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Watching Two Wild Exmoor Stags through the Seasons: Part 1

Part1 : The amazing rate of antler growth

The spectacular rate at which red deer antlers regrow year on year never ceases to amaze and fascinate me.  For the past 18 months I have been fortunate enough to observe and film two particular wild Exmoor stags closely, using a number of wildlife trail cameras that I set up at some of their favourite haunts. In addition to this, I also ventured out at least once every ten days or so with a video and stills camera in hope of viewing them again. In some weeks one or both stags would pass the cameras several times a day. In this first photo blog about them – where for ease of identification I have named the two stags ‘Cedar’ and ‘Ash’- I want to look mainly at the time of antler casting and re-growth through the spring months.

First, however, a bit of background on the antler cycle. With the exception of the introduced Chinese Water Deer, males in each of the other five deer species living in the wild in Britain (Red, Roe, Sika, Fallow and Muntjac deer) shed their antlers annually and regrow a complete new set every year. Whilst roe and muntjac antlers are only of fairly modest size in relation to their body, in the case of red deer stags each antler may be up to – or sometimes even exceed – 1 metre long. For red stags in their prime, this may amount to regrowth of around 5 kg to 9 kg of new bone in less than 4 months, and add up to 7 cm to the overall length of each antler per week. In moose (European Elk) the growth is even more amazing, with growth of up to 419 grams of antler recorded in a single day.

In Britain, the first set of antlers does not usually develop at before they are 10 months old in free-living red deer, although with supplementary feed first antlers may already develop in calves on some deer farms and parks. In good habitats the first  antlers in the wild will commonly be an unbranched pair of spikes 5 to 35 cm in length, while in prickets in poorer condition only partially developed pedicles may barely break through the skin.
Antlerblog_PricketGdAntlerblog_PrP
Red deer prickets 9mth old with a) average and b) poor 1st head of antlers

After annual casting of their antlers in spring, each new set grown by red deer then tends to become progressively more branched, increasing the number and length of tines and the weight of the antlers year on year, up until around the age of eleven. Depending on physical condition of the animal, new antlers in later years may be found to be ‘going back’ – that is, not growing to the same length or amount of branching of past years, though even then will often still show thicker beams.

Antlerblog_8321Stag ‘Ash’ (left) & ‘Cedar’ (right) on 11/03/2016 with their 12 point and 16 points set of antlers.

Antler size or numbers of tines per se is, however, at best an imprecise indicator of age, with beam width, breadth of coronet and height of coronet above the skull much better indicators.  Commonly, each red deer antler consists of points (tines) on a main beam -not unlike a tree branch- with a fork and cup of points at the top. In the closely related Wapiti from North America the top tines are not generally cupped, and some tines are directed backwards. This characteristic may also be seen in some red deer, quite possibly as result of previous hybridisation with cross-bred park deer.

The maximum total number of tines a mature red deer stag attains in Britain is variable. Eight to ten points is common among fully grown adults in the wild, though up to 16 (8 per antler) are not unusual if they are allowed to reach over 7 to 10 years old, whereas 20 or more points (which would be referred to “all his rights and 7-a-top” on Exmoor) is nowadays quite exceptional in our wild populations. Nevertheless, with selective breeding and good nutrition from an early age, near 50 points have been recorded in some British parks.

The picture above (and short video clip below) shows Cedar and Ash in early March while still in hard antler.

Big stags like these are usually also the first to cast their antlers. On Exmoor this will commonly occur during the early weeks of March, though some supplementary fed stags in enclosed British park herds may cast as early as mid to late February in some years. Younger stags below 4 years old on the other hand may not shed their antlers until well into April or even early May.   

Antlerblog_8443sm Antlerblog_8442
                Cedar (left) and Ash (right), resting on the morning after casting his antlers (inset)

It so happened this year that Cedar and Ash both completed casting on the very same day – 17th March (two days later than Cedar had cast in the previous year).   On my trail-cameras I captured Cedar on the 16th with just one antler but Ash with still both. All four of their antlers were however found the next day, all having been cast within less than 100 metres of each other.

Antlerblog_4042 Antlerblog_5067Cedar: cast antlers 15/03/2015 (left) and with re-growth nearly complete by 18th June last year. It was intriguing to observe that both these stags cast on the same day this year, as Cedar is almost certainly 5 or more years older than Ash. In autumn 2014, Ash still had only 10 points in total, and did not reach ‘3 a top’ (Royal) size until 2015. The older stag, Cedar, however was already regularly observed in the same region of Exmoor with 4 or more points a-top five years ago, and will be almost certainly be 10 years or older by now.Antlerblog_17May16 Cedar did show some signs of reduced condition this spring, and it remains to be seen if his antlers will once more be as magnificent as they were in 2015. However, the pictures of him below taken in mid-April and mid-May this year show that even by then he was well on the way.   Cedar 17th April (right) and 17th May  2016 (below) with 1 month and 2 months of regrowth. Antlerblog_9047sm Ash on the other hand has been looking in excellent condition through the spring, but as ever is a rather curious and accident prone stag. In 2015 he managed to entangle his antlers in soft netting, presumably whilst raiding strawberries in allotments on the edge of Exmoor. This year, at end of May I filmed him while entangled in a long length of yellow rope someone had discarded, but fortunately seemed to get rid of much of this by time I next saw him in early June.  Fingers crossed he will not get caught up by this or damage the soft vulnerable antlers whilst still in velvet. Antlerblog_3429   Antlerblog_6037sm

Ash in March 2015 (before casting) and with new antlers in Summer 2015, having been at the strawberries!

