There are 3 subspecies: the European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), which is also known as the western roe deer, and larger Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) and the Chinese roe deer (Capreolus bedfordi)
The roe is a medium sized deer, standing about 60 to 75 cm high (to the shoulder) and typically weighs 10 to 25 kg; the male (called the buck) is slightly heavier than the female (the doe).
[The above figures apply the European roe deer; the Siberian and Chinese subspecies are slightly taller (71 to 85 cm in height) and can weigh as much as 50 kg and 48 kg respectively.]
Roe are dainty looking deer with their front legs slightly shorter than their hind legs, which are distinctly cow-hocked. Cow-hocked means that when viewed from behind, the joint half way down the rear legs are angled inwards, meaning that their feet are splayed outwards.
They have a relatively thin, russet coloured coat during the late spring to mid-autumn, and a much thicker, dark brown/grey pelage from mid-autumn to late spring.
The adult bucks’ antlers are usually no more than 30cm long and commonly have 6 points (tines) — 3 on each antler. [A Siberian and Chinese roebucks’ antlers are usually 40cm long and have 8 tines.]
Both bucks and does have a short tail of about 2 to 3cm in length, which cannot be seen through their coat. However, when passing solid waste, they will lift their tail, which causes a small mound of hairs to stand up on the end of their back, just above their bottom. The female has also a tush, which grows from below the anal opening on her bottom.
Whilst sporting their winter coat, their bottom is distinctly white, but is less obtrusive and lemonier in colour, in summer dress. The hairs on the rump patch are erectile, which can make them stand on end (causing the characteristically, white fluffy bottom), when the deer is alarmed.
Native to Britain, they have been present in the UK for around 10,000 years (although they are absent from Ireland) and are found across most of Europe and Asia. The smaller, European species found in the west, with the larger Siberian and Chinese roe deer in the east.
Like so many different types of deer, roe are a species that are well adapted for life on the edge. The edge of woody areas; forests, copses, etc. and living in the vicinity of substantial bush-lines. However, they are extremely adaptable and numbers of them exist in fringe urban areas and in large open expanses; the deer that exist in these locations are often called ‘field roe’.
For the majority of the time, roe deer are browsers. This means they eat the leaves, soft shoots and fruits of shrubs and other woody plants. Although, they graze on grass from time to time.
They have a small stomach capacity, ranging from 3.5 to 5 litres, depending on the time of year; highest capacity at the end of summer/early autumn and the lowest in winter. [The deer feed less in winter because their metabolic rate decreases.]
Depending on the time of year, sex, quality of food and whether a doe has dependent young, the deer will feed between 5 and 11 times per day. For most of the year, bucks eat more than does because of their slightly larger body mass. The only exception to this is when a mother doe is lactating; in this instance, she will need to consume more food to enable her to produce enough milk to feed her dependent fawns.
As a guide, an adult roe will need to eat about 750kg of food per year.
The roe deer's breeding season peaks between late July and mid-August. This is called the rut. Other deer, such as red, fallow and sika deer tend to rut in the autumn, sometime between late September and early November. The variation in timings for any one species is linked to the climate they live in and the weather conditions prevailing at the time.
Generally speaking, the warmer the climate, the earlier the deer will rut. This thought to be linked with the increased abundance of rich food, which means the both males and females will reach their peak in physical condition sooner in the year, compared to a region of cooler climatic conditions.
As mentioned above, the prevailing weather conditions also affects the triggering of the rut on any one year. If the weather is too warm, the deer will feel less inclined to chase each other around, but also, a particularly wet spell of weather can often suppress rutting activity, too.
A roe deer's young are born in late May and early June.
Variations in climate, availability of rich food and interference from humans, mean that the average life expectancy of a roe deer varies widely, anywhere from 4 to 7 years. In locations where people shoot them, bucks (especially those with impressive antlers) have a significantly shorter lifespan than does. Overall though, 8 years is a very good age for a roe in the wild, over 10 years being exceptional. The oldest known roe deer being a doe, who lived to be twenty years old (although this was a captive animal).
