Somerset’s Red Deer in a Rut
- Credit: sub
Wildlife photographer Michael Taylor looks at what autumn holds for one of our county’s ‘iconic’ animals
Red deer (Cervus elephus) are Britain’s largest indigenous and wild land mammals. The male of the species, known as a stag, is considered to be a truly iconic animal, in many ways.
Somerset has one of the UK’s largest red deer concentrations, predominantly in Exmoor’s national park where they have resided for centuries.
The park, 70 per cent of which lies in East Somerset, with the remainder being in Devon, is home to several thousand living on moorland and among Exmoor forest. Moreover, in recent years the Quantock hills area of the county has seen a steady increase in numbers, with more than 500 being logged during a count undertaken by volunteers in March of this year.
Images of red deer stags, with antlers fully grown, are commonly used to promote numerous products and events, from whiskey to tourism. Similarly, the sheer visual presence of a mature specimen in all its splendour, adorns many a country establishment, be it in the form of a painting, or a statue for example; each symbolic of the animal’s grace and power. However, ironically stags only achieve peak condition for a few months of each year and for a specific reason.
As autumn approaches they undergo behavioural, and to some extent, visual transformations - such as a thickening of their mane, all fuelled by rampant testosterone in preparation for the annual rut.
The rut signals the start of the red deer’s breeding season, where adult stags compete with each other for mating rights. It usually begins in earnest towards the end of September, continuing throughout October and sometimes into early November. During the rutting period stags graze far less than the rest of the year, being reliant on energy reserves built up prior to the event. Consequently it can be a very exhausting time, especially for larger, dominant stags who may have to see off several challenges from similar sized opponents throughout the rut. It’s the only time of year when males literally go head to head to impress and win as many females of the species – known as a hind, in order that the victor can herd them into his group or harem, until they’re ready for mating.
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Before making an attempt to steal a harem, a challenger will go through a number of behavioural rituals designed to impress the intended hinds. These behaviours can range from the gorging of undergrowth with their antlers, scraping the ground with their hooves and finally wallowing in a combination of mud and their own urine, the smell of which is highly attractive to the hinds! Throughout the rut, mature stags will also bellow or roar frequently to advertise their presence and power to both potential hinds and other stags looking to mount a challenge for the harem.
Anyone with a love of wildlife can’t fail to be impressed by the whole experience of the rut; from the roaring of a stag resonating through the air, the ritual behaviours beforehand, and if you’re lucky, the witnessing of an actual battle between rivals. However, as with any wild animal - but especially at this time of year, wildlife watchers and photographers need to approach them with extreme care. They’re high on testosterone and can be very aggressive if provoked. This was vividly demonstrated in London during the 2012 rut, when a man walking through Bushy Park had to take refuge up a tree to escape the attentions of a mature stag! To his embarrassment, the whole scene was caught on camera by a passer-by with a series of pictures appearing in newspapers a few days later.
The spectacle of the annual rut can be viewed at various locations throughout Somerset. Several organisations within the county run special wildlife viewing experiences to see it; simply search online to find one near you. w
Did you know?
1. It’s believed red deer migrated into Britain from Europe some 11,000 years ago.
2. Red deer are herbivores; they feed on a variety of grasses, heather, shrubs and trees.
3. Some of the biggest stags can weigh up to 240kg and reach a height of about 1.2m at the shoulder.
4. For much of the year, other than the rutting period, stags tend to form separate herds away from hinds.
5. The stag is also known as a hart; an old English word describing a male red deer that’s more than five years old.
6. Their maximum life expectancy in the wild is around 14 years. In captivity this can increase to about 20 years.
For more general information, and most importantly how to watch red deer safely, visit the British Deer Society website at bds.org.uk
Alternatively, details on Somerset-based organisations such as the Quantock Deer and Conservation Group can be found at quantockdeergroup.co.uk