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The red deer (Cervus elaphus) is one of the largest deer species. The red deer inhabits most of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains region, Asia Minor, Iran, parts of western Asia, and central Asia. It also inhabits the Atlas Mountains region between Morocco and Tunisia in northwestern Africa, being the only species of deer to inhabit Africa. Red deer have been introduced to other areas, including Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, Peru, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. In many parts of the world, the meat (venison) from red deer is used as a food source.

Red deer are ruminants, characterized by a four-chambered stomach. Genetic evidence indicates the red deer as traditionally defined is a species group, rather than a single species, although it remains disputed as to exactly how many species the group includes. The closely related and slightly larger American elk or wapiti, native to North America and eastern parts of Asia, has been regarded as a subspecies of red deer, but recently been established as a distinct species. Probably the ancestor of all red deer, including wapiti, originated in central Asia and resembled sika deer.

Although at one time red deer were rare in parts of Europe they were never close to extinction. Reintroduction and conservation efforts, especially in the United Kingdom, have resulted in an increase of red deer populations, while other areas, such as North Africa, have continued to show a population decline.

The red deer is the fourth-largest deer species behind moose, elk and sambar deer. It is a ruminant, eating its food in two stages and having an even number of toes on each hoof, like camels, goats and cattle. European red deer have a relatively long tail compared to their Asian and North American relatives. Subtle differences in appearance are noted between the various subspecies of red deer, primarily in size and antlers, with the smallest being the Corsican red deer found on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and the largest being the Caspian red deer (or maral) of Asia Minor and the Caucasus Region to the west of the Caspian Sea. The deer of Central and Western Europe vary greatly in size, with some of the largest deer found in the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe. Western European red deer, historically, grew to large size given ample food supply (including people's crops), and descendants of introduced populations living in New Zealand and Argentina have grown quite large in size and antlers. Large red deer stags, like the Caspian red deer or those of the Carpathian Mountains may rival the wapiti in size, Female red deer are much smaller than their male counterparts.

The male (stag or hart) red deer is typically 175 to 250 cm (69 to 98 in) long and weighs 160 to 240 kg (350 to 530 lb); the female (hind) is 160 to 210 cm (63 to 83 in) long and weighs 120 to 170 kg (260 to 370 lb). The tail adds another 12 to 19 cm (4.7 to 7.5 in) and shoulder height is about 95 to 130 cm (37 to 51 in). In Scotland, stags average 201 cm (79 in) in head-and-body length and 122 cm (48 in) high at the shoulder and females average 180 cm (71 in) long and 114 cm (45 in) tall. Size varies in different subspecies with the largest, the huge but small-antlered deer of the Carpathian Mountains (C. e. elaphus), weighing up to 500 kg (1,100 lb). At the other end of the scale, the Corsican red deer (C. e. corsicanus) weighs about 80 to 100 kg (180 to 220 lb), although red deer in poor habitats can weigh as little as 53 to 112 kg (120 to 250 lb). European red deer tend to be reddish-brown in their summer coats. The males of many subspecies also grow a short neck mane during the autumn. The male deer of the British Isles and Norwaytend to have the thickest and most noticeable manes. Male Caspian red deer (C. e. maral) and Spanish red deer (C. e. hispanicus) do not carry neck manes. Male deer of all subspecies, however, tend to have stronger and thicker neck muscles than female deer, which may give them an appearance of having neck manes. Red deer hinds (females) do not have neck manes. The European red deer is adapted to a woodland environment.

Only the stags have antlers, which start growing in the spring and are shed each year, usually at the end of winter. Antlers typically measure 71 cm (28 in) in total length and weigh 1 kg (2.2 lb), although large ones can grow to 115 cm (45 in) and weigh 5 kg (11 lb). Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of 2.5 cm (1 in) a day. A soft covering known as velvet helps to protect newly forming antlers in the spring. European red deer antlers are distinctive in being rather straight and rugose, with the fourth and fifth tines forming a "crown" or "cup" in larger males. Any tines in excess of the fourth and fifth tine will grow radially from the cup, which are generally absent in the antlers of smaller red deer, such as Corsican red deer. Western European red deer antlers feature "bez" (second) tines that are either absent or smaller than the brow tines. However, bez tines occur frequently in Norwegian red deer. Antlers of Caspian red deer carry large bez tines and form less-developed cups than western European red deer, their antlers are thus more like the "throw back" top tines of the wapiti (C. canadensis), known as maraloid characteristics. A stag can (exceptionally) have antlers with no tines, and is then known as a switch. Similarly, a stag that does not grow antlers is a hummel. The antlers are testosterone-driven and as the stag's testosterone levels drop in the autumn, the velvet is shed and the antlers stop growing. With the approach of autumn, the antlers begin to calcify and the stags' testosterone production builds for the approaching rut (mating season).

