Supplementary winter feeding of wild red deer Cervus elaphus in Europe and North America: justifications, feeding practice and effectiveness


Rory Putman. E-mail:


1. Supplementary winter feeding of game animals, and particularly deer, is a common practice throughout northern (continental) Europe and parts of North America. Feeding is normally associated with maintaining high densities of animals for hunting, in terms of: (i) maintaining or increasing body weights and condition overwinter; (ii) improving reproductive performance and fertility; (iii) increasing overwinter survival; and (iv) reducing levels of damage caused to agriculture and forestry or the natural heritage. We consider the balance of evidence on the effectiveness of winter feeding of red deer Cervus elaphus in achieving these objectives. Where that evidence is equivocal, we attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions to evaluate the circumstances under which winter feeding may or may not be effective.

2. In general, feeding of red deer on open range appears to have relatively little effect on body weights or fecundity. Effects on increasing antler size and quality are variable and seem to depend on the degree to which animals may be mineral limited on native range. Effects on survival are similarly ambiguous. It is apparent, however, that to be effective in reducing mortality, any supplementation is required early in the season and not simply when heavy mortalities are already being experienced. If provision of supplementary foods is delayed until animals are perceived already to be in poor condition, such feeding may have little effect.

3. One of the primary goals of winter feeding in both Europe and the USA has become the prevention of environmental damage, particularly damage to commercial and native forests, while maintaining deer populations at densities suitable for hunting. Again, empirical evidence for effectiveness in this regard is inconclusive, with some studies showing a decrease in damage caused, some showing no effect and others showing a significant increase in local impact.

4. There are equally a number of problems associated with the provision of supplementary feeds overwinter. Those animals which come to the feeding stations may develop a reliance on the food supplement provided, reducing intake of natural forages to near zero; where feed provided is less than 100% of daily requirement, such animals may regularly lose, rather than gain condition. Feed provision is also extremely uneven at such feeding stations; dominant stags displace younger stags and hinds from the feed provided until they have themselves finished feeding. Concentrations of high densities of animals around small feed-areas may also increase the risk of infection and lead to development of high parasite burdens.

5. In an attempt to assess the current status and distribution of supplementary winter feeding in Scotland, a questionnaire was circulated to a number of individual across the country. Results of this survey are summarized and conclusions presented on the likely effectiveness of current feeding practices in achieving their aims.