In July wild red deer stags are at their most tolerant of each other. Many will join all-male bachelor groups, commonly 5 to 15 strong, though occasionally – as in the video clip below – much larger aggregations may be seen.
Meanwhile, young red deer calves born during May and early June, that had been hiding away in dense cover most of the day for the first few weeks of their lives, start to become easier to see out in the open during this month. in July they begin to join female herds for at least part of the day. At other times they may form ‘nursery groups’ of several calves, often looked out for by one or two mature hinds staying close-by whilst the rest of the herd is grazing further afield. This often leads people to think they are seeing twin calves, though twins are actually quite rare among red deer, as indeed they are among fallow deer and sika. For roe deer, by contrast, twins are not at all uncommon and even triplets may occur occasionally.
Red deer hinds with young calves nearby tend to be especially vigilant and will bark loudly at any sign of perceived danger, …. such as for example an amateur cameraman hiding in among the bushes! (as you will see in the video above)!
Rudolph caught on trail camera by Christmas lights on edge of Exmoor, then poses for the houseowner to take photos, before raiding their bird feeders!
Having followed one particular magnificent Exmoor stag for several years, which had taken to visiting various gardens on the edge of town, I set up several remote wildlife cameras to get footage of him across the seasons. Coming up to Christmas I had rather a pleasant surprise when finding I had captured footage of him coming to view the Christmas lights.
The owners of the house also spotted him looking in through their windows, and he even posed for some photos when the lady of the house quietly went out to see him. (see video below)
Later on in the above video “Rudolph” is seen attempting and succeeding at carefully dislodging a bird feeder with his antler tips and then eating the contents.
Not allowing myself to be put off by first having to scrape ice from the car windows at 6.30 am, and heading up onto the moors last Wednesday morning was definitely my best decision of that week. Better still, when later on I found that most other folk seemed to have stayed in bed, leaving Exmoor at its most peaceful and tranquil. Walking for an hour from first light through icy puddles, weighed down by my tripod, video and stills camera, I neither heard nor saw any sign of wildlife during an almost eerie calm just before the sun emerged from behind Dunkery Beacon – the highest point on Exmoor.
Even without sightings of any wildlife the views from up there are always stunning, showing off the diverse blend of moorland, woodland, pasture and coastal habitats that epitomise Exmoor National Park in a single vista.
I began to feel that I may see little of the deer that I had come to film here, and decided to walk back to my car via a detour through the many lower lying sheltered combes and autumnal-looking oak woods. Eventually I spotted a few of the hardy Exmoor ponies, that live on the moor year round, grazing on small patches of grass in between the heather, lit up by the first rays of sun.
Then, much to my surprise, I spotted a few brown ears twitching among the heather and bracken no more than eighty metres below me, which from a quick look through the zoom on my camera I could see were a group of red deer. Although through the brown fronds of wilted bracken that I was hiding behind I was unable to get a clear view of how many there were in all, I could see at least several hinds and calves as well as one fair size stag. Some were lying down and others browsing partially out of sight further down the slope. I settled down, not daring to move to take any pictures for at least 15 minutes, (“that’s a record!” I hear my wife say !) to enjoy that unrivalled feeling when able to watch wild animals close-up, behaving naturally but totally unaware of my presence.
Eventually, having waited for a moment when all deer were head-down or facing away from me, I dared slowly to raise my video tripod, to get a few quick clips of them before they would most likely spot me when they stood up. As luck would have it, they did get up suddenly but looked away from me downhill in the direction of another stag that was bolving (the roar stags make during the mating season) in the distance, but appeared to be coming ever closer.
The herd however appeared to ignore him and casually started to walk off towards the next combe, enabling me to stand up without startling them. Once they were a little further away I decided – as I often do while filming deer – to show myself clearly to the deer, and let them see me walking gradually away at an angle while still keeping them in view. I often prefer this to attempting to stalk up closer to red deer, which more often than not results in startling them, and in photos of a lot of rear ends or of alarmed deer looking at the camera. Instead, I find it much better to try to predict where the herd will head next if not pushed, and re-approach using the slope of the land to provide cover while getting into a new position where the deer are likely to come into view again. Soon I was rewarded by seeing the herd – which turned out to be much larger than I had thought – reappear ambling up to the top of the next combe. They hinds and calves grazed calmly, while the lay down unperturbed by several Exmoor ponies close-by, and taking no notice of me settled in full view of them, but on the other side of the combe.
