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Why are deer nervous?

Predator avoidance

They have evolved to evade nimble-footed natural predators, such as the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), in order to survive, and indeed, thrive throughout much of their range.

In fact, over the last hundred years, roe deer have expanded their range, and the region where they have expanded their range the most is the Fennoscandian Peninsula.

Fennoscandia, which includes areas of Sweden, Norway and Finland, contains the highest numbers of lynx, and if it wasn’t for their skittish nature, increasing their numbers would have been almost impossible in a habitat so rich in predators. Other natural predators of adult roe also include wolves, bears and to a much lessor extent, golden eagles.

Natural predation in the British Isles is virtually non-existent (the number of deaths by eagles is insignificant), but the roe deer species we have here is the same one that has evolved to live amongst the lynx in Fennoscandia. Which mainly explains why it’s sometimes real challenge to observe them.

Impact of people hunting them

People shooting them also makes deer very nervous. And that’s one of the reasons why roe deer, even in this country where there are no natural predators, are still very hard to see from close range.

An important to thing to remember is this: an animal doesn’t have to directly experience the petrifying event to become permanently fearful of something, here’s how.

Fear is contagious

In his excellent book, The Inner Life of Animals, Peter Wohlleben writes about how researchers at The Max Planck Institute in Munich have discovered that very fearful experiences (such as hearing a family member scream in pain or panic when experiencing a particular event) are never forgotten and can be passed down the family line.

This is how it works

During the fear inducing event, certain methyl molecules become bonded the genes, and permanently alter the chemistry within animal, and hence the change in the animal’s behaviour.

Researchers have asserted that because the genetic material has been modified, the new behaviour (the coping mechanism to deal with the traumatic event i.e. fleeing when seeing a predator or human) can be passed on from one generation to the next.

About the photo above

Technical details: shutter time 1/320 s, aperture f/4 ISO 900, focal length 400mm. Very cold, misty conditions in December.

This doe, although looking like she’s about to flee, was actually quite relaxed; she was grooming the outstretched front leg at the time, and momentarily looked up as I took the photograph.

Female roe deer grooming.
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