Cervus elaphus – The red deer of Greece
Sacred animal of Artemis, ancient goddess of hunting and the desert, the deer is historically celebrated in Greek culture. One of the largest species of deer and the largest herbivore in Greece, the red deer, known by its scientific name as Cervus elaphus, is greatly admired by those fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of its grace.
Standing about six feet tall minus the antlers, weighing around 350 to 500 pounds, this King of the Forest got its name from its fur infused with a red hue. Deer feed on twigs, seeds, fruits, and fungi in the wild and naturally prefer to inhabit areas near freshwater streams.
Once widespread across Greece, the country’s largest Red Deer population now finds refuge on Mount Parnitha, much of which is a designated national park, and is part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network of sites. reproduction and rest for rare and endangered species. A smaller population inhabits the Rhopodi Mountains in northeastern Greece.
Part of a mountainous region about 30 kilometers from the center of Athens, the Mount Parnitha National Park and the flora of its surroundings are one of the richest and most diverse in Greece, although they have suffered severe damage. Catastrophic forest fires in the summer of 2007. Stretching over ten kilometers from east to west, the densely forested area is a natural habitat for more than 1,000 plant species, of which a hundred are rare and endemic to Greece . Rising to 1,413 meters (4,636 feet), Mount Parnitha is also home to at least 132 species of birds, 25 species of mammals and 30 species of reptiles, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF Hellas).
Overlooking the contrasting urban jungle of Athens, Mount Parnitha, nicknamed the city’s ‘lungs’, welcomes hikers, wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts looking for a breath of fresh air and perhaps a breath of fresh air. ‘an observation of the elegant Red Deer.
“Animals are only different from us in form… they have the same rights in this life,” says Konstantinos Fikas, a wildlife photographer who enjoys observing the Red Deer in its natural environment.
“Parnitha’s red deer offers great opportunities for wildlife photography, especially given its proximity to Athens,” he says.
Wandering Mount Parnitha year-round, Red Deer migrate to lower elevations in search of food in the winter. In the fall, during the breeding season, adult males called deer can be heard calling out females with a bellowing cry that almost mimics the roar of a lion.
Deer can grow branching antlers extending up to a meter in height, with up to a dozen points. Despite popular belief, the size of the antlers does not match the age of the deer. Rather, antlers grow according to testosterone levels, serving as a sign of dominance during mating season, and fall off in winter. When they reach maturity around the age of two to three years, males acquire a harem of around eight to ten females who usually give birth to offspring each spring. Red Deer babies are born with characteristic white dots that disappear as they grow older.
Present in Greece since prehistoric times, the Red Deer plays an important role in the country’s unique biodiversity and ecosystem. In recent years, populations in Greece had declined so rapidly that the species was considered critically endangered according to the Red Data Book of Threatened Animals of Greece. In 2014, approximately 1,300 individual deer inhabited the regions of Parnitha, Rhodopi and Epirus. According to recent results, however, the deer population is expected to have increased in Greece.
Other types of deer, including fallow deer (Dama dama) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), also coexist in Greece.
As with most living creatures, the biggest threat to deer today is human activity. Poaching and loss of natural habitat have nowadays forced deer to reside in isolated patches.
“Habitat deterioration [and fragmentation] due to intensification of agriculture, settlement expansion and disturbance, are threats that reduce the possibility for the remaining isolated deer population to expand into new areas, ”says Dr Panagiota Maragou , coordinator of scientific support and documentation at WWF Greece.
At lower elevations, Mount Parnitha is partially claimed as farmland and residential land. Because deer inhabit areas also inhabited by humans, some clashes are inevitable from time to time, says Dr Maragou.
“Even though the largest numbers are recorded in areas far from human presence and disturbance, proximity to people is problematic,” she says. “Red Deer are actually wild animals, and accidents have happened with people thinking they were domesticated.
Road accidents and extensive damage to agricultural production in neighboring villages are two other reasons why Red Deer may be considered more of a pest for some. “There are a lot of relevant complaints because the slopes of Parnitha are also agricultural areas,” notes Dr Maragou.
In an effort to conserve the Greek population of Red Deer, environmental monitoring, research and education activities have been undertaken by various groups including WWF Greece and the Arcturos Environmental Center.
Fostering the expansion of the remaining Greek population in the future would ideally require the redistribution of smaller populations to suitable grassland, deciduous and coniferous habitats across the country. Choosing a resettlement area, however, is not the most crucial factor in ensuring the success of such a program, says Dr Maragou.
“What is important is being able to select an area where local communities will be informed in advance and welcome the idea of deer relocation,” she said.
“Therefore, awareness is needed, especially among residents, hunters and visitors to areas where new subpopulations could develop. Relocation should not be done near agricultural areas, so as not to risk conflict with established human activities, ”she adds.
Once a new natural haven is designated, the next step in the relocation process would be to carefully select a number of deer, taking into account, among other things, sex, ratio and age classes.
“You can’t pick up and move some animals and hope that they will establish a new thriving population,” says Dr. Maragou. “You also need to consider and decide how many animals you can actually remove from an area without harming the existing population.”
In the wild, the Red Deer itself provides balance to the Greek ecosystem, especially nowadays the breeding of wild animals is gradually being abandoned as a practice. As natural grazers, deer have always played an important role in maintaining nature’s mosaic of vegetation, as well as maintaining forest openings.
As large herbivores, the Red Deer also serves as the base of the food pyramid for predators and scavengers. “Large raptors and vultures, which are now threatened with extinction, could rely on the existence of deer to survive,” explains Dr Maragou.
After many decades, Parnitha has seen wolves reappear. “Now there is a natural predator regulating the population, and that is a game changer for everyone,” she says.
The presence of the wolf is largely attributed to an increase in the number of deer in Parnitha in recent years. Since the fires of more than a decade ago and after reforestation efforts that included planting nearly 400,000 seedlings, the area has seen an influx of wild grass, supporting more deer.
As a relatively small patch of land on the world map, Greece is home to unique biotypes and diverse ecosystems. As of May 2018, Greece’s vascular flora consisted of 5,828 species and 1,982 subspecies, according to a study by the Hellenic Botanical Society.
“… After all, biodiversity is nothing more than a web of inextricably connected links,” says Dr Maragou.
* Credit Images: Konstantinos Fikas | Panagiotis Latsoudis | A. Bonetti
Konstantinos Fikas photographs nature, a long-standing interest that has turned into a passion. He lives in Athens and loves animals, especially observing and photographing them in their natural environment.