Deer evolved in harsh conditions with many predators. Due to a lifetime of remaining hidden, they are natural experts at avoiding detection.
Their aversive behaviour leads to the common misconception that deer are not in an environment. Camera traps and thermal surveys; however, repeatedly reveal shocking results on high densities of deer in regions with a lack of sightings.
Fortunately, while feral deer are aversive and difficult to sight, they will leave obvious signs in the environment. Signs include scats and tracks, rub trees, browsing, wallowing and scrape trees. See below to learn how to identify deer signs
Deer produce rounded, oval, or oblong scats that may be deposited singly or in clumps containing large numbers of pellets. Clumps of deer scat usually break down into separate pellets upon contact with the ground.
The size and form of scats may vary within and between different species of deer but are roughly 1cm.
In a field situation, deer scats can be most easily confused with those produced by other introduced herbivores such as goats and sheep.
Compared to deer; goat scat is irregular in shape and has a distinct pointed end and sheep scat is cylindrical in shape and the end is dimpled or rounded.
Deer tracks are not easily distinguished from goat, sheep or pig but are generally larger. They also have three distinct features:
Two elongated toes make up the hoof
Slight gap between toes on both feet
In soft soil, can leave impression of dew claws behind print
Rub trees will be found throughout a deer’s home range but will likely occur in areas that are the focus of their activities – on game trails, around wallows or rutting areas and around feeding areas.
Deer rubs can be on a range of vegetation types, from annual weeds, to tussocks, shrubs, saplings and all the way through to large trees. Some species of vegetation appear to be preferred over others, and this will vary across regions.
Saplings and shrubs will be ‘thrashed’ looking twisted and broken, and depending on type, with bark removed. Trees offer more resistance and may show gouges in the bark, often exposing the underlying sapwood. Rub trees may be covered in mud by stags following wallowing.
Very old rubs will be obvious – any exposed sapwood will be grey, and any damaged bark will have either healed completely or have turned dark brown. For more recent rubs, damaged bark, and shavings at the foot of the tree may have started to turn brown. A simple test that gives an indication of how fresh a rub is involves making your own mark next to the genuine article.
Wallows are usually found in the middle of dense cover or in the semi-open where ground cover is cleared for a radius about them. Typically, wallows are in drainage lines, in swampy ground or seepage areas.
When a wallow is in use it will look like a muddy hole, often with water in it, and lots of tracks around it. Often, indents or scrapes made by legs and antlers will be present. Wallows vary in size but are typically a couple of metres across and perhaps 30 or 40 centimetres deep. Even when dry, not recently used, or grassed over, a wallow can be identified from its shape, old deer tracks and location in or next to a drainage line, on a damp bench or in a tree-stump hole.
It can be difficult to differentiate browsing by deer compared to other herbivores. To be sure, it is best to look for other signs of feral deer presence such as scats and tracks. Plant browsing signs by deer include excessive hedging of plants, or obvious browse lines at a height not possible by other animals (around 1.5-2m high). Deer only have teeth on the front bottom of their jaw, so they tend to crush branches rather than have clean cuts. Feral deer browse on essentially all vegetation.