UK Species Profile: Fallow Deer, as voted winner!

If you took part in the species profile poll last month, you may have seen that the winner was the Fallow Deer whose scientific name I absolutely love – Dama dama. I was fortunate enough to work within, and live on the edge of, an amazing country park that was home to three different species of deer – Fallow, Red and a Chinese species, the Pere David’s (listed as Extinct in the Wild, a very interesting species to read about, but not now).

A female Pere David's deer, a tad odd looking

A female Pere David’s deer, a tad odd looking

The Fallow Deer are such a recognisable deer species – well, when they have their antlers … and if they have the spotted coat, otherwise there are possibilities of confusion if you’ve not read up on your deer identification.

Relaxing in the sunshine

Relaxing in the sunshine

If you’re new to deer identification, I’ll take you through the main features.

  • Antlers (males aka bucks only) – unique for a British species, they are palmate with a flattened section, rather than the typical branched antlers that you’d associate with deer (i.e. think of Red Deer and their antlers).
My palmate deer antler

My palmate deer antler, note the flattened part

  • Coat – the most common and associated pattern is the tan colour with white spots and three colours (tan, pale tan and then white on the belly), but other varieties include a paler version (Menil), black, white (these are not actually albinos, it’s a true coat colouration).
An example of a black colouration

An example of a black colouration

  • Bum (rump) – from the back, this deer has got a white backside which is bordered with black, and black down the tail so that a ‘M’ is formed.
White rump with a black 'M'

White rump with a black ‘M’

Fallow Deer are actually native to south-west Asia, but were introduced to Britain by the Normans around 1100AD and it is now the most common deer here. It is now a naturalised species, and not considered as an invasive threat (basically, it’s been here so long that we’re just like: yeh, you guys are ok here).

These deer stand at a decent height – between 50-120cm, which is a measurement of their shoulder height (i.e. not the neck, head and antlers!). As mentioned previously, they have unique antlers in the UK, which are called palmate (compared to the usual branched). The bucks grow their antlers over summer to reach full growth by autumn, when they are used as weapons during the rut (fighting between the males for the females). Whilst growing, they are covered in a lovely furry skin called velvet, which dries and peels off in autumn. The antlers are then shed in spring, where they may then be gnawed and nibbled on by other animals, and the deer themselves, as they provide an excellent source of calcium. Younger males take a few years til they develop a fully grown set of antlers.

You can see the smaller antlers (young bucks), and the velvet on the antlers

You can see the smaller antlers (young bucks), and the velvet on the antlers

In terms of behaviour, the rutting is probably the most interesting to watch. Occurring in October, when the bucks are full of testosterone and the does (females) are available for the taking. There is plenty of fighting as the bucks defend territory and the does they’ve attracted. The bucks groan loudly and parallel walk to each other, sizing each other up, after which they may then fight.

The behaviour varies slightly with fallow deer depending on both the environment and the population density. Individual bucks may defend a particular area (rutting stand) which is attractive to the does, so one buck has a harem of females. Or the bucks may seek out receptive does where they are in low density areas. High buck densities may result in leks where a couple of bucks share the harem.

Females are polyoestrous – this means that if they do not conceive / become impregnated when they first come into season, they will come into season repeatedly. This means that fawns will occasionally be born as late as September (compared to the usual June-July). After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 234 days, the fawns are born in June-July, and are weaned by the next rut.

I don’t want to go on and on about Fallow Deer so I shall begin to round up the information. I had a fab time during my year in the country park (FYI: Margam Country Park in south Wales, very beautiful place). Mostly because I was generally loving my placement with the Field Studies Council, but I was also seeing deer everyday and that’s always going to cheer someone up (as well as the friendly ginger piglets on the farm, oh so cute!). One of my favourite parts of the week was a nature walk with KS2 school groups – we would always see the deer and it was great to see the kids’ reactions to such beautiful animals, and to help them learn more about the animals.

Beautiful animals in beautiful lighting

Beautiful animals in beautiful lighting

Some other interesting facts I’ve come across:

  • They can get quite old: 8-10 years (though 16 years can be reached by the females).
  • This deer species is often considered a serious pest, usually in commercial forestry, and are also a common cause of road accidents. They are often culled in some areas (particularly southern Britain) and their meat is sold for consumption (venison).
  • The sexes normally live separately for most of the year, only coming together for the breeding season.
  • Young males who are yearlings are called prickets.
  • It seems that I only have decent photos of the male deer!
One of my favourite photos, well done to the deer for lining up nicely

One of my favourite photos, well done to the deer for lining up nicely

References

The Deer Initiative

Discover Wildlife

Forestry Commission

Mammal Society

UK Animal Profile – The Dormouse who fell asleep instantly

Before writing this blog post, I did a quick whip-round knowledge survey of my friends and family via Facebook and e-mails on their knowledge of the hazel dormouse. Roughly one fifth had never heard of them, whilst almost two thirds knew of them but knew nothing about them. Only 3 people out of 28 knew a few facts. Obviously this is only a quick and unprofessional survey of my own contacts, but I wonder how much it reflects the UK as a whole? Furthermore, I wonder how much the knowledge of dormouse varies between counties where they are found and counties where they are not.

Anyway, this is an overall view of the hazel (common) dormouse, with the facts that I find particularly interesting. I hope that you will enjoy and come to love this species as many do.

