Red Deer × Cow

Cervus elaphus × Bos taurus

deer-cow hybrid An ostensible deer-cow hybrid photographed recently (July 2013) in France. Lon MacGregor, who took this picture, notes that in comparison with a cow this animal is browner, has harder, shorter hair, more pronounced horns at a younger age, a more deer-like head, and thinner legs. More pictures and info >>


“Some old red deer seems to have taken erratic courses about the ancient haunts of the Wolf of Badenoch.”
—J. Brodie Innes
Letter to Charles Darwin (1/28/1870)
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), known also in North America as an Elk or Wapiti

Note: Red deer are often treated as conspecific with the elk, or wapiti, of North America.

In his Log-book of a Fisherman and Zoologist (1876, pp. 196-197), the English surgeon, zoologist, popular author and natural historian, Frank Buckland (Francis Trevelyan Buckland), gives the following account: “I must not in this chapter omit to mention a curious instance of a supposed hybrid between a cow and a red-deer which came under my notice. When inspecting

the river Beauly, near Inverness, Lord Lovat kindly asked me to examine a supposed hybrid between a red-deer stag and a cow, which was in the cow byres at Beaufort Castle. The animal was standing in a straw-yard. With its head turned away, it was like an ordinary black Scotch cow, but when she turned her head I was amazingly struck with the very deer-like appearance of the face, which the set-on of the ears, the oblong Chinese-like eyes, and the narrow prolongated muzzle, increased.

The story is that a cow was kept in a distant locality, where she could have access to none of her own species, but that there were red-deer stags about. A calf was unexpectedly born in which the deer features appeared. This calf has now grown up into the animal, as above described, which was then four years old. The herdsman told me that the other cattle would never associate with it; and in fact, when he drove it into the cow-shed, in order to tie it up for me to examine, the other animals turned their heads, and snorted at it.

Frank Buckland
Frank Buckland
deer-cow hybrid
An ostensible deer-cow hybrid photographed recently (July 2013) in France. Additional pictures of this animal can be seen here. More info >>

The voice is not like that of the other cattle; it is a short noise like “ump!” “ump!” The action when trotting is somewhat higher than that of an ordinary cow. There are no horns, but a bony knob of a somewhat triangular shape between the ears. Although the resemblance to the deer about the head is exceedingly remarkable, I cannot bring myself to believe that it is a true hybrid.

This same animal and another like it, are discussed in letters from John Brodie Innes to Charles Darwin. Innes was one of Darwin’s close friends and, until 1862, vicar of Darwin’s home village of Downe. In that year he inherited an estate in Scotland and went there to live. From his new home, Innes maintained a correspondence with his friend back in Downe. The following is the text of one of his letters to Darwin, dated Dec. 7, 1868:

Dear Darwin,
At our cattle shew today there was exhibited an odd looking beast supposed to be a cross between a Highland cow and a red deer or roe — It has much of the deer head, and legs, it is a dun, the hair curly, on body, and nearly bare on legs. I did not see it at liberty but it is said to go with the long trot of the deer and to carry its head looking about like them. It strikes one on looking at it to have as much of the deer as cow about it. All that the owner, McDonald tenant of Blervie [a castle five miles southeast of Forres in northern Scotland] knows about it is that a little cow in the hills who had been in places frequented by deer had calved it two years ago. A veterinary surgeon at Inverness McLean bought it and I have told him to ascertain what he can about it and tell me, in case you may care to know about it. I have asked him to give an accurate description of its coat, the formation of legs, gait, habits, to ascertain whether the dam had been put to bull, or if a bull was within reach of access when she was running loose — To send a photograph of the beast, a female.

If this is a curiosity and anything occurs to you to ask I will put the questions, or you could ask them of Mr. McLean V.S. Inverness.

Mr. Key, a corn merchant in Forres told me he had once before seen a beast of the kind but it was not such an ugly one as this.

Believe me Dear Darwin.

Yours faithfully,

J. Brodie Innes

The following is the text of Dr. McLean’s response to Innes, dated Dec. 15, 1868.

J. Brodie Innes Esqr.


I beg to be excused for being so long in answering your letter of the 8th, which I duly received.

As to your query whether the cow was sent to a Bull, or whether there was a Bull going along with the cow — I can not in th[e] mean time answer — Mr. McDonald told me that the woman had only one cow — in the neighbourhood of a deer Forrest — the head of the animal resembles altogether that of a deer — the teeth ar[e] differantly set from those of a cattle beast — the eye is distinctly that of a deer— in short the head and ears ar[e] quite differant from that of a cow — the ears are perfictly bare of hair — the Ligamentum nuchae — is much stronger than [t]hat of a cattle beast of the same age — the Cervical vertebra is also peculiarly that of a deer — the general construction of the trunk is such as a cattle beast of the same age would have — with the exception of the dorsal Spines which are much Longer.

