As the mornings grow gradually colder, signs of autumn such as emerging fungi, clusters of conkers and grass crunchy with frost can now be seen. A seasonal highlight among wildlife during this colourful season is the deer rut, where red stags and roe bucks compete with each other for the right to breed with hinds and does respectively.
The deer rut is regarded as one of British wildlife’s most impressive spectacles, especially that of the red deer – the UK’s largest land mammal, reaching over one metre at the shoulder. From late September to early November, testosterone-charged stags spend many weeks bellowing at dawn and dusk in an attempt to ward off rivals and also to bring hinds into heat (oestrus). They will often thrash in vegetation, gathering foliage into their antlers to increase their size. A slightly less glamorous habit is wallowing in their own urine. This olfactory stimulus also triggers oestrus among the females.
If two stags are equally matched, they will parallel walk alongside each other to assess size and strength. Stags will also clash antlers and shove each other – the victor of these battles will claim his harem of females and win mating rights. Due to its high risk of injury, physical contact is often only a last resort, carried out towards the end of the rut when the dominant male is near exhaustion. The rut is a huge physical drain for stags and they can lose up to 20% of their body weight as a result of being on constant guard of their harem and therefore not eating or resting.
If watching red deer during the rutting season, it’s important to take care and keep a respectable distance. Stags can be aggressive and unpredictable, so it is essential not to get too close when watching the event. This autumn I would love to witness my first red deer rut. After my incredible encounter with a roe deer at Tring Park recently, I’m keen to continue learning about these often under-appreciated animals and witness more of their natural behaviour out in the field. While many good spots for deer rutting are in the wilds of Scotland, more accessible locations include Richmond Park, where over six hundred deer can be found.
The usual suspect, work, has meant that I’ve only managed to snatch the occasional walk outside in nature over the past few weeks. It’s been a while since I’ve been up with the dawn for a wildlife watch and it’s high time I got back into it. For the deer rut especially, it’s the early bird that gets the reward.