Fallow deer

In the Rhodope mountains the fallow deer is proving the pivotal species in our efforts to rewild the land. Boosting fallow deer population is not only important for aiding the return of large carnivores, but also shapes a landscape which is very attractive for huge variety of species. The most important role of fallow deer in nature is to maintain the mosaic landscape of the Eastern Rhodopes. This is of great importance for the conservation of the rich biodiversity of the region. Remains of dead deer are an important food source for Griffon, Egyptian and Black Vultures.

Wild fallow deer in the Studen Kladenets reserve, Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria
Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Adult fallow deer  is a bit smaller than the red deer. These magestic animals can reach about 140 cm lengths and a height of 90 cm. The average weight of male deer is 60–90 kg. Females are lighter – about 40 kg. The male’s antlers are expanded as a shovel. Females do not have antlers. Coat on the back is dark brown with white spots and large oval dark stripes down the middle. Sides and belly are lighter. In summer  the color tone  is rusty and in winter almost gray. It is possible to encounter white and black fallow deer.

Fallow deer inhabits the plains and low hilly deciduous forests with vast meadows, preferring the mosaic fringes. Fallow deer live in herds of several females with young, while males live separately. It reaches an age of 20 to 25 years, feeds on grass, trees and shrubs. In the mating season, which is in October and November, the males fight fiercely for females.

During the breeding period, or rut, males become extremely active and change their behavior. Males spend most of their time trying to attract females attention and establishing their territory (rut stand) by pawing the ground, thrashing understory vegetation with their antlers, and by producing low-pitched groans and grunts. The males are circling, sizing each other – the antlers, the body. The calls or groans the bucks make do not only attracts females but also deter competitors. Their calls contain a large amount of information indecipherable to the human ear, including their status within the herd and their size. Males fight often and violently during the mating season but injuries are rare; their fights involve a ritual shoving with the antlers that follow fixed rules. During the breeding season one male can attract a group of 4 to 15 females.  Males may stop feeding at this time. Many subordinate males unable to establish territories remain around the edges of the herd. They are quickly chased away by the rutting male if they try enter the territory. Mating occurs during the rut.

Fallow deer occurred widespread in ancient Bulgaria. It features in illustrations and sculptures of Thracian cultures like Panagyurishte and Lukovit and bone remains have been found in almost all Bulgarian prehistoric settlements. It is assumed that fallow deer was exterminated during the Middle Ages. At the beginning of last century its recovery in Bulgaria began. In 2012 again over 6,500 fallow deer lived in Bulgaria. The largest concentration of 1,500 animals inhabits the area south of the Studen Kladenets Reservoir. The other interesting aspect about Studen Kladenets area is that the rich wildlife population coexists with stable wolves population.

The restocking of fallow deer in these regions started in 2013 when the New Thracian Gold project reintroduced the first animals. Rewilding Rhodope Foundation succeeded the New Thracian Gold project in 2014 and the rewilding work continued with the official signing of an agreement between Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Rhodopes. Project team is also building on the already existing collaboration with local hunting groups, essential for long-term sustainability of deer conservation. Introducing small groups of animals over successive years is proving a good way to establish viable red and fallow deer populations. So far more than 200 fallow deer have been released in the Rhodope area, the aim is to have a new fallow deer population with more than 300 animals.