For many autumn conjures up thoughts of deciduous woodlands transformed into a splendid array of mellow colours, wind-swept days, and acorns and conkers falling to the ground. As a wildlife enthusiast, for me equally evocative of autumn are the sound of clashing antlers and roars of stags that signal the on-set of the rut for the three largest (Red, Sika and Fallow) among the six species of deer living wild in Britain.
The mating season for red, sika and fallow deer may stretch out over eight weeks, but for all reaches its peak (the rut) sometime during October. Having lived placidly together in all male bachelor groups over the summer (first clip below) , …..
…by September the mature males develop thickened necks and manes, become increasingly aggressive to one another, and set off in search of female groups and mating grounds (see second video clip)
The ensuing spectacle of the rut has all the ingredients of a cinema blockbuster, as high-ranking males lock antlers in fierce battles for supremacy and access to females, which can lead to injuries and sometimes death for the looser. Such battles are preceded by a wide range of ritualistic displays including thrashing of vegetation, wallowing in mud, and parallel walking to suss out the opposition, all backed by a soundtrack of the loud roaring of red stags, the deep belching groans of fallow bucks, or eerie high-pitched whistling of the sika. The prize at stake is to be one of the small proportion of sexually mature males to dominate the great majority of matings that season, either by gathering a large harem of females that a stag will repeatedly chivvy to keep them together, or defending a prime mating territory (or stand) that he will guard fiercely against any other male.
WHEN GOING TO OBSERVE THE RUT HOWEVER PLEASE arm yourself with binoculars or camera with a long zoom lens, don’t be tempted to approach the deer closer than about 150 metres and avoid the deer becoming surrounded by people on several sides, so as not to disrupt the natural behaviour of the deer as well as for your personal safety.
One other consequence of the heightened movement of deer during the mating season, is that they may run blindly across roads with other things than traffic foremost on their mind (!) leading to an annual spike in fallow, red and sika deer road casualties from early October through into November. With clocks then going back for daylight saving, this also brings rush hour traffic in line with dawn and dusk and the early part of the night – when deer crossings and near misses are most likely. So as nights draw in, Take care – Be DeerAware !
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.
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. 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.
Stag ‘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.
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.
Cedar: 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. 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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
When watching the spectacle of the wild red deer rut, have you too at times wondered just how far each of the different stags that turn up at the rutting grounds have travelled in their search for females and to establish a harem to defend?
Outside of the mating season wild red deer stags tend to form loose bachelor groups, that may be composed of anything from two to ten or more males. Stags then live largely segregated from hinds and young from late winter onwards, in ranges that may be several miles from the traditional rutting areas they tend to return to every autumn. However the distance between the ranges used by stags in late winter and summer and the location of their rutting areas is very variable, and in truth is often unknown for most individual stags except within the confines of deer parks or the well studied red deer population on Rum (that however spans <10 miles in any direction). Only relatively few radio-tracking studies in the UK have looked into this, but some information is available from a number of stags collared as part of the Exmoor Deer Research project in the late 1990s. One of these – pictured below – I was able to track over three consecutive rutting seasons.
“Exmoor Red deer stag radio-collared in Horner Woods in 1995 “
During one day in late September 1996 this large stag was found to move at least 9.6 km as the crow flies. Having recorded him early in the morning in his winter & summer range (located at the time on the eastern end of North Hill), by afternoon of the same day I spotted him back in Horner Woods nr Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor), within a few hundred yards of where we had collared him in the previous year, and returned here also the following year by which time the batteries in his collar had failed. Two other mature stags radio tracked as part of the same project in the 90’s spent their summers in different ranges in Culbone Woods and out on the moorlands of the Exmoor Forest, but well within 5 to 7 km from their respective autumn rutting areas.
I am now once again tracking a few Exmoor stags throughout the year for a filming project (this time recognised only by their antlers and other characteristic markings rather than radio collars), but much to my surprise one 16 pointer that I have followed ever since February has moved no more than 2 to 3 miles away during the rut this year (thus far!). If anyone else has followed individual clearly recognisable stags on Exmoor and the Quantocks in more recent years and observed them both in spring and summer in areas well away from where they later turned up for the rut, I‘d be interested to hear from you what the largest recorded distances between spring/summer and autumn ranges of red deer stags are here in the Westcountry. Or indeed also for red deer populations in other parts of the country. [If commenting on this post please give approx. locations of deer only or else email me direct]