By the late Geoff Moore. Internationally recognised as Australia’s greatest authority on wild deer.
Six species of deer are known to exist in the wild in Australia, having been introduced by Acclimatisation Societies, Hunt Clubs, and private individuals, mainly during the mid 1800s.
Deer recognition is quite a diverse subject, with different aspects to it requiring stringent identification. For instance, a palaeontologist studying bones or teeth excavated from an archaeological site in Asia must have a precise knowledge of the anatomy of the species and sub-species likely to be encountered. To a game manager the ability to recognise individual animals, as well as sex and age groups within each species is important in order to successfully carry out his duties. While it is advantageous to develop these skills, the hunter however, is in most cases required only to identify the species—this is usually easy in Australia because it has been relatively rare for more than one species of wild deer to occupy the same range. This of course has changed in recent years due to illicit releases that have taken place with deer from failed deer farming operations and escapes resulting from inadequate security.
In instances where management introduces separate male and female deer hunting seasons, it is necessary to determine the sex of target animals, however unless very young animals are to be taken, the presence, or absence, of antlers normally provides a ready means by which this can be achieved.
THE DEER AS A SPECIES
In the various websites, social media, hunting magazines, TV shows and books on deer and deer hunting, the reader will see many illustrations of deer, in all sorts of attitudes. None of these animals could be mistaken for anything but a deer and a little study will soon make one proficient in recognising the physical characteristics of the species it is intended to hunt. The purpose of these illustrations however, is to capture the interest of the reader and to show just what the animal looks like when all, or at least most of it, can be seen.
WHAT WE MIGHT SEE IN THE FOREST
The inexperienced hunter should be under no illusions that the first deer he or she sees will look just like one in the photos, particularly when hunting in forested habitat. What is much more likely is that it will be an unusual line such as the back of an animal seen through the shrubbery, perhaps it may be the shape of an ear, the hock of a hind leg, or perhaps a patch of colour. At first these may not be recognised for what they are—this will only come with experience and practice. Deliberately setting out to look for these things is unlikely to work, as the hunter will soon tire of doing so, and when tired, it is very easy to allow vision to tunnel. Tunnel vision is the hunter’s enemy, and the use of peripheral vision should be practiced—movement at the edge of one’s vision often reveals something that would otherwise not have been seen.
What the hunter must cultivate is an awareness of the surroundings and what is happening in them, so that when the eyes pass over that ‘something unusual’ it is noticed and recognised for what it might be. Then comes the task of making sure! Of positively identifying the target!
DEER SPECIES AND THEIR ENVIRONMENT
The environment has a strong influence on the evolutionary path that each species has taken, and consequently, upon the physical characteristics and behaviour patterns they have adopted.
Hog Deer. The hog deer (Axis porcinus) found an ecological niche in the tall, moist grasslands typical of northern India. In this grass jungle, its body shape evolved as one adapted to pushing through the dense grass. Behaviourally it adopted the predator avoidance strategy of a ‘hider’ in preference to one of agility and fleetness of foot, which its body configuration did not suit. An animal that lives in habitat that restricts vision much of the time to only a few metres, does not require acute long vision, and consequently, this is the hog deer’s weakest sense. Nevertheless, it is quite capable of detecting movement, even if it is not always certain what caused it.
Fallow Deer. By comparison, the fallow deer (Dama dama), as its name implies, is a creature that lives on the fringes of farmland and forest. In this chosen habitat, potential danger can be identified at a considerable distance and it is not surprising that the fallow deer’s vision is acute. Consideration of factors such as these is quite fascinating and strengthens one’s understanding of the animals, their strengths and their weaknesses. Importantly, it leads to enhanced enjoyment in the field and develops the hunter’s ability.
Red Deer. The red deer (Cervus elaphus), and the fallow deer are of European origin and, being strictly seasonal in their behaviour, adjusted to the six-month difference in seasons between the northern and southern hemispheres after their arrival in Australia. This allowed mating activity to continue to take place during autumn and offspring to be born during the first month of summer. The harsh winter conditions, in which the breeding characteristics of these species evolved, require the young to be well grown before winter’s onset to maximise survival.
Sambar, Rusa and Chital. The sambar (Rusa unicolor or Cervus unicolor), its close relatives the Timor rusa (Rusa timorensis timorensis), the Javan rusa (Rusa timorensis russa) the Moluccan rusa (Rusa timorensis moluccensis), the chital (Axis axis) and the hog deer, are all Asiatic in origin. Coming from a tropical/sub-tropical environment, these species did not experience the same ecological pressure on the timing of their breeding seasons. Consequently, they are much more irregular in this aspect of their behaviour.
