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)!
Looking forward to the Spectacle of the Autumn Deer Rut
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 !
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.
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]
Despite our ever-increasing human population, expanding road networks and urban sprawl, deer have adapted to living within major cities including the like of Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Southampton. Even more surprising is the number of deer that now inhabit London Boroughs inside the M25 orbital motorway- one of Europe’s busiest roads. How they manage to
avoid the dangers of often eight-lane wide carriageways is an intriguing question. The sad fact is that vast numbers of deer die attempting to cross Britain’s roads leading approximately to 70,000 deer casualties, many hundreds of human injuries and several fatal traffic collisions every year. On just the M25 alone these annual figures include 65 deer road kills, however from our emerging research we now know that many more do manage to cross safely by using low underpasses and bridges. First evidence of this I captured on video using CCTV ten years ago, of one fallow buck crossing a narrow concrete M25 bridge. Some years later I managed to film also larger groups of deer crossing a wider bridge, but just one using a small underpass (see Youtube playlist below).
In attempt to record these novel behaviours in greater photographic quality and thus help demonstrate the value of such structures for both animal and road safety, I recently teamed up with wildlife photographer Jamie Hall – to make use of his innovative camera trap expertise – with quite astonishing results.
Jamie staked out some of the bridges I’d previously observed over several nights, producing stunning images that capture the calm nature in which deer cross a motorway bridge overlooking the busy night-time traffic. Amazingly, Jamie has now also been able to film deer passing through a number of long M25 underpasses, of which some preliminary photos and videos are being shown on these blog pages for the first time. Recent research with other colleagues has shown that fallow, red and roe deer do regularly use the small and mostly short underpasses (up to 35m in length) beneath local roads in the New Forest (Muttock, Langbein & Diaz, in prep). The even more surprising aspect shown so clearly here for the first time in Jamie’s images, is that fallow will regularly use much longer underpasses, including some less than 3 m high and over 100 meters long. Furthermore, the footage illustrates that deer will cross these low dark structures even when they are partially flooded.
In previous research (Existing Structure study) with The Deer Initiative I’d explored the potential suitability for use by deer of numerous bridges, underpasses and culverts over and under trunk roads in Devon and Cornwall. The findings highlighted that a high proportion of existing structures of quite modest size are likely to be adopted as safer crossings by deer, given limited modifications such as short lead-in deer fencing or even merely removal of various obstacles to their direct access. High deer fencing remains one of the few well proven methods of reducing deer collisions on motorways and major trunk roads, but even this tends to be most successful where it channels animals to safer crossing points. Wide “green bridges” or landscape bridges constructed in parts of Europe and the US primarily to reduce habitat fragmentation can help also to reduce animal collisions, but their high cost tends to rule them out from widespread use for deer-vehicle collision mitigation. To some extent the recent focus on high profile green bridge projects has led to a widespread misconception that much smaller or joint use structures, such as culverts, footpath and farm accommodation structures even when carrying low levels of road traffic, have limited potential as safer crossings for deer and other large wildlife species. As the images on these pages show so very clearly, deer are however are becoming increasingly accustomed to living close to traffic and urban areas, and do use many structures of modest size not specifically constructed for wildlife.
We now hope to raise sufficient funds to allow us to extend this work to study and film deer at several other motorways and trunk roads (using both trail-cams to record detailed wildlife movement activity patterns, as well as recording higher quality footage to help demonstrate the usefulness of wildlife passages to a wider public). This will help us determine the most successful structure types and local conditions to facilitate use by deer, and which type of existing structures under and over trunk roads have greatest potential to be adapted to maximise their usefulness for prevention of animal collisions.