Forest guide to deer watching

Red stag with hinds
Photo credit: Lee Knight

How to spot deer

Deer watching guide

Deer are very secretive creatures by nature. In the summer they hide in long grass and thick bracken, and by winter their darker coats blend into the barren landscape. But if you know what to look for, you’ll soon discover they are all around you in the forest.

Become a deer detective and get to know these majestic animals! We'll teach you about tracks and signs, identifying species, how we manage deer and our top tips for deer watching.

Look for track and signs

Before you get started, learning to spot the evidence of deer is a great way to find out more about their behaviour and whether they might be close by. 

  • Droppings: small, dark, round pellets left in piles. You'll be pleased to know that deer poo has no obvious smell!
  • Tracks: look for hoof prints in the mud, known as slots. Deer often use the same route, which leads to well-worn tracks that can help you to them.
  • Antlers: if you’re lucky, you may find a cast antler. Look for nibble marks, as deer and other animals gnaw on the bone for the minerals.
  • Tree damage: males mark their territories by rubbing antlers on young trees. This is called fraying.
  • Hair: you may find clumps of hair, when deer moult out their winter coat.
  • Sounds: the rutting season is a good time to hear the roars, belches and even whistles of males.

Ready for deer watching? Read our top tips!

Know your species! How to identify deer

The UK is home to six species of deer. Red and roe deer are our only native species. Fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer are introduced species. They can be tricky to tell apart, so let's take a closer look!

Red deer stag stood in bracken

Red deer

Our largest species of deer, which makes them easy to tell apart from others. They have a short tail and reddish-brown coat, with a cream underbelly and rump. In the winter their coat is darker brown or grey. They have highly branched antlers with up to 16 points.

Roe deer

One of the smaller species in our forests, roe deer are more secretive. They have no visible tail and a black nose with a white chin. Their coat is brown to sandy yellow, and darker brown, grey or occasionally black in the winter. Roe deer have small and simple antlers, typically with three points on each.

Roe deer male in a woodland
Fallow deer male with large antlers sat on the ground

Fallow deer

Long tails are a good indentifier of fallow. They have four different coat colour variations. The most common is a spotted, chestnut coloured coat which turns grey or brown in winter. Others are brightly spotted all year round, dark brown or almost black, or entirely white or cream. Fallow are easy to tell apart from other deer as their antlers are shaped like the palm of a hand with small points.

Sika deer

Smaller than red deer, sika vary from reddish brown to pale yellow brown with white spots in summer and a darker grey coat in winter. They have a distinctive white rump, and often a dark coloured stripe running the length of their back. Mature stags have four points on each antler.

Sika deer stag in woodland
Muntjac male walking on grass

Muntjac deer

By far the smallest deer in our forests, they are chestnut brown with dark face markings and small antlers. Introduced in the 20th century from China, they've spread rapidly across much of England.

Chinese water deer

They are smaller than a roe deer with large fluffy ears and a black nose. Both males and females have tusks and no antlers. These are our least common deer, thought to have escaped from safari parks in the 1900s. They mainly live in East England.

Chinese water deer in a field on a cold day

Did you know red deer are the largest land mammal in Britain?

Managing deer in sustainable forests 

Within properly functioning ecosystems, deer play an important role by maintaining open areas in woodlands and encouraging biodiversity. However, without any predators, large deer populations can have a devastating effect on their environment. Natural predators of deer, such as bears, lynx and wolves, are extinct in Britain and deer populations are higher and more concentrated than ever before. 

Our highly skilled wildlife rangers replace the role of Britain’s missing predators by sensitively and humanely controlling deer populations in woods, working to the highest standards of safety and animal welfare. Each deer is inspected, uniquely tagged, processed and stored according to food hygiene standards to make best use of wild meat that would otherwise go to waste. 

Keep your distance! Deer are wild animals, so always watch them from afar.

Remember to follow The Forest Code.

Top tips for watching deer

  • The best time to watch deer is dawn and dusk, when they are most active.
  • Bring binoculars and keep a safe distance, using a long lens if you want to take photographs.
  • Deer often feed in woodland clearings and open areas, so hang back and hide your silhouette against the edge of the woodland.
  • Watch deer from downwind so they are less likely to smell or hear you.
  • Leave the dog at home when deer watching. Keep your dog in close control on the lead if you encounter deer.
  • If they are disturbed, move back. Don’t pursue deer as this will stress them and could push them towards nearby roads.
  • Stay on main tracks and paths, especially during the rutting season.
  • Give deer space and follow signage in restricted areas that allow deer to rest.
  • Be tick aware. Avoid brushing against vegetation, dress appropriately, wear repellent and check yourself for ticks.

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