Red deer in the Serra da Lousã mountains: example of a reintroduction programme

In the 1990s, red deer were extinct in the central interior region of Portugal. In 2022, this region has a population of over 3,000 Cervus elaphus. Behind this change was a programme for the reintroduction of red deer in the Serra da Lousã mountains, which biologist Carlos Fonseca was involved in from the beginning.

In the 1990s, there were high densities of deer in confined areas under state management, such as at the Herdade da Contenda (Moura) and the Tapada de Vila Viçosa (Évora), but wild Cervus elaphus were scarce in some Portuguese regions and were considered regionally extinct in the Serra da Lousã mountains.

With an ecosystem rich in forest, heathland, and water resources, this mountain range had the right conditions to provide a home for this great mammal. With this in mind, the state forestry services (today ICNF – Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests), together with the University of Coimbra, designed what is today considered internationally to be an exemplary reintroduction programme.

Carlos Fonseca, then a final year biology student at the University of Coimbra, was involved in this challenge from the very beginning and tells us that, besides the exceptional conditions of the ecosystem, two other factors were essential for the success of the reintroduction of red deer into the Serra da Lousã mountains: “scientific support and territorial support”, with organised expertise and the involvement of the local populations and the municipalities of Lousã and Penela.

In March 1995, the first deer from Contenda and Vila Viçosa arrived in Lousã and the procedure was replicated in subsequent years. By the turn of the century, about 120 deer had been reintroduced and some others were reintroduced in adjacent areas in the early 2000s.

Good adaptation and reproductive success of red deer in the Serra da Lousã mountains

In the first few years, monitoring confirmed “the good adaptation of the deer to the Serra da Lousã area, as well as their reproductive success”, reveals the biologist, researcher and professor who, at the beginning of the 2000s, moved to the University of Aveiro – the institution that started coordinating the work related to this reintroduction programme.

“In the beginning, GPS technology was not yet very well developed and we tracked the animals with VHF collars”, recalls Carlos Fonseca. Even with the most rudimentary technologies (such as VHF, which operated on an analogue signal at an electromagnetic wave frequency), monitoring was carried out and the indicators showed that the essential factors for population growth were in place.

Twenty-five years after the beginning of the deer reintroduction programme in the Serra da Lousã mountains, the population was estimated at over 3,000 specimens and the area that became their territory was even enlarged, until it exceeded the geographical limits that had initially been established, between the Mondego River (to the north), the Zêzere River (to the south), the A1 motorway (to the west) and the Serra da Estrela (to the east).

The success of deer reintroduction in the Serra da Lousã mountains was not, however, without its setbacks, reveals Carlos Fonseca. He continues to monitor this population and is involved in several other conservation projects, such as the revision of the Red Book of the Mammals of Mainland Portugal (2019-2022), and coordinates the team dedicated to mammals and ungulates. In this Book, “red deer are classified as a species of Least Concern”.

Veados na Serra da Lousã

Challenges and recognition of the value of red deer in the Serra da Lousã mountains

When the number of animals started to increase, at the beginning of the new century, there were some reports of deer in gardens and backyards, and the acceptance of the reintroduction programme by the population was, in some cases, replaced by some apprehension.

People who came across one of these mammals on their land, or near their homes, feared damage to the crops that help them subsist and even physical confrontations. Protests at the widespread presence of deer began, and hunters’ associations joined the debate, suggesting that hunting might help the solution.
The suggestion was considered, studied, and accepted. The first Global Deer Management Plan was established by the then Directorate-General of Forests and the University of Aveiro, to carry out a survey of the species and set cull quotas in the hunting areas around the mountains. The heart of this region (11,000 hectares) has been left untouched and serves as a sanctuary so that the red deer population in the Serra da Lousã can continue to consolidate, but around it, hunting is now permitted.

Controlled hunting has helped to limit the excessive growth of the deer population, which could create conflicts with the population, and has at the same time boosted hunting as a sport. This was the first step in helping Portuguese society to understand the importance of the return of this species to the Serra da Lousã mountains, in ecological and socio-economic terms.

Since then, the red deer has become a symbol of the Serra da Lousã and a driving force in the region. “The deer today features on the logos of dozens of local businesses and even in the seal of Lousã Town Council. It is an element in promoting the Schist Villages and has led to the creation of a number of businesses, particularly in the tourist recreation sector”, says Carlos Fonseca, with numerous wildlife observation and photography activities.

The expansion of the area which the Serra da Lousã deer population uses today has brought another conservation challenge: “the expansion of this population, through the Serra de Alvéolos and Muradal, presents us with the possibility of interbreeding with another population, in the Tagus International Park, which has very high levels of bovine tuberculosis (affecting various species, including ungulates). In 2022, there was no record of the disease in the Lousã population and keeping them healthy is a complex challenge, but nevertheless a priority.

Veados na Serra da Lousã

Old and new facts about deer and hunting

  • Separated for millennia by the Pyrenees, the red deer on the Iberian Peninsula are not the same as those in the rest of Europe. They have genetic differences and are smaller, but this does not alter the fact that they are the largest wild mammals currently living in Portugal: they can weigh over 170 kilos and exceed two metres in length. As with almost all mammal species “there is a latitudinal gradient on the European continent and, in general, animals of the same species are smaller on the Iberian Peninsula”, explains Carlos Fonseca. In this specific case, the expert points out another difference: the antlers of Iberian deer are more curved.
  • Historically, larger and more majestic specimens were brought to Portuguese game reserves, originating from countries further north, something that today is not in line with the aims of conserving the Iberian deer, notes the researcher. Until the middle of the last century, these large specimens were highly coveted, but so were the smaller Portuguese ones: in the past, human over-exploitation, including unregulated hunting, led to a decline in deer numbers in the wild.
  • Deer hunting has long been related to the capture of the male deer, particularly for its antlers, which are a valued trophy. Various characteristics of the antlers—such as size, weight and other indicators—reflect the health and size of the animals, as well as the positive conditions of the ecosystem in which they live (or the lack of them). Since the hunting of deer in the Serra da Lousã began, the animals hunted have been listed in a national ranking system, with very high ratings, which is another good indicator of the success of the reintroduction programme, reveals Carlos Fonseca.
  • Genetic planning helps to raise financial resources that can and should be applied to improving knowledge and conservation of nature and biodiversity. One example is “the genetic analysis of the antlers of hunted specimens, in collaboration with Portuguese and Spanish universities, which has helped to reveal the origin of these animals and enabled us to confirm if we are dealing with Iberian specimens. Especially when they are very large antlers, there is a chance they could come from another subspecies”, says Carlos Fonseca. The conservation of Iberian red deer requires avoiding entry and interbreeding with animals from other regions, which is to say other subspecies, in order to conserve the genetic heritage and not jeopardise the characteristics of these populations that are well adapted to the ecosystem.

Find out more here about the red deer and the characteristics of this species of the ungulate family.