A dormouse found in mid-Wales

A dormouse found in mid-Wales

The common or hazel dormouse is a distinctive species, easily recognizable when compared to our other small mammals here in Britain. With prominent black eyes, rounded ears and soft golden fur, you can’t help but think of the word “cute”. Add in that fact that they have a furry tail, rather than the hairless one of mice or rats that often freaks out people, and they become even more adorable.

(Perhaps it is wrong of me to use these subjective terms, but I know that this is how many people feel. For myself, I will describe many animals as cute, lovely or beautiful, much to the befuddlement of my friends. Crikey, I’ve even called a cockroach cute! But I digress.)

Their large black eyes and other adaptations are indicators of their behaviours. Such eyes help to them to see in the dark as they are nocturnal animals, whilst their feet have small pads, sharp claws and hind ankles can turn sideways, all adaptations for arboreal living (in the trees). Their daytime activity consists of sleeping in a nest, sometimes in torpor where an animal’s metabolic rate and body temperature is low, to reduce the energy used by its body. During torpor, an animal does not respond to stimuli. Torpor is quite similar to hibernation, though hibernation lasts for much longer whereas torpor lasts for only a few hours at a time.

A dormice found during the day is often unresponsive to stimuli

A dormice found during the day is often unresponsive to stimuli

Now if you’re like me, you may have had a similar thought upon reading the previous paragraph. Nocturnal, sleeping in the day, not responding to stimuli … is it only me that thinks of students? Particularly prior to assignment deadlines!

The sleeping activity of dormice doesn’t stop there, they also hibernate. This starts in October or November, lasting through to March or April, during a time when there are no food supplies. Rather than hibernating up in a tree, they actually hibernate in a nest at, or below, ground level. This means that it is easier for them to maintain a consistent temperature and not become dehydrated.

If you combine the time spent asleep by the dormouse – sleeping, torpor and hibernation, you realise that this species actually spends much of its time asleep. As Pat Morris (a leading expert of many British mammal species) says in one article: “It’s almost as though their natural state is asleep”. Again … anyone else thinking of students here? This is perhaps one of the best-known traits of dormice, mentioned in literature such as Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll) – ““The Dormouse is asleep again” said the Hatter” (hopefully you noticed that is where part of this post’s title is from).

Dormice are well known for eating hazel nuts, but they will also eat a variety of other foods including flowers (from bramble, rowan, oak and honeysuckle) and invertebrates (aphids and caterpillars). During late summer and autumn, dormice need to gain fat reserves for their hibernation for which hazel nuts are a good source. Dormice eat hazel nuts in a distinctive way, leaving a hole with a smooth inner edge and toothmarks around the hole. This means that eaten nuts can be used to find out if dormice are present in an area, and Great Nut Hunts have been run by PTES (Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species) where the public searched for nibbled nuts to find new sites where dormice were present.

Dormice boxes are put up for monitoring, but dormice aren't the only ones to use them!

Dormice boxes are put up for monitoring, but dormice aren’t the only ones to make use of them!

Some other interesting facts

  • A female dormouse may actually mate with multiple males, producing a litter sired by a variety of fathers. However, the benefit to the female is not yet clear. For the species as a whole, it is likely due to greater genetic variation and to counter inbreeding.
  • The dormouse is a priority and fully legally protected species in the UK and in Europe, and a license is needed to work with them. (I currently don’t have a license, my encounters with them have been through volunteering or on educational, and always with a license holder.)
  • Typically the dormouse has been associated with old deciduous woodland, hazel coppice and hedgerows. However, they have been found in conifer woodland, gorse, scrub, heath and reed beds.
  • The other species of dormouse in the UK is the edible dormouse, Glis glis, which was introduced deliberately into Tring in the early 20th C.

Now I know that I’ve not covered everything about the dormice, such as the threats they face or more detailed analysis of their behaviours, as this is just a general overview and introduction to this species. If you are interested, both the Mammal Society and PTES have plenty of information of them (as well as other species), as will other organisations.

“… the last she saw of them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.” 

– from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

NB: I should point out that my remarks about people not knowing much about dormice isn’t a slur against my friends and family for not knowing, just something I found interesting. Particularly since mammals are the animal group that people usually identify best with, yet the overall knowledge of even this group can be rather low. One of the reasons I enjoy doing small mammal trapping with children, it’s a chance to create some memories of wildlife that can stay with them for life. But the topic of children and wildlife is a whole other kettle of fish (or a nest of mammals?).

References

Ambrose, M. et al (2012), Wilder Wych Dormouse Research Project, A study of the re-introduced dormouse population in the Wych Valley, Cheshire.

ARKive, Common dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), http://www.arkive.org/common-dormouse/muscardinus-avellanarius/ [Accessed: November 2013]

Bright, P. and Morris, P. (1991). Ranging and nesting behaviour of the dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius in diverse low-growing woodland. Journal of Zoology, London, 224: 177-190.

Bright, P.W., Morris, P.A. and Mitchell, J.T. (2006), The dormouse conservation handbook, English Nature, Great Britain.

Mammal Society,  Dormouse FactSheet: http://www.mammal.org.uk/species-factsheets/Dormouse

Md. Naim, D. et al (2011), Prevalence of multiple mating by female common dormice, Muscardinus avellanarius, Conservation Genetics, 12, 971-979.

Morris, P. (2004), Dormice, M. Avellarnarius, Whittet Books, Stowmarket, UK.

Morris, P. (2012), Taking a closer look at the dormice in torpor, The Dormouse Monitor, (1), 7.

People’s Trust for Endangered Species (2011), The Golden Great Nut Hunt report: http://www.ptes.org/files/1640_gnhreportnov2011.pdf