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British Mammals: Artiodactyls

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British Mammals
Artiodactyls | Carnivora | Cetacea | Chiroptera | Insectivora | Lagomorpha | Pinnipeda | Rodentia | Mammal Surveying

The order Artiodactyla are often described as the 'even-toed ungulates', but what does this actually mean? Well, an ungulate is simply a mammal with hoofs, but 'even-toed'? Mammals all evolved from a five-toed animal, so how can they have an even number of toes? The first digit, often referred to as the thumb, is missing in all British artiodactyls, and the second and fifth have become so small as to be almost insignificant. The third and fourth digits support the weight of the creature, and so the artiodactyls are the 'cloven-hoofed' mammals.

Most of Britain's domesticated livestock - cows, sheep, pigs and goats - are artiodactyls, though they are no more considered 'native' than spaghetti bolognese. Like Italian food, they have simply been brought here for our pleasure. Of the seven deer species in the UK, only the red and roe are truly native and wild; reindeer are farmed on one farm in the Cairngorms but extinct in the wild, and the rest are escapees that have formed truly wild populations1.

Deer are protected in the UK under the Deer Act 1991, which sets a 'closed season' for red, roe, sika and fallow deer during which they cannot be hunted, and bans shooting them at night without a permit. They can cause damage to crops and woodland, however, and the Act provides for exceptional circumstances.

Wild boar Sus scrofa, members of the Suidae family, are re-establishing themselves in the UK after a 300 year absence. Having been eradicated in the 11th Century, various attempts to reintroduce them failed in medieval times. Recent escapees from farms, however, have developed into a few wild populations around the country. Notable herds live in the wild in parts of the south-west of England, the Kent and Sussex borders and in the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Some sightings from other places may be down to mistaken identity; there is a tendency to record any wild pig as a wild boar! Their future seems uncertain as yet; although conservation groups have given them a cautious welcome, DEFRA have trialled drugging the boars with contraceptives to control population. It is too soon to call the wild boar a truly wild part of Britain's fauna; you can track news at the excellent British Wild Boar website.

Red deer Cervus elaphus

Red deer are a truly native species and also Britain's largest land mammal, standing up to 4.5 feet or 1.4m tall at the shoulder. Known as elk in some other parts of the world, these magnificent creatures were almost hunted to extinction, but there are now established populations in Scotland, where they can be locally common, and less extensively in England.

The sight of a male red deer is truly inspiring. Their antlers can stretch up to a total of two metres in width, and in the autumn their loud, lingering calls can be heard from a great distance away. At this time of year, known as 'rutting' season, males will battle for rights over herds of females, locking antlers and pushing like nature's Sumo wrestlers. These contests frequently end in serious injury and occasionally death. The winner of the bout will have mating rights to the herd until the next challenge from another male.

Despite causing considerable damage to trees, red deer are included as Species of Conservation Concern under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The biggest threat to their survival is hybridisation with introduced sika deer, as the two will readily interbreed.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus

Britain's other surviving truly native species is also its smallest deer, rarely reaching more than 2½ feet or 75cm in height at the shoulder. None are kept on deer parks, meaning that you have to find this small and elusive deer in the wild if you want to see it. Unlike most other deer species, they do not gather into herds but generally find a mate for life, meaning that occasionally they can be found in quiet parts of towns and cities where there would not be enough food to feed a larger group.

Fortunately for the wildlife watcher, roe deer are very common. The only parts of Britain in which they are not found are Kent, the Midlands and west Wales, although their range appears to be expanding into these areas. They were not always this common; they were almost hunted to extinction in the 18th Century before their numbers were boosted by imports from Europe.

In the book Bambi, A Life In The Woods by Felix Salten, Bambi was a roe deer - Disney, when making the film, changed him to an American white-tailed deer.

Sika deer Cervus nippon

The first of our naturalised escapees, sika deer first appeared in Regent's Park, London in 1860, where they were put on public display. The imports from Japan soon became fashionable, and escapes became fairly common from the turn of the century onwards. Fortunately, they have rarely become truly established, and the only truly wild herd live in parts of Dorset, the New Forest and Northern Ireland. They are distant relatives of red deer, and will happily interbreed with them. This makes them of conservation concern, as the hybrid is infertile.

Fallow deer Dama dama

Now the most widespread of Britain's deer, fallow deer were introduced by the Normans for hunting in the 11th Century. There is fossil evidence that they were here before the last Ice Age but became extinct; effectively, they were re-introduced by the invaders. They are fairly similar to red deer in appearance; they have spots in summer, but these are often faded or absent. In fact, fallow deer living in different areas have developed different characteristics, even in different parts of the UK - there is even a subspecies called the long-haired fallow deer2 that exists nowhere but in Shropshire!

Fallow deer range in colour from almost black, through chestnut, to white. The popular pub name 'The White Hart' is believed to derive from white fallow deer.

Reeves (or Chinese) Muntjac deer Muntiacus reevesi

Muntjac deer are Britain's smallest species of deer, and are starting to compete with fallow for being the most widely distributed. There are two species, Indian and Chinese: according to legend, one of the Duke of Bedford's dogs was killed by an Indian muntjac at his Woburn Abbey home, and he had all individuals of that species in his herd destroyed. All muntjac deer in the UK are Chinese. There are occasional stories of them being caught in nets and released elsewhere to provide hunters with a quarry; this is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Chinese water deer Hydropotes inermis inermis

Britain's least common deer, with a range extending only through parts of East Anglia, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, the Chinese water deer is an interesting species. It is believed to be our least-highly evolved deer; it has canine teeth and no antlers, both evolutionary steps other deer have passed. The UK population is centred around Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. They were introduced here in 1896, having been on display in London Zoo for the preceding 20 years, and most of the wild herds are descendants of escapees from the Abbey during World War Two. It seems that Government officials based at the Abbey at the time treated closing the gates as a low priority.

Identifying Deer

Deer are most easily identified by the shape or absence of white patches of fur on their rumps. Size can be a good indicator too, but young deer can be easily confused. As deer are likely to leg it as soon as they are aware of your presence, the rump is the best way of telling them apart.

  • Red deer have a heart-shaped white patch on the rump, clearly defined by the tail, which will the same colour as the rest of the body.

  • Sika deer also have a heart-shaped patch, but the tail is white, making them easy to distinguish.

  • Fallow deer have an oval-shaped white patch, the top half of which is outlined in black; their tails are white with a black stripe down them.

  • Roe deer have a wide diamond of white fur on their rumps.

  • Chinese water deer have a rump the same colour as the rest of their body; there is no white patch at all.

  • Muntjacs also have no white patch - at least until they lift their tails. The underside of the tail and a thin patch beneath it are both white.

1The distinction between 'wild' and 'feral' is a grey one.2Named Dama dama springthorpeii after their discoverer, Gerald Springthorpe.

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