The extremities — again differ completely from those of a cattle beast — the bones being much smaller and finer — the muscles being harder and much more of a tendonous construction — Showing a peculiar adaptation for speed — there are several parts of the body in the mean time perfectly free of hair — particularly the extremities — My own Impression is that when the animal casts its coat in Spring it will be almost bare of hair — the gait more resembles that of a deer than that of a cattle beast — the hair in the mean time is soft and silky — Any more Information I will gladly give.

Your obedient Servant,

S. McLean

In a letter to Darwin dated Dec. 18, 1868, Innes mentioned that he had forwarded McLean’s letter.

I sent you yesterday the V.S. letter about the supposed hybrid. I was dining with a neighbour on Tuesday and talking about it. He is a very little more of a naturalist than I, so you may set him very low, he said “I should entirely have disbelieved such a report, but this beast speaks for herself and carries her own evidence in her face” — Such is my own opinion, worthless though it is — If not part deer it is a wonderful natural imitation.

In a subsequent letter to Darwin, dated Jan. 28, 1870, Innes included a clipping from a Scottish newspaper, the Elgin Courant, which mentions the same animal described by Frank Buckland in the passage quoted above.

HYBRID COW. — There is at present a hybrid cow among a herd at the home farm of Beaufort — a cross apparently between a deer and a cow. Except in the colour, which is black, the animal is identical in appearance with the one lately sold by Mr Maclean, V.S., to the proprietor of Wombwell’s Menagerie. Strange to say, both animals were bred in or near the same parish — Ardclach — and in many respects bear a similar history. Mr Lawson, manager at Beaufort, bought the cow last autumn among a herd of cattle, and it has since been seen and admired by many. The hybrid cow in Wombwell’s menagerie was calved at Lochindorb, and was exhibited by Mr M'Donald, Blervie, at the Forres Christmas Cattle Show in 1868.

The text of the letter itself reads as follows:

Dear Darwin,

The above is from the Elgin Courant of this day 28th Jan., 1870. I have not seen the animal. It is satisfactory to know that the former one, which I told you of before and which seemed if not a hybrid, a wonderfully good imitation of one has gone to a menagerie where perhaps in life or death the truth of its origin may be tested. Some old red deer seems to have taken erratic courses about the ancient haunts of the Wolf of Badenoch.

Faithfully Yours

J. Brodie Innes

An earlier description of such a hybrid appears in the 1820-1821 installment of Sylvan, ein Jahrbuch für Forstmänner, Jäger und Jagdfreunde, Marburg und Kassel (pp. 124-127, 156).

And there are also two accounts of a much earlier date. In one, Gerald of Wales (Topographia Hibernica, § II, ch. xxii and Itinerarium Cambrensis, II, ch. xi) describes a cow-deer born at Chester, England in the late 12th century: “Of a cow-deer. In our own time, at Chester

deer-cow hybridEnlarge
Illustration of the Deer-cow of Chester (from Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica).

in England, a deer accosted a cow and from this union a cow-deer was produced. The anterior portion of the animal all the way back to the genital organs was like a cow. But the hips, tail, hindlegs and feet had the hair and color of a deer. But because it preferred cattle to the wild deer it remained with them in the domestic herd. [Translated by E.M. McCarthy. Original Latin (from Topographia Hibernica): “De vacca cervina. Apud Cestriam Britanniae, temporibus nostris, ad vaccam cervus accesserat; unde et vacca cervina processit. Parte enim anteriore tota usque ad inguina bos erat; coxas subinde cum cauda, tibias, et pedes, expresse cum pilositate et colore cervinos habens. Sed quia plus pecoris quam ferae preferebat, inter armenta resedit” Brewer (1861-1891, p. 109).]

Paul Zacchias
Paul Zacchias

Paul Zacchias (1661, p. 502), personal physician to Pope Innocent X, says he saw such a hybrid at Rome: “His eminence Cardinal Barberini possesses an animal born of

a cow and a deer. It is a little larger than a deer and has an oblong face. The cowlike horns are separated by a rounded space, and are dark gray in color. The pelage is tawny. It is exceptionally fierce and quick. Its hooves are like those of a deer, but stouter. [Original Latin: “Ex ceruo & vacca natum animal habet Eminentiss. Card. Barberinus; statura est ceruo aliquanto maiore, ore oblongo, cornibus vaccinis internodiis tantum orbicularim diuisis, colore nigricantibus; pilo est ex fuluo dilutiore, ferociam & velocitatem habet insignem, pedibus est ceruinis, sed crassioribus.”]

Other cervid × bovid crosses:

Axis Deer × Himalayan Tahr

Roe Deer × Sheep

Reindeer × Cow

Moose × Cow.

Human hybrids >>

Contents >>

Bibliography >>

Below: An old account of a deer-cow hybrid dating to 1684 (in this case the hybrid was a hermaphrodite, a common condition in many hybrid crosses):
deer-cow hybrid
The screenshot above is from Miscellanea curiosa, sive Ephemeridum medico-physicarum Germanicarum ... (Norimbergae, 1689), Dec. II, An. VII, p. 395, obs. CCX.

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Red Deer × Cow - ©