To recognise deer, one must first find where they live. Understanding the characteristics and behaviour of the target species helps avoid fruitlessly searching in the wrong places at the wrong times. To develop this understanding, the hunter must consider what the deer needs to survive and thrive.
Male and female deer have different living requirements and knowing this, helps to identify where to look. The female’s requirements are more specific than those of the male as, apart from security, she must have a reliable water supply, suitable nutrition, shelter and security to successfully bear and rear her offspring. If from a knowledge of the female’s habitat requirements we can identify her home range, we can expect that the home range of a male will also be somewhere in the vicinity.
HOME RANGE AND TERRITORY
The terms ‘home range’ and ‘territory’ are not generally understood amongst hunters who tend to generalise in use of the word ‘territory’. Not only is there a lack of understanding amongst hunters, there is a wide variation in what constitutes ‘territory’ within the scientific community. We need not concern ourselves too much with the scientific opinion, however it is important for the hunter to understand the difference in the concepts of home range and territory. This is not the place to argue either; however it is important to understand the two concepts at the most basic level.
Territory. Within the scientific community, there seem to be almost as many definitions as to what territory is as there are scientists. Here I am going to take the most simplistic view—that an animal is ‘territorial’ when it defines an area and defends it against others of its kind and sex. The animal might be ‘territorial’ for all, or only that part of the year during which breeding activities take place. Consider—can the one stag establish several territories over the widespread area in which it lives? Possibly, but are these, perhaps marked by wallows, rubbing and/or preaching trees and scrapes still his territory when he is elsewhere? How large a ‘territory’ can one stag defend? Do all other stags avoid these areas even when the dominant one is not there?
Do we really think that one sambar stag can keep all other mature males out of the several hundred hectares of land he habitually uses and that another mature male only moves in after the demise of the dominant male? More likely that the other stags are already there, but a subordinate ‘steps up’ to take the place of the vanquished one.
Home Range. The concept of home range is rarely considered nor understood by hunters, yet it is an important component of an animal’s living system and its ability to survive. The home range is not limited by the necessity of defending it from others of its kind or sex. By moving about in its selected range, a deer learns the important features of the area—the best places to find food and water, the best shelter, the best resting places, the best places to bear and rear a calf, the best escape cover and the places best suited to the varying
seasons of the year. As a young hunter, I believed that once I had disturbed a deer, it would immediately ‘leave the district’ and there was no point in following it up, so I would then look for another deer. It did not occur to me that the animal might restrict itself in its range, and that its best chance for survival was to remain in the area it knew best—its home range.
Mature stags occupy larger home ranges than do mature hinds. The extent and quality of a habitat, and the density of animal populations within it, influences the size of home ranges. Home ranges are not exclusive, but are shared with other members of the species. The home range of one animal will probably vary from that of another deer, but considerable overlap will occur. Conflicts between deer that arise in this land-use system only occur to settle hierarchical ranking and are often mistaken for territorial activity. Much work remains to be done in determining the size of home ranges for the various species of deer, but the following examples provide some basis for consideration:
Readers should not automatically take these ranges as being applicable to Australian conditions; they are included as a guide and to provide an insight into how different species, in differing habitats, utilise home ranges.
The results provided for sambar (Shea et. al. 1990) were calculated from transmitter-located deer over a period of twelve months and represent the largest calculated home range for one stag and one hind. The manner in which the red deer range size was calculated was not specified, but probably comes from observations of marked animals, as the red deer on Rhum have been subject of extensive study. It was suggested that home ranges for red deer hinds in north-east Scotland could be as much as 16 times greater than on Rhum (Mitchell et. al. 1977). This probably reflects significant differences in habitat quality and would substantially exceed ranges in a forested environment. The data on hog deer range was calculated from transmitter-located animals during doctoral studies by S. K. Dhungel, and included only animals from which more than 100 locations were recorded.
Deer are like us in that they feel comfortable and secure in their home range—outside it they are vulnerable. A deer that survives to old age will probably have two or three home ranges during its lifetime. As a calf and juvenile, it will live in the maternal home range until of a suitable age to disperse and seek a range of its own. Throughout its mature life, it will occupy an area that is suitable to its needs of either producing and rearing offspring, or making the most of breeding opportunities. Dispersal usually occurs in animals of about 18 months of age. In old age, males might leave productive range and seek out a secure area in which competition from younger and more virile males is limited or not present. Max Downes in The Ecology and Management of Sambar in Victoria explores the theme of home range and dispersal in more detail.
