of them, particularly during their rutting period of July and August, although the winter months offer another good opportunity when small wandering groups of roe deer often form.

Interesting fact...
Identification between sexes is quite straight forward during the spring and summertime, the buck's antlers providing all the evidence you need. However, in the wintertime, look at the animals rumps; the buck has an oval, slightly kidney shaped patch of white fur covering his behind, the doe's by contrast is shaped like the ace of spades, with a thin tuft of downward pointing hair known as her 'tush'. 
The buck's territory may cover anything from five hectares to thirty and overlap with that of several does, making this an extremely exhaustive time for him. Fawns will arrive in late May or early June after a delayed implantation; twins are normally born although triplets are not infrequent. They are fragile at first, but soon gain enough strength to follow their mother on her nocturnal foraging trips.    

The diet of the roe deer is catholic to say the least, although their favourite form of nutrition would seem to be young bramble shoots. If these are not on offer, tender oak and ash leaves are high up on the menu, as are sweet grasses and wild roses during the summer months. As fresh vegetation begins to dwindle, acorns, mushrooms and fruits from the hedgerows become staple fodder; in lean times even ferns, ivy and heather are consumed.

Roe deer doe and buck in woodland.
A roe deer doe in woodland surroundings.
A roe deer doe pricks-up her ears to listen for the slightest signal of danger in her woodland home. Normally active at dawn and dusk and for short periods throughout the night, they will happily feed during the daytime if they feel it is safe to do so.

... the pair often looking skittish and playful when she decides to make him work for her affections.
During the late summer, roe deer come together to mate (rutting) and can often be seen during the early mornings and late evenings. The doe rarely has a moment's peace as her amorous buck follows her day and night.

Roe deer doe and fawn.
At the end of a nighttimes' browsing, a roe deer doe guides her fawn towards the safety of nearby woodland before the day begins in earnest. The warm morning light makes their chestnut summer pelage glow in tones of copper and bronze.


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Text and photography © James Williamson |
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