Watching deer exhibit natural behaviour in the wild is a wonderful and rewarding experience. For many however the only opportunity to see them is by visiting parks where deer are managed and can become used to the presence of humans. To get the best out of either situation it is best if the deer are unaware that you are there. A few simple rules of fieldcraft can help you:
- The best time of day is either early morning or late evening when deer are moving about in search of food and grazing.
- Move slowly and quietly and look ahead using binoculars to see into the undergrowth.
- Use the lie of the land and undergrowth to hide your approach.
- Try to walk upwind if you can - although park deer are used to human scent wild deer will be gone before you knew they were there.
- Look for the signs of deer such as hoof prints (slots), droppings (crotties or fewmets) and hair caught on barbed wire fences. With experience you will also be able to spot where the deer lie down at night (crouches) and where they have damaged trees by browsing, bark stripping and fraying.
- Carry a camera - there is always a chance of that once-in-a-lifetime photograph.
You are unlikely to see deer if you are walking a dog, but if you are, and you know deer are present, keep your dog on a lead. This is particularly important during May and June when dogs can kill and injure newborn deer discovered in the undergrowth.
The rut (breeding season) generally takes place between late September and early November for red, fallow and sika deer. Even park deer, which are very used to humans, are wild animals and during the rut the stags and bucks have sharp and dangerous antlers and are likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviour.
Walkers and deer watchers have been attacked by male deer on a number of occasions and a large number of people trying to observe the rut at close quarters can disrupt normal behaviour patterns, which is very detrimental to the deer. Try to resist getting too close or you will upset the deer and see nothing. Stay back and use binoculars or, even better, a telescope on a tripod.
Deer are iconic creatures - our largest land mammals. Do enjoy watching them but please remember to give them space to behave normally and naturally.
Deer Watch by Richard Prior (2007) Quiller Publishing
Field Guide to Deer in Britain compiled by Jeanette Lawton (2001) Deer Study & Resource Centre