DEER SPECIES IN AUSTRALIA
The deer species that are established in Australia differ in their social organisation, and it is important to be aware of these characteristics when hunting. The term ‘Group’ is used in a fluid sense, as it is not permanent and animals and small family groups will join and leave from time to time. Seasons of the year also have an effect on grouping.
Group behaviour provides a survival advantage in that there are many ears, eyes and noses active in detecting danger. Alarm is communicated to other members of the group by foot stamping, barking, tail raising and other body language, allowing all members to pinpoint the source of alarm. Additionally, an individual animal’s chance of surviving an attack by a predator is much greater in a group than when alone. Group behaviour tends to occur in species occupying open to semi-open habitat—it is hardly practical in dense forest. For this reason, and red deer provide a good example, in open ground herding is seen, but when living in forested range, behaviour tends to be solitary or only small family groups. Deer occupying an open environment have excellent vision, and will quickly detect moving objects.
In animals adopting solitary or small family group behaviour, a ‘hider’ strategy is more likely. The deer depends upon its own senses to detect danger and to slip away into secure escape cover. Flight will be employed where necessary, but the primary instinct is to hide. Deer such as the hog deer, living much of the time in cover as it does, do not have such acute vision as deer of the open range
All deer have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Detection of the human scent will trigger a deer’s predator avoidance strategy, whether it is to flee or to hide, so direction of the breeze is a primary consideration when looking for deer. Sound will not necessarily disturb a deer, but it will heighten its level of alertness—alien sounds, such as metal against metal or the sounds of someone or something trying to creep through the bush are highly alarming.
It is not all bad news for the deer watcher of course. Knowing the way in which a deer species behaves assists in planning a hunt. The hunter’s advantage is the ability to plan, and to read and interpret the meaning of contours on a map, for this tells where the likely places are. Although to the inexperienced hunter they may sometimes seem so, deer are not phantoms; they leave signs of their presence that a hunter can interpret. Tracks are an obvious indication. Browse on trees and shrubs is a good indicator, but will not necessarily have been made by deer. Deer droppings, rubbing trees, wallows, deer beds (check for deer hair, tracks, droppings), and signs left by rutting males (thrashed shrubs, evidence of fighting, stamping and the smell left by species such as red, sambar and fallow deer) are all positive evidence.
LITERATURE CITED AND FURTHER READING
The information presented here on the species of deer established in the wild in Australia provides only an introductory outline. If you propose to make wild deer an important leisure time interest, further reading is essential for better understanding and greater enjoyment of an exciting and complex subject.
Many books on deer and deer hunting are becoming difficult to buy. Although some of the listed titles are out of print and difficult to find either in bookshops or libraries, it is worth the time and effort trying to find them. Don’t overlook the importance of reading all you can about your chosen subject
Bentley, A., (1998). An Introduction to the Deer of Australia, Australian Deer Research Foundation Ltd.,Warragul.
Cervi, Lu., (1997) Sambar Hunter, Australian Deer Research Foundation Ltd., Croydon.
Chaplin, R. E., (1977) Deer, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset.
Chapman, D. & N., (1997) Fallow Deer, Coch-y-bonddu Books, UK.
Clutton-Brock, T. H., F. E. Guinness & S. D. Albon; (1982) Red Deer, Behaviour and Ecology of Two Sexes, University of Chicago Press, Edinburgh.
Dhungel, Sanat K. and Bart W. O’Gara. 1991. Ecology of the Hog Deer in Royal
Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Wildlife Monographs, The Wildlife SocietyGeist, Valerius, (1999) Deer of the World, Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, UK.
Harrison,M, (2010) Sambar, the Magnificent Deer, Australian Deer Research Foundation Ltd, Warragul
Mayze, R. & G. Moore, (1990). The Hog Deer, Australian Deer Research Foundation Ltd,Warragul .
Mitchell, Brian, Brian W. Staines and David Welch. (1977). Ecology of Red Deer Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Cambridge.
Pearce, K., (1987, 1991) Walking Them Up, Australian Deer Research Foundation Ltd,Warragul.
Shea, Stephen M., Les. B. Flynn, R. Larry Marchinton and James C. Lewis. (1990). Social Behaviour, Movement Ecology and Food Habits in Ecology of Sambar Deer In St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, Florida.
Schaller, George B., (1967) The Deer and the Tiger, University of Chicago Press,, Chicago.
Whitehead, G.K., (1972) Deer of the World, Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, UK.
Whitehead, G.K., 1992 The Encyclopaedia of Deer, Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury, UK.