During the autumn, all red deer subspecies grow thicker coats of hair, which helps to insulate them during the winter. Autumn is also when some of the stags grow their neck manes. The autumn/winter coat of most subspecies are most distinct. The Caspian red deer's winter coat is greyer and has a larger and more distinguished light rump-patch (like wapiti and some central Asian red deer) compared to the Western European red deer, which has more of a greyish-brown coat with a darker yellowish rump patch in the winter. By the time summer begins, the heavy winter coat has been shed; the animals are known to rub against trees and other objects to help remove hair from their bodies. Red deer have different colouration based on the seasons and types of habitats, with grey or lighter colouration prevalent in the winter and more reddish and darker coat colouration in the summer. Most European red deer have reddish-brown summer coats, and some individuals may have a few spots on the backs of their summer coats

Cervus genus ancestors of red deer first appear in fossil records 12 million years ago during the Miocene in Eurasia. An extinct genus known as the Irish elk (Megaloceros), related to the red deer, was the largest member of the deer family known from the fossil record. Early phylogenetic analyses supported the idea of a sister-group relationship between fallow deer (Dama dama) and the Irish Elk. However, newer morphological studies prove that the Irish elk is more closely related to its modern regional counterparts of the Red Deer (Cervus elaphus). For this reason, the name "Giant Deer" is used in some publications.

Europe and North Africa

The European red deer is found in southwestern Asia (Asia Minor and Caucasus regions), North Africa and Europe. The red deer is the largest non-domesticated land mammal still existing in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Ireland. The Barbary stag (which resembles the western European red deer) is the only member of the deer family represented in Africa, with the population centred in the northwestern region of the continent in the Atlas Mountains. As of the mid-1990s, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were the only African countries known to have red deer.

In the Netherlands a huge herd (around 3 000 animals by the end of 2012) live in the Oostvaarders Plassen, a nature reserve. Ireland has its own unique sub-species. In the UK, indigenous populations occur in Scotland, the Lake District, and the South West of England (principally on Exmoor). Not all of these are of entirely pure bloodlines, as some of these populations have been supplemented with deliberate releases of deer from parks such as Warnham or Woburn Abbey in an attempt to increase antler sizes and body weights. Edinburgh University found, in Scotland, there has been extensive hybridisation with the closely related sika deer. Several other populations have originated either with "carted" deer kept for stag hunts being left out at the end of the hunt, escapes from deer farms, or deliberate releases. Carted deer were kept by stag hunts with no wild red deer in the locality and were normally recaptured after the hunt and used again; although the hunts are called "stag hunts", the Norwich Staghounds only hunted hinds (female red deer), and in 1950, at least eight hinds (some of which may have been pregnant) were known to be at large near Kimberley and West Harling; they formed the basis of a new population based in Thetford Forest in Norfolk. Further substantial red deer herds originated from escapes or deliberate releases in the New Forest, the Peak District, Suffolk, Lancashire, Brecon Beacons, and North Yorkshire, as well as many other smaller populations scattered throughout England and Wales, and they are all generally increasing in numbers and range. A census of deer populations in 2007 and again in 2011 coordinated by the British Deer Society records the red deer as having continued to expand their range in England and Wales since 2000, with expansion most notable in the Midlandsand East Anglia.

New Zealand

In New Zealand the red deer were introduced by acclimatisation societies along with other deer and game species. The first red deer to reach New Zealand were a pair sent by Lord Petre in 1851 from his herd at Thorndon Park, Essex, to the South Island, but the hind was shot before they had a chance to breed. Lord Petre sent another stag and two hinds in 1861, and these were liberated near Nelson, from where they quickly spread. The first deer to reach the North Island were a gift to Sir Frederick Weld from Windsor Great Park and were released near Wellington; these were followed by further releases up to 1914. Between 1851 and 1926, 220 separate liberations of red deer involved over 800 deer. In 1927, the State Forest Service introduced a bounty for red deer shot on their land, and in 1931, government control operations were commenced. Between 1931 and March 1975, 1,124,297 deer were killed on official operations.

In New Zealand, introduced red deer have adapted much better and are widely hunted on both islands; many of the 220 introductions used deer originating from Scotland (Invermark) or one of the major deer parks in England, principally Warnham, Woburn Abbey or Windsor Great Park. Some hybridisation happened with the closely related American elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) introduced in Fiordland in 1921. New Zealand red deer produce very large antlers and are regarded as amongst the best in the world by hunters. Along with the other introduced deer species, they are, however, officially regarded as a noxious pest and are still heavily culled using professional hunters working with helicopters, or even poisoned.

Australia

The first red deer to reach Australia were probably the six that Prince Albert sent in 1860 from Windsor Great Park to Thomas Chirnside, who was starting a herd at Werribee Park, south west of Melbourne in Victoria. Further introductions were made in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia. Today, red deer in Australia range from Queensland south through New South Wales into Victoria and across to South Australia, with the numbers increasing. The Queensland, Victorian and most New South Wales strains can still be traced to the early releases, but South Australia's population, along with all others, is now largely recent farm escapees. This is having adverse effects on the integrity of wild herds, as now more and larger herds are being grown due to the superior genetics that have been attained by selective breeding.

Argentina and Chile

In Argentina and Chile, the red deer has had a potentially adverse impact on native animal species, such as the South Andean deer or huemul; the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has labelled the animal as one of the world's 100 worst invaders.

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