Having watched quietly for some time, the stag I’d heard bolving previously suddenly ran up the slopes to join the herd. The resident stag, which had appeared to be holding the herd, immediately moved to the edge of the group and stared to graze head-down; a typical displacement behaviour signalling his sub-dominant status to the other stag that had suddenly appeared. However, after just five minutes of inspecting the hinds and taking in their scent to check if any were yet to come into oestrus, he took off again and headed directly towards me.
At first I thought he might truly be aiming for me, but rather than pretending to graze, in my case I stood up and made sure the stag could clearly see that my tripod was not a set of antlers! Untroubled, he calmly trotted past me back down into the combe to re-join another smaller group of hinds that were clearly of much more interest to him.
Meanwhile the other deer were all still stood up above looking at me, allowing me to get a few more close photos of them in the bright late autumn sunshine.
I retreated to leave them all in peace, and returned home via Porlock Common to take in just a few more of my favourite Exmoor views.
View from Porlock Common over Bossington Hill and the Bristol Channel.
During early August most mature red deer stags will have completed regrowth of their antlers. The protective highly vascular velvety skin that supplied oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone over the past months now starts to dry out and decay, attracting numerous flies. Stags may become more difficult to spot at this time as they lie up in high cover, such as reed beds, bracken and cereal fields for much of the day, to get away from pesky flies. More unusually some stags may seek out shade in a secluded garden, as shown in the clip below of a stag that came right up close to my garden trail camera last year, and shows swarms of flies surrounding his antlers during mid-August.
By the end of August mature stags will ‘clean’ their antlers of the remaining velvet skin that is now ‘in tatters’, to reveal their shiny new antler tips, ready to do battle in the autumn rut.
“My legs are getting so long now I have to kneel down to suckle”.
See below for previous Month:
The Red deer Year: July
Velvet Stags and Spotted Calves.
In July red deer stags are at their most tolerant of each other. Many join all-male bachelor groups, commonly 5 to 15 strong, though occasionally as in the clip below much larger aggregations may be seen even in the wild. Meanwhile, young red deer calves born during May and early June, which had been hiding away in dense cover most of the day for the first few weeks of their lives, become easier to see out in the open in July. They now start to join female herds for at least part of the day, and may form ‘nursery groups’ of several calves together, looked out for by one or two mature hinds. This often leads people to think they are seeing twin calves, though twins are actually quite rare among red deer. Hinds with young calves nearby are especially vigilant and will bark loudly at any sign of perceived danger, …. such as an amateur cameraman hiding in the bushes!
The wily Exmoor stag that learned to use his antlers as tools
When researching and filming red deer in the urban fringe over the past two years (see my previous blog) one particular stag always stood out for his intelligence, dexterity and constant twinkle in his eye !
In one video clip featured widely on BBC TV and other media during March, I’d filmed him dislodging bird feeders in gardens on the edge of the Exmoor National Park in Somerset. The intriguing thing about this however is not merely to have a stag in a garden pinching food from a bird feeder, but the very intricate way this stag gradually ‘learned’ to use his antlers to unhook the feeders. Not least as hoofed animals (ungulates) are not generally regarded as the brainiest among mammals. I’d observed a number of other stags in the past simply thrashing their antlers against bird feeders, scattering a few seeds on the ground now and again. But in the amusing trimmed version of my clip with audio as used by the BBC Instagram it shows this old wily stag actually using the tip of his antlers to lift feeders off the tree branches they were hooked on to. In the first part of the clearer full size youtube clip (below) you can see the feeder being seen to smash open on the deer’s back, though this was far from a one off.
“Wily old stag uses antlers to dislodge bird feeders”
Having set up cameras by several bird feeders in nearby gardens. the wily old stag i named ‘Cedar’ managed the trick increasingly quickly; but normally once dislodged the he would paw at the feeder on the ground until the lid snapped off and then ate the contents.
One of the first occasions I noted him and another stag feeding from bird feeders was two year’s earlier in spring, soon after the stags had cast their previous antlers to start to re-grow a new set (see antler growth blog). Even then ‘Cedar’, aged at least 12 to 15 years old at the time, showed he was much more adept than the other deer. Above he is seen reaching with his tongue right into a bird table, while the others just waited for the occasional tit-bit to fall on the ground. Sadly due to an infected injury sustained in the rut this stag did not make it through yet another winter, though he’d lived far longer than most wild stags ever reach on Exmoor. It will be interesting to see if some of his many offspring turn out to be just as clever.
