Ruminant species that have been successfully domesticated are invariably social species that are comfortable living in groups and that have a hierarchical social structure.
Red deer and wapiti are no exception to this; they exhibit a strong social hierarchy structured around highly seasonal annual breeding patterns.
This social hierarchy, however, is characterised in natural populations by the separation of mature males and females at all times of the year except the rut (mating).
The matriarchal group is the core element of social structure of red deer. When not constrained by over-population or by the high-density farming environment, red deer naturally group into small female groups (5-15 individuals) with their offspring. These groups contain a dominant, older female (the matriarch) and her female offspring/relatives with their young calves. Males are generally excluded from the group when they start approaching puberty at 8-10 months of age. Such groupings can sometimes be observed on extensive high-country farms where stocking rates fall below 1-2 hinds per ha, but are often disrupted by frequent redrafting of animals into new mobs.
- The matriarch is usually the individual that leads the group away from danger.
- Stags are generally only tolerated in or around matriarchal groups during the rut.
If you watch any group of red deer hinds you will soon observe displays of dominance and submissiveness, particularly when something novel occurs. For example, when hinds are shifted into a paddock containing a fresh wallow, the dominant hind will exert her dominance for priority access to the wallow. Other hinds may challenge each other to establish the pecking order. All this happens over a matter of seconds; it is quite ritualised and seldom ends in physical combat. A dominant hind will face her herd-mate, incline her chin upwards, flare her pre-orbital glands (just below the eyes) and flatten her ears. The submissive hind will respond by lowering and nodding her head, while emitting chattering noises.
However, when groups of hinds are brought together in the same paddock it is not uncommon to see dominant hinds from each group flailing each other with their front feet. This will establish the new dominant order amongst the hinds. Again, such aggressive interactions do not generally last for more than a few minutes and seldom result in injury to either party.
Occasionally, a particular hind at the bottom of the pecking order may be continually picked upon, frequently chased, and even bitten by the other hinds. Such animals can receive numerous superficial injuries and lose most of the hair along their backs. They generally look terrible! Some farmers argue that if these hinds are removed, another will take its place. However, such hinds do not occur in all herds, and such behaviour may indicate a sub-optimal or stressful environment for the herd or, that the outcast hind itself has something wrong with it that other hinds dislike (e.g. disease or injury). Outcast hinds generally perform very poorly (e.g. low weight gain, high probability of barrenness) and are best culled.
Many stags in the wild live solitary lives, with their only real social interaction with other deer being during the rut. However, in some populations, stags do congregate together in small groups (4-5 individuals) over spring and summer while they are re-growing their antlers. The antler growth period is when they are effectively infertile and show little aggression.
Deer confined to the farm environment still show the various behaviours associated with their sociability. However, the full repertoire of social structures normally seen in the wild are generally constrained on the farm due to the imperatives of managing high-density populations in relatively small areas. In particular, constant mixing of hind groups disrupts pre-existing matriarchal groups, sometimes leading to short-term conflicts between dominant hinds. Also, large herd sizes and calf weaning practices can prevent the formation of stable matriarchal clusters.
However, it must be said that red deer show considerable social plasticity when confronted with the farm environment. Hinds and stags are well capable of forming large cohesive herds, yet still retain their innate behaviours.
The book by T.H.Clutton-Brock, F.E.Guinness & S.D.Albon (1982) ‘Red Deer: Behaviour and Ecology of Two Sexes’ (University of Chicago Press) is a very good account of social behaviour of wild red deer on the Isle of Rhum, Scotland.