The Autumn Deer Rut. It’s one of Nature’s great spectacles to observe, but: “If you CARE for DEER, please DON’T GET TOO NEAR !”
As autumn approaches it will soon be time again for the ever-fascinating spectacle of the deer rut, which brings alive many of our woods and parks with the sound of clashing antlers and loud roars of red deer stags, belch-like groans of fallow bucks, and eerie whistling of sika stags. The mating season for red, sika and fallow deer may stretch out over eight weeks, but for all three species it reaches its peak (the rut) at some time during October. Having lived placidly together in all-male bachelor groups over the summer, by end of September the mature males develop thickened necks and manes, and become increasingly aggressive, sparring with one another to decide their initial rank in the hierarchy. The stags then set off in search of female groups and mating grounds, some travelling several miles commonly back near to where they rutted in the previous year.
The deer rut is one of nature’s great annual spectacles, as well-matched males are seen locking antlers in fierce battles for supremacy and access to females, which not uncommonly lead to injuries and sometimes even 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. Parallel walks can often be a sign that a full-blown fight may be imminent, unless one of the stags thinks better of it and scarpers to leave the resident stag in charge a little longer.
Once the largest males have gathered a harem of females or set up a rutting territory, at the peak of the rut they will be active almost constantly throughout the day and night for days on end, chasing away any other males that come too close. By regular roaring a stag will aim to attract females and signal to other stags that he remains strong. Other displays involve thrashing their antlers and covering them in vegetation, chivvying females to keep them together in one group, and of course courtship behaviours and mating. During the rut the master stags (called bucks in case of fallow deer) will take in hardly any food and many will lose as much as 25% of their body weight over just two or three weeks.
The autumn deer rut has become a popular event drawing large numbers of wildlife enthusiasts to the many deer parks, forest and moors across the country. A downside of this is that during the rut deer herds, not least in enclosed deer parks, frequently become surrounded by people on all sides, as folk approach ever closer in totally inappropriate and often dangerous attempts to get close-up photos using small smart phones.
Such close approaches by people will frequently disrupt the mating system, as females start to feel unsafe on their chosen mating ground and other males move in while the master stag has work even harder than normal to re-establish his territory or harem repeatedly. Stags often lose their fear of people during the rut, and once cornered or surrounded may suddenly charge at any bystander who has foolishly come too close, with some serious consequences reported most years. In fact just two days after I filmed the clip above, which shows people with smart phones surrounding a group of rutting deer in Richmond Park, in the same park a woman gored by a stag was hospitalized for several days.
So – when going to observe and photograph the deer rut this year, please do so responsibly at a good distance away, and try to arm yourself with binoculars or a camera with a longish zoom lens. In deer parks like Richmond and Bushy Park on the edge of London, signs are now posted in many areas asking people always to keep at very least 50 metres between you and the deer, ideally more! In case of wild deer, I would suggest its best to at least treble that distance and ensure at all times that the deer are not becoming encircled by people approaching from several sides at once. You’ll be rewarded by getting views of deer behaving much more naturally.
The photo below shows a good example of an area set aside by the National Trust on Exmoor near a favoured rutting area, where posters displayed during the rut ask people to remain on one side along the field boundary; – if adhered to, this gives the deer the chance to just gradually move a little further away if and when disturbance gets excessive.
The spectacular rate at which red deer antlers regrow year on year never ceases to amaze and fascinate me. Since 2014 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 have also been venturing out every fortnight or so with a video and stills camera in hope of filming them regularly. In some weeks one or both stags would pass the trail cameras several times a day. In this photo blog – 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 of new antlers 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 approaching 5 kg to 9 kg of new bone within a period of 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 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 2016 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), 03/2016 resting on the morning after casting his antlers (inset)
It so happened 2016 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 that year on the 16th with just one antler remaining, but Ash with still both of his. 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 that year.
It was intriguing to observe that both these stags cast on the same day in 2016, as Cedar was almost certainly 8 or more years older than Ash at the time. 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 was almost certainly already well over 10 years old in 2014. Cedar did show some signs of reduced condition in spring 2016, but (as seen below) his antlers grew to a magnificent size again. The pictures of him below taken in mid-April and mid-May 2016 showed he was well on the way even then.
Cedar 17th April (right) and 17th May 2016 (below) with 1 month and 2 months of regrowth. Ash on the other hand had been looking in excellent condition throughout 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. In 2016, at end of May I filmed him while entangled in a long length of yellow rope someone had discarded, but fortunately he managed 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 eluded me fro some time.
The picture above shows Cedar in mid-June 2015. To see how his antlers will compare in 2016, follow the updates I will post now and then below.
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 traveled 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 2016 rounding up one of his hinds.
Unfortunately, for Cedar this was his last rut. Although he survived through into winter, by February 2017 the subcutaneous fibroma he had been carrying for many months ruptured and became infected, like leading to pneumonia; leading to his death at the fine old age of between 14 to 16 years old – which far exceeds the common age stags will live to in the wild.
Update November 2017: Getting close up photos of Ash in 2017 eluded me for a while. However, here below now are 4 views of him, including his latest set of antlers. This year they are longer than last; Rights & 4 one side, Brow Tray 5 on the other.
(A video of Stag ASH filmed during Novemver 2017 is now on Youtube (link below):
Update March 2018: I was delighted to be able to film Ash close up again during mid March, when he still had both antlers, and again on 20th March when he cast. See photo below, with insert showing the left shed antler. I have not yet found his right – though expect someone will have by now. If so be great if could contact me, as would be intrigued to know how far away he second was cast.
For a video of him taken during this March both before and after shedding his antlers this year , see latest video added to my Youtube channel at Youtube.com/jochenlangbein
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.
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]