Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus)

The European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), also known as the western roe deer, chevreuil or just roe deer, is a Eurasian species of deer. It is relatively small, reddish and grey-brown, and well-adapted to cold environments. Roe deer are widespread in Europe, from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, and from the British Isles to the Caucasus. It is distinct from the somewhat larger Siberian roe deer.

The roe deer is distinct from the somewhat larger Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) that is found from the Ural Mountains to as far east as China and Siberia. The two species meet at the Caucasus Mountains, with the European species occupying the southern flank of the mountain ranges and adjacent Asia Minor and the Siberian species occupying the northern flank of the mountain ranges.

Within Europe, the European roe deer occurs in most areas, with the exception of northernmost Scandinavia (north of Narvik) and some of the islands, notably Iceland, Ireland, and the Mediterranean Sea islands; in the Mediterranean region it is largely confined to mountainous regions, and is absent or rare at low levels. Scottish roe deer were introduced to the Lissadell Estate in Co. Sligo in Ireland around 1870 by Sir Henry Gore-Booth, Bt. The Lissadell deer were noted for their occasional abnormal antlers and survived in that general area for about 50 years before they died out and there are not believed to be any roe deer currently extant in Ireland.

In England and Wales roe have experienced a substantial expansion in their range in the latter half of the 20th century and continuing into this century. This increase in population also appears to be impacting woodland ecosystems. At the start of the 20th century they were almost extinct in Southern England but since then have hugely expanded their range for no apparent reason and possibly in some cases with human help. In 1884 there was an introduction of roe from Württemberg in Germany into the Thetford Chase area and these spread to populate most of Norfolk, Suffolk and substantial parts of Cambridgeshire. In southern England they started their expansion in Sussex (possibly from enclosed stock in Petworth Park) and from there soon spread into Surrey, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset, and for the first half of the 20th century most roe in southern England were to be found in these counties. By the end of the 20th century they had repopulated much of Southern England and had expanded into Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and had even spread into mid-Wales from the Ludlow area where an isolated population had appeared. At the same time the surviving population in Scotland and the Lake District had pushed further down beyond Yorkshire and Lancashire and into Derbyshire and Humberside. Now roe can be found in most of rural England except for south east Kent and the greater part of Staffordshire and Cheshire although the expansion is continuing to the extent that before the end of this century anywhere in the UK mainland that is suitable for roe may have a population. Not being a species that need large areas of woodland to survive urban roe are now a feature of several cities, notably Glasgow and Bristol, where in particular they favour cemeteries. In Wales they are less common but have been seen as far south west as Cardigan and as far north west as Bangor and they are reasonably well established in Powys and Monmouthshire.

German colonial administrators introduced roe deer to the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. They are hunted by locals in very steep and heavily vegetated terrain. The meat is openly sold in markets and restaurants in Kolonia, the capital city of Pohnpei and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The roe deer is a relatively small deer, with a body length of 95–135 cm (3.1–4.4 ft), a shoulder height of 65–75 cm (2.1–2.5 ft), and a weight of 15–35 kg (33–77 lb). It has rather short, erect antlers and a reddish body with a grey face. Its hide is golden red in summer, darkening to brown or even black in winter, with lighter undersides and a white rump patch; the tail is very short (2–3 cm or 0.8–1.2 in), and barely visible. Only the males have antlers. The first and second set of antlers are unbranched and short (5–12 cm or 2.0–4.7 in), while older bucks in good conditions develop antlers up to 20–25 cm (8–10 in) long with two or three, rarely even four, points. When the male’s antlers begin to regrow, they are covered in a thin layer of velvet-like fur which disappears later on after the hair’s blood supply is lost. Males may speed up the process by rubbing their antlers on trees, so that their antlers are hard and stiff for the duels during the mating season. Unlike most cervids, roe deer begin regrowing antlers almost immediately after they are shed.

The roe deer is primarily crepuscular, very quick and graceful, lives in woods although it may venture into grasslands and sparse forests. They feed mainly on grass, leaves, berries and young shoots. They particularly like very young, tender grass with a high moisture content, i.e., grass that has received rain the day before. Roe deer will not generally venture into a field that has had or has livestock (sheep, cattle) in it because the livestock make the grass unclean. A pioneer species commonly associated with biotic communities at an early stage of succession, during the Neolithic period in Europe the roe deer was abundant, taking advantage of areas of forest or woodland cleared by Neolithic farmers.

Behaviour and life cycle

The roe deer attains a maximum life span (in the wild) of ten years. When alarmed, it will bark a sound much like a dog and flash out its white rump patch. Rump patches differ between the sexes, with the white rump patches heart-shaped on females and kidney-shaped on males. Males may also bark or make a low grunting noise. Females (does)make a high pitched “pheep” whine to attract males during the rut (breeding season)in July and August. Initially it is the female who goes looking for a mate and it is common for her to lure the buck back into her territory before mating. The roe deer is territorial, and whilst the territories of a male and a female might overlap, other roe deer of the same sex are excluded unless they are the doe’s offspring of that year.


The polygamous roe deer males clash over territory in early summer and mate in early fall. During courtship, when the males chase the females, they often flatten the underbrush leaving behind areas of the forest in the shape of a figure eight called ‘roe rings’. Males may also use their antlers to shovel around fallen foliage and dirt as a way of attracting a mate. Roebucks enter rutting inappetence during the July and August breeding season. Females are monoestrous and after delayed implantation usually give birth the following June, after a ten-month gestation period, typically to two spotted fawns of opposite sexes. The fawns remain hidden in long grass from predators until they are ready to join the rest of the herd; they are suckled by their mother several times a day for around three months. Roe deer adults will often abandon their young if they sense or smell that an animal or human has been near it. Young female roe deer can begin to reproduce when they are around 16 months old.

In popular culture

  • The world-famous deer Bambi (the eponymous character of the books Bambi, A Life in the Woods, and its sequel Bambi’s Children, by Felix Salten) is originally a roe deer. It was only when the story was adapted into the animated feature film Bambi, by the Walt Disney Studios, was Bambi changed to a white-tailed deer. This change was made owing to the white-tail being a more familiar species to the mainstream US viewers. Consequently, the setting was also changed to a North American wilderness.
  • A roe deer is also said to have helped Genevieve of Brabant to get food for herself and her child after having had to leave their home due to malicious slander.


foto: Mihai Baciu


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