A few nights ago, I spotted a family group of deer on the roadside as I drove to Daylesford. There was a female deer, a male with small horns, and a young deer. The adults crossed the road towards Leitches Creek Bushland Reserve while the young deer stared at me with some confusion. I followed my kangaroo protocol – turn high beams off, slow down or stop (if safe to do so) and the young one joined his family soon enough.
Deer were introduced to Australia as game animals with much enthusiasm by the Acclimitisation Societies of the 19th Century. There are several species in Australia which are naturalised – that is, they have self-sustaining populations in our forests and farmlands.
The Grampians is the home of the mighty Red Deer – those huge, impressive deer of Scottish wildlife documentaries. Eastern Victoria and particularly East Gippsland is the home of the Sambar, another massive species of deer. In the Otways and here in the Wombat Forest, we have Fallow Deer and, to a lesser extent, Sambar. Coastal areas such as Wilsons Promontary and the Gippsland Lakes have Hog Deer.
Fallow Deer are smaller than Red Deer or Sambar – the males weigh up to 90 kg, while a Sambar male can be up to 250kg! Like most deer, males are larger than females, with females being about half the weight of males.
Fallow Deer are your classic spotty deer – a rusty, reddish-brown colour with white spots, blending to a white underbelly and legs. A black stripe runs along the back and extends onto the tail. Some deer do not have spots, and some are very dark – and quite a few deer are white. A farmer in Muckleford has a group of deer living on and around his farm, with a big all-white stag!
The deer we see wild locally are from deer farms that have gone out of business, and then the owners have set them free into the nearby bush. Fallow deer can’t survive in purely native habitats such as huge stretches of forest. They rely on a patchwork pattern; a modified landscape of paddocks with introduced grasses, farms and farmlets and patches of open forest or woodland.
During Winter, Spring and early summer, there is some degree of segregation between the sexes – males form small groups and roam across their home ranges, while the females, yearlings of both sexes and juveniles remain more sedentary.
With this in mind, the family I spotted the other night may have been mum, big brother and a young one. This little group will stick together until late Summer/ Autumn, when the rut begins. The males return to their favourite rutting territories, and make grunting calls, paw the ground, spread their urine and scent, and flay bushes and tree trunks with their antlers. The females visit the males and mate.
About seven months later a little fawn is born. The mother and fawn pretty much keep to themselves until the fawn is about a month old, and then they rejoin the local herd.
Most of the information I could find about Fallow Deer was about their value and qualities as a game animal. Deer hunting is hugely popular and growing each year – some 60,000 deer were killed by hunters last year. I have to admit I am in two minds about this! Wherever there are large herds of deer the native plant species are diminished in number, orchids and wildflowers destroyed, and the wattles browsed to such an extent that small birds lose their cover for feeding and nesting.
Fallow Deer predators are listed as wolves, cougars, lynx, bears, mountain cougars, coyotes and bobcats – no wonder they are doing so well in Australia! From what I can see from the Australian Deer Association, deer hunting requires a lot of patience and skill, and precision, as the deer are so wary and intelligent. As hunting goes, it seems fairer than duck shooting, or kangaroo hunting – both of which are horribly cruel and very unfair.
Hunting aside, my heart sings whenever I see our local Fallow Deer – they are so pretty and gentle! I have Dutch and Irish heritage, so I think some deep, ancestral part of me really loves these animals.
For this year’s Words in Winter, I will be giving a talk : “Hepburn Nature Diary: seven years and counting”, a behind the scenes look at my nature stories. Please come and say hello! Saturday, August 6, 6:30 – 7:20 at the Words in Winter Hub, 81 Vincent Street, Daylesford.
Male Fallow Deer picture: via Wikimedia Commons and http://www.hvozd.eu/
For some information on ecology of Fallow Deer in Australia ( Tasmania) rather than hunting information, this paper is interesting Fallow-Deer-Species-Profile Tasmania