A sacred animal to Artemis, ancient goddess of the hunt and wilderness, the deer is historically celebrated in Greek culture. One of the largest deer species, and the largest herbivore in Greece, the Red Deer, known by its scientific name as Cervus elaphus, is much admired by those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of its grace.
Standing at about six feet tall sans the antlers, with a weight of some 350 to 500 lbs, this king of the forest gets its name from its red hue-infused fur. The deer feeds on twigs, seeds, fruits and mushrooms in the wild, and naturally prefer dwelling in areas near freshwater streams.
Once widespread throughout Greece, the largest of the country’s population of Red Deer today find refuge on Mount Parnitha, much of which is a designated national park, and part of the EU Natura 2000 network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species. A smaller population inhabits the Rhopodi Mountains in northeastern Greece.
Part of a mountainous region some 30 kilometers from the center of Athens, the Mount Parnitha National Park and surrounding area’s flora is one of the richest and most diverse in Greece, despite having endured catastrophic forest fires in the summer of 2007. Spanning some 10 kilometers east to west, the densely forested area is a natural habitat to over 1,000 plant species, some 100 of which are rare and endemic to Greece. Peaking at 1,413 meters (4,636 feet), Mount Parnitha is also home to at least 132 bird species, 25 mammal species and 30 reptile species, 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 seeking a breath of fresh air, and perhaps a sighting of the elegant Red Deer.
“Animals differ from us humans only 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.
“The Red Deer of Parnitha offers great opportunities for wildlife photography, especially taking into consideration its close proximity to Athens," he says.
Roaming Mount Parnitha all year round, the Red Deer migrate to lower altitudes in search of food in the wintertime. In Autumn during breeding season, adult males called stags can be heard calling out females with a bellowing cry that almost mimics a lion’s roar.
Stags can grow branched antlers spanning a meter in height, with up to a dozen points. Despite popular belief, antler size does not correspond with the stag’s age. Rather, antlers grow according to testosterone levels, serving as a sign of dominance during mating season, and shed in wintertime. When reaching maturity at about two to three years of age, males acquire a harem of some eight to 10 females who usually give birth to one offspring every spring. Baby Red Deer are born with characteristic white dots that disappear as they grow.
Present in Greece since prehistoric times, the Red Deer plays a significant role in the country’s unique biodiversity and ecosystem. In recent years, populations in Greece had declined so rapidly, the species was considered a critically endangered one according to the Red Data Book of Threatened Animals of Greece. In 2014, an estimated 1,300 individual deer inhabited the Parnitha, Rhodopi and Epirus regions. According to recent findings, however, the deer population is expected to have increased in Greece.
Other types of deer, including the Fallow Deer (Dama dama) and the Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) also coexist in Greece.
As with most living creatures, the deer’s greatest threat today is human activity. Poaching and loss of natural habitat have nowadays forced the deer to reside in isolated patches.
“Habitat deterioration [and fragmentation] as a result of intensified agriculture, settlement expansion and disturbance, are threats that curtail the possibility of the remaining isolated deer population to expand to new areas,” Dr. Panagiota Maragou, coordinator of scientific support and documentation at WWF Greece says.
At lower altitudes, Mount Parnitha is partially claimed as farmland and residential plots. Because the deer populate areas also inhabited by humans, certain clashes are bound to occur from time to time, Dr. Maragou explains.
“Even though the largest numbers are recorded in areas away from human presence and disturbance, proximity to people brings problems,” she says. “The Red Deer are actually wild animals, and accidents have occurred with people thinking they are domesticated.”
Road accidents and significant damage to agricultural production in nearby villages are two more reasons the Red Deer may be considered more of a pest to some. “There are a lot of relevant complaints since the slopes of Parnitha are agricultural areas as well,” Dr. Maragou notes.
In an effort to conserve the Greek Red Deer population, monitoring, research and environmental educational activities were undertaken by various groups including the WWF Greece and Arcturos Environmental Center.
Fostering the remaining Greek population to expand in the future would ideally require redistribution of smaller populations to suitable meadow-filled, mixed deciduous and conifer tree habitats around the country. The selection of a relocation area, however, is not the most crucial factor in ensuring the success of such program, Dr. Maragou explains.
“What is important is to be able to select an area where local communities will be informed in advance and will welcome the idea of the deer relocation,” she says.
“Therefore, raising awareness is necessary, particularly among the inhabitants, hunters and visitors of areas where new subpopulations could be developed. 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 individual deer, taking into consideration gender, ratio and age classes, among other things.
“You cannot pick up and move some animals and hope that they will establish a new flourishing population,” Dr. Maragou says. “You also have to consider and decide on how many animals you can actually remove from an area without hurting the existing population.”
In nature, the Red Deer itself provides a balance to Greece’s ecosystem, especially nowadays that freerange animal husbandry is gradually being abandoned as a practice. As natural grazers, deer have always played a significant role in maintaining nature’s mosaic of vegetation, as well as retaining forest openings.
As sizable herbivores, the Red Deer also serve as a base of the food pyramid for predators and scavengers. “Large raptors and vultures, which today are threatened with extinction, could rely on the existence of deer to survive,” Dr. Maragou explains.
After many decades, Parnitha has seen a reappearance of wolves. “Now there is a natural predator that regulates the population, and this changes the picture all together,” she says.
The wolf's presence is largely attributed to an increase in number of deer in Parnitha in very recent years. Since the fires over a decade ago, and after reforestation efforts that included the planting of nearly 400,000 seedling trees, the area has seen an influx of wild grass, supporting more deer.
As a relatively small patch of earth on the world map, Greece is host to unique biotypes and diverse ecosystems. As of May 2018, the vascular flora of Greece is comprised of 5,828 species and 1,982 subspecies, according to a study by the Hellenic Botanical Society.
“...after all, biodiversity is nothing but a web of inextricably connected links,” Dr. Maragou says.
*Images Credit: Konstantinos Fikas | Panagiotis Latsoudis | A. Bonetti
Konstantinos Fikas photographs nature, a longtime interest of his that turned into a passion. He lives in Athens and loves animals, especially observing and photographing them in their natural environment.