Calf Site Selection by Red Deer (Cervus Elaphus) from Three Contrasting Habitats in North-West England: Implications for Welfare and Management

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Abstract:

This study (1978–93) was concerned with calf site selection by red deer from three contrasting areas (two deer parks and one deer farm) of north-west England. It arose from initial (1960s–70s) concern over poor recruitment and the high incidence of 'abandoned' calves (at one site), and increasing levels of public disturbance in Lyme Park and Tatton Park. A better understanding of calving behaviour could lead to improved management procedures during calving. Habitat selection by adult females was examined indirectly, by recording where calves (0–2 days old) were born in relation to their weight. The deer farm provided a control site, where the effects of their social traditions could be minimized.

Calves were born over a wide area of moorland in Lyme Park but confined to a deer sanctuary in Tatton Park. Areas of obvious plant cover were selected in preference to open ground in Tatton Park and in the deer farm. No marked preferences were apparent in Lyme Park, although some areas were used more frequently than others, over all years. Most calves occurred within female home ranges. In Tatton Park, the heaviest calves were found in the preferred calving sites.

Calf weights varied widely within and between study sites. On average, the smallest (lightest) calves were recorded in Lyme Park and the heaviest in the deer farm. Sex differences in calf weights occurred in Tatton Park, but not at the other two sites. In general, late-born calves were smaller than those born early in the season. Variations in birthweight were linked to differences in female growth and site conditions. In the absence of more detailed statistics, calf weights can provide a useful measure of population performance.

Collectively, these results suggest that red deer can adopt a range of calving behaviours ('tactics') depending on the nature of the habitat (presence or absence of cover), perceived predation 'risks' (levels of disturbance), established social traditions and, possibly, parental investment. Cover appeared to be a primary requirement for calving. In the absence of cover, other behaviours were adopted. In some cases, these behaviours were not in the best interests of the calf, as parent females rarely returned to feed their calves during the day and often engaged in energetically costly diversionary activities. In deer farms, conflicts between hinds may be exaggerated by limited access to ground cover, similar social status and low variance in calf weights.

In view of these findings, there is a need to devise new ways of attracting captive deer to cover, perhaps by modifications to the habitat mosaic. Observations from Tafton Park show that deer readily use refuges (the sanctuary), when available, although it may be difficult to initiate new behaviours where long-established traditions occur (eg Lyme Park). Mortality amongst calves is unacceptable in deer parks, but further work under more controlled conditions, is required to establish the mechanisms of calf site selection. Effective methods of locating calves are desirable for management purposes.

Keywords: ANIMAL WELFARE; CALVING BEHAVIOUR; DEER FARMS; DEER PARKS; RED DEER

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 1998

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