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Study warns over orphaning young deer

Stalkers who shoot female deer should also cull their young offspring, to prevent orphaned calves dying from lack of care.

The findings from research involving Edinburgh scientists and carried out on the Isle of Rum supports current guidelines for deer stalkers.

These state that calves should be shot with their mothers.

If left orphaned, young deer may struggle to find food and shelter and are less likely to survive than others.

Long-term impact

This echoes our best practice guidance, as trying not to leave calves orphaned is a basic tenet for those stalking deer.

Alastair MacGuganScottish Natural Heritage

Scientists from the Universities of Calgary, Edinburgh and Cambridge examined almost 40 years’ worth of data gathered on a population of wild red deer on Rum.

They found that calves which were orphaned in the first two years of life were very likely to die sooner compared with those with surviving mothers.

In addition, males orphaned in their first year were slow to develop their first set of antlers.

This is linked with poor growth in later life, including antler growth, and indicates that the physical effects of orphaning may be lifelong.

Best practice

In male calves, being orphaned after the age of two had no impact on their likely survival.

However for females, being orphaned after their second birthday continued to affect their chances of surviving in the long-term.

Around 100,000 deer are shot in Scotland each year, to protect trees and plants, to prevent deaths in winter, and for sport.

This study is the first to examine the impact on calves of losing their mothers during development, and its findings support best practice guidance.

The study, published in Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Scottish Natural Heritage.

Calves are weaned at around seven months, and afterwards benefit from their mother’s knowledge of food and shelter, and from a settled social group, but lose these benefits when their mother dies. Our findings help pinpoint the impact on young deer of being orphaned at ages well beyond weaning.

Professor Josephine PembertonSchool of Biological Sciences