The valley of the deer
Jenny Elliott shares the secrets of the roe deer of the Cerne valley
Published in October ’10
The Cerne valley is a beautiful area with a diverse wildlife population. The wooded areas make good hiding places for roe deer and the proximity of the crops provides convenient grazing. Twilight is usually the best time to see them out in the open as it is a favourite time for them to feed.
In winter roe deer grow a thick coat; the individual hairs are hollow to insulate them from the bad weather. In late spring they lose their winter coats and so they often look a little dishevelled at this time of year. When the old hair has finally been shed they look beautifully sleek and have a wonderful rich colour.
Only the males have antlers. When new antlers grow they are covered in a thin layer of velvet-like fur. This is rubbed off, revealing new, strong antlers ready for fighting during the rutting season. Rutting takes place during July and August and the resulting fawns are usually born at the end of May. There is a period of ten months between mating and the birth of the kids. For approximately half this time the fertilised embryo does not attach itself to the uterus wall. While the embryo is floating in the uterus it develops at a very slow rate.
At the end of December, or early January, the embryo releases a protein that is the signal for the doe to produce hormones to promote rapid growth. After a short period of very fast growth the embryo attaches to the wall of the uterus and normal foetal growth via a placenta follows for the next five months. This rather prolonged pregnancy is so that fertilisation can take place when food is plentiful and does are in peak condition, and also to ensure the fawns will not be born until the weather is more favourable. A doe will hide her young in the long grass and return to suckle them several times a day for about three months. It is very important never to touch a fawn; the mother may abandon it if it smells of a human.
The life-span of a roe deer is about ten years maximum. Their alarm call is a barking sound and then they will often bounce away, flashing a white rump to warn others of danger. However, so shy are roe deer that the novice observer will do well to see even this in the Cerne valley.