Roe deer can be active at any time of day; however, they are crepuscular, which means they most active and dawn and dusk. Roe are a shy species and very adaptable. They are capable of altering their behaviour according to the frequency of disturbance. When inactive, the deer will lie up in heavy cover, where they will ruminate (regurgitate food and chew the cud) and rest.
They do not gather in large groups of their own kind (unlike red, fallow and sika deer), and for most of the year, they live as solitary individuals. In fact, of all the species of deer, they are probably the most solitary of all. The main exception to this singular lifestyle being a female that is raising her young and the brief courtship that occurs during the rut.
Roebucks are territorial from spring to autumn, and during this time when they will stake out their domain with scent markers and engage in battles to defend their territory and position themselves to be able mate with the females when they come into season.
Throughout the year, both males and females tend to frequent a relatively small area of land, this called their home range.
Annual home ranges vary from 10 to 100 hectares. The large variation in size is mainly dependent on the quality. The better the environment is with respect to abundant rich food supplies and plentiful cover, the greater the number of roe a given habitat can support; so, the home ranges will be much smaller than those living in a less well-resourced habitat. However, roe deer don't live in exclusive areas, so the home range of one animal can (and often does) overlap the domain of another.
Where did roe deer come from?
Opinions of palaeontologists vary about the origin the roe deer, but fossil remains in the Ukraine of one of the oldest ancestors of the modern roe deer dates back 10 million years.
Moreover, some of the earliest evidence of the modern species of roe date back 3 million years and have been unearthed in Russia and Slovakia. Later fossils have found in Siberia (1 million years) and Germany (600 hundred thousand years).
The earliest ancestors came from the taxonomic category of Procapreolus. There were seven species of ancient deer Procapreolus, and of those seven species, Capreolus is believed to have descended from Procapreolus wenzensis, about 3 million years ago (from fossil evidence in western Russia).
Roe deer in Great Britain
The roe deer we have in Britain are the European species of roe (Capreolus capreolus), but there are some inconsistences in the scientific literature as to how far back in time you can reliably trace back evidence of Capreolus capreolus living with these isles.
In 1984 A.M. Lister said that the European roe deer was present in Great Britain as far back as half a million years ago (ref. Evolutionary and ecological origins British deer, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 82B, pp205-229). And there is certainly evidence of fossilised roe dating back 10 thousand years found at Star Carr, which is a Mesolithic archaeological site in North Yorkshire, and at another site near the old Berkshire town of Thatcham.
The evidence takes the form of fossilised bones found in ancient refuse sites located at early settlements. (Evidence suggests the people have lived in the area now known as Thatcham for over 12 thousand years, and it’s likely that early man hunted roe deer for food, hence the existence of fossilised bones in their refuse.)
Climatic oscillations created periods of glaciation in Britain and over time, the extent of forested areas has varied in unison with the occurrence of the ice ages i.e. deforestation during cold periods and reforestation during the intervening warm periods.
Since roe deer are an animal that needs considerable woodland cover, it is possible that ever since Capreolus capreolus has been able to move in and out of Britain, their movements into and out the country have varied accordingly.
Fossil remains suggest that during periods of maximum ice cover, roe deer were primarily resident in the Mediterranean areas of Europe. Populations then moved northwards again as the ice sheet retreated. Roe deer then last moved into Britain about 10,000 years ago (just after the last ice ended), and have been here ever since.
Why are there no roe deer found in Ireland?
The reason why there are no roe deer in Ireland is due to the fact that the melting ice sheet created the Irish Sea about 12,000 years ago, separating it from mainland Europe and Great Britain before the deer had re-entered the region.
Rising sea levels formed English Channel about 8000 years ago, but by then, the deer had moved into Great Britain in numbers from the continental mainland, hence giving rise subsequent populations found in England, Scotland and Wales.