The Cervidae Family includes the ungulates ruminants, like the red deer and the reindeer; the main characteristic, is the existence of antlers instead of horns. The antlers are ossified structures which grow every year, generally in males. Deer’s are herbivorous with a specific diet, their stomach isn’t specialized, and they can’t digest fibrous plants, like grass, feeding mainly of sprouts, leaves, fruits and lichens. Deer’s are not domesticated animals and through Human history they played an important role as a hunted animal and food source.
In Portugal it is possible to find 3 different species of deer: the red deer, the roe deer and the fallow deer.
Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
Distribution: Palearctic region of the Eurasian continent, except the Mediterranean Islands: Europe, Asia Minor and around the Caspian Sea
Habitat: wide variety of habitats, leafy woodlands, conifer woodlands, Mediterranean woodlands and farmlands.
Life span: 8 years (but can reach 14)
The Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) is the smallest deer in Europe and the most common one. The weight can be between 18 to 60 kg and the length between 95 and 145 cm (the populations of Iberian Peninsula are generally smaller and slimmer). The hind limbs are taller than the fore limbs, being adapted to jump; the muzzle far end is dark, the lips and chin white, the ears are big, the rump patch is white, the tail is short and primitive. The sexual dimorphism is not well marked, the main differences are the shape of the rump patch, like a kidney in males and like a heart in females, and the presence of antlers in males. The antlers are short and pointed, normally with 2 or three points; fall in Autumn but start re growing immediately and are completely grown in Spring. The hair colouration is different depending on the season, brown-reddish and short in the summer and long brown-grey in winter. The juveniles have white spots in the back that vanish with time.
The breeding season happens earlier than in other deer species, in July/August, this is due to an evolutive adaptation of the females, the embryonic diapause or suspended gestation that causes a delayed implantation; the embryo stays “a sleep” for around 5 months and starts developing in January, the females give birth in the end of May/June, after a 10-month gestation period, when the food availability is high. Males are highly territorial, defending their territory from other males, especially during breeding season. Females form small familiar groups with their young’s and sometimes a male, normally female territories are smaller than the male’s ones; the male’s territory can have more than a group of females.
The Roe Deer is a generalist herbivorous and can feed of different kinds and all parts of plants (from the route to the flowers); it is adapt to consume low fibre and rich carbo hydrate vegetal matter, which makes digestion easy and also plants with high levels of tannins, which make it possible to survive in native woodlands. The water requirements are also low and finds its water needs from the plants that eats.
Usually it is active at sun rise and at dawn; it is shy and disappears fast between the trees, the reason why it is named the “elf of the forest”. This species is also famous worldwide from the children’s cartoon “Bambi”.
In Portugal, the Roe Deer was extinct in the beginning of the XX century, only appearing in the North coming from Spanish populations. Nowadays the Iberian population is increasing and expanding, mainly due to farmland abandonment and rural exodus.