Getting good close-up pictures of both these stags again during mid-June of this year has eluded me so far.

Exmoor Red Stag in Velvet

The picture above shows Cedar in mid-June last year (2015).  To see how this year’s antlers will compare, check back in two or three weeks, when all being well I will have found Cedar and Ash again and if so shall update this blog with newer photos. Update Mid-July 2016 : Glad to report that having found Cedar again, his new set of antlers (below) look set to exceed even those from last year again. So far at least 17 points (all his rights and 5 & 6 a-top), though may well show 18 points once clean.  Ash also already shows at least 14 points (3 and 5 a-top) this year (picture yet to add).

Red Stag in Velvet mid July

Cedar with antlers near complete mid-july 2016

Update Late August 2016 : Ash has cleaned his antlers (including the annoying rope he had tangled in them). Collage below shows progression of Ash’s clean antlers in 3 successive years.   Exmoor Stag Ash's progress  

Update mid September 2016:  Finally – while seeing also Cedar close up since shedding velvet had eluded me for a while, here he is at the “Selfie cam” showing off his new tines.  Red Stag at Selfie Cam

Despite carrying an injury from last year that has become infected and grown into a large abscess, his antlers have grown bigger than ever  (All his Rights and 6 a-top one side, 5 a-top (nearly six) the other.  Bring on the rut !   Will be interesting to see (and report soon) how far he wanders.

PS.  In the end in autumn 2016 neither of the two Stags travelled very far for the rut. Cedar was mostly found on a nearby hill within 2 miles throughout most of October, while Ash travelled around a bit more widely from place to place but also usually seen less than  2 – 3 miles of his winter / summer range. Picture below shows Cedar back up on the Exmoor Hills during mid-October rounding up one of his hinds.

Snapshot 2 (04-04-2017 14-34)1


 

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Why UK Deer Vehicle Collisions peak in May

MAY is the PEAK MONTH for deer road casualties and related vehicle collisions across Great Britain as a whole. Over 10,000 deer are likely to be hit in May alone – that’s close to twice as many as in any other single month and makes up near 15% of the annual toll of between 60,000 to 74,000 GB deer road casualties.J_langbein_RoeBuckRTA_1000

This peak in Deer Vehicle Collisions (DVCs) is, as shown in the graph below, far less pronounced on minor roads that deer may cross on a daily basis when moving from cover to feeding areas, and which of course in general carry relatively modest traffic volumes. For motorways and major A-class trunk roads however, the spring peak in DVCs from April through to June makes up over 50% of the annual toll.  At this time young deer coming up to one year old (especially the territorial roe deer, which are our most common and widespread UK deer species) will tend to be pushed out of their natal ranges, and as they disperse in search for new home ranges will be much more likely to attempt to cross the more substantial barriers presented by dual carriageways and motorways. DVCseason graph

Aside from dispersing animals, adult females too will increasingly cross roads during May on their way to – or often with new fawns at heel – as they return from more secluded areas of cover that they may seek out for giving birth.  Oddly enough, even though road side verges may seem rather noisy places to us, as vegetation grows denser during spring they become increasingly attractive for deer and other animals to settle within, because scrub and linear strips of woodland alongside major roads and even on roundabouts and between slip roads will often be relatively undisturbed by pedestrians and not least dog walkers. 

A further, but overall smaller peak in DVCs occurs in autumn, when our three largest deer species (red, fallow and sika) will be on the move again to and from their rutting areas.  This second peak in deer accidents from mid-October through into early November tends to be most prominent in:  A) Large community forests where fallow deer predominate – including Cannock Chase, Ashdown Forest, The Forest of Dean, Epping Forest, Haldon Hill, Ashridge Forest, The New Forest and also The Royal Parks of Richmond and Bushy; and  B) throughout those regions of the country with high concentrations of wild red deer such as The Scottish Highlands, Grizedale Forest, and Exmoor and The Quantock Hills.

In addition to late autumn being the rutting season for the large deer species, when adult males will often chase blindly across roads in pursuits of females or rival males, the shorter day lengths bring rush hour traffic periods in line with the peak dawn and dusk activity times of all our deer species deer, adding further to an increase in deer collision risk.

Whatever the season, one of the most important things for drivers to be aware of is that when you see one deer cross there is a high chance another will be following behind. Have a listen to the deer in the video clip above who will tell you more about this ; and please share it widely to help raise driver awareness of the very real risk of deer vehicle collisions – especially but not only – during the months of May and Oct/November. (If unable to view Youtube , a Facebook version of clip is here: https://www.facebook.com/LangbeinWildlife/videos/1720421378210744/ )

Click here for more tips on avoiding deer collisions or what to do if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in one.  And to help map DVC hotspots please do log the dates and locations of any deer road casualties you may on this on-line reporting form.

Next post : Watching two wild Exmoor Stags through the seasons.


 

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