To see some of the other antics this wild stag got up to when visiting various gardens I’d been filming in, click on the thumbnails below to link to short video clips, ranging from some where he uses his antlers as backscratchers, to others where he raids the washing line to dress up for Halloween :-). Click on thumbnails below to play clips.
In early June this year during a walk on the edge of Exmoor I was thrilled to stumble across a newly born deer calf lying up concealed among nettles and brambles. Most deer calves hide up quietly on their own for much of the day during the first few weeks of life, and the mother returns only briefly a few times each day to suckle them.
One week old red deer calf hiding.
Newly born calves even of our largest UK species – red deer – measure barely fifty centimetres tip to tail, and their reddish brown coat flecked with small white spots provides perfect camouflage among the woodland vegetation.
Photographing young calves in the wild without disturbing them becomes easier in late summer when they start to follow their mothers and join the rest of the herd. Having had little chance to observe calves again until now – the first week in September – it is quite staggering to see how much they have grown even though most are still barely 12 weeks old.
“Barely three months old, but I’m already able to look over mum’s shoulder”.
“My legs are getting so long now I have to kneel down to suckle”.
“With my legs growing faster than my neck, grazing too is easier kneeling down”.
“The other calves say I have a face just like my mum!”
“Time for a rest …..
… before joining the herd to eat my greens”.
See below for a video clip from earlier this summer when calves were just 3 – 4 weeks old :
Meanwhile the stags have been chilling while regrowing their antlers :
Meanwhile the stags have been chilling and regrowing their antlers
Last week I was asked to speak to the Quantock Deer Forum on the history and findings of the annual Quantock Red deer count, which I have now been involved with in one way or another for over two decades. Ever since 1991 this count has been organised on behalf of the Quantock Deer Management & Conservation Group (QDM&CG) with assistance of the Quantock Hills AONB service. The count is undertaken usually on a morning in early March and focusses primarily on assessing trends in Red deer numbers, although records of other deer species seen are also recorded. It is undertaken by around 50 – 60 volunteers from a very wide range of backgrounds, including wildlife watchers and photographers, hunters and deer stalkers, as well as countryside rangers from the AONB, Forestry Commission and National Trust, most importantly all of them sharing an interest in the health and sustainable management of the red deer. On the day of the count each volunteer is allocated to survey all or a part of one of 49 different count blocks covering the Quantock Hills and adjacent lower lying land. Wild deer are notoriously difficult to count accurately, not least across areas as large and diverse as the Quantocks Hills AONB, but this count is never undertaken with the expectation of obtaining a complete count of the entire Quantock red deer herd. A proportion of those deer present within the count area will always be missed in concealing cover, and others – not least some older stags – tend to move well off the hills from late winter onwards until rejoining mixed sex herds in the autumn. Instead the main value of the count – undertaken in the same way year on year – lies in identifying minimum numbers that remain and to serve as an index of long term population trends.
Changes in numbers of Red deer seen during annual counts 1991 – 2014.
The graph above shows red deer numbers seen during individual counts have fluctuated widely over the years, with around 600 noted in most years during the early 1990s but falling to below 500 later in the same decade. Thereafter counts rose steadily up until 2005 to a peak of 958, but have fallen back again steadily since, to reach a low of 386 during 2013 and recovering to 511 at the most recent count in March 2014. Multiple different reasons are likely to have contributed to the trends observed, including changes in the size, spread and manner in which deer culls have been undertaken, but also variation in farming and cropping practices off the Hills and public pressure on the Hills. Information on how many deer are culled each year by different landholders across the count region remains lacking, as to date only some regularly report their culls to the QDM&CG. However, when laying out its policies (see QDMCG leaflet) most individual landholding members and organisations of the QDM&CG group agreed that a population based on around 400 – 450 red deer noted at the annual spring count is believed to constitute a sustainable population size for the area in the long term; on the proviso that it is well distributed across the region.
Click to view pdf
The overall and regional differences in the trends of the count are explored further in my Deer Forum presentation about the history of the Deer Count – a copy of which can be viewed here:
Most of all however the Quantock deer count demonstrates the value of such quite basic but nevertheless consistent long term monitoring of mammals over many years; and not least in areas such as this where the red deer are managed largely independently of one another by numerous different landholders, in order to provide an overview of trends across the wider area.