Red Deer (Cervus Elaphus) are the largest species of deer in the UK and its largest land animal. They can stand up to one metre thirty-seven centimetres at the shoulder and for males the nose to tail length is just over two metres.
They live in the forests, moorlands and mountains of Scotland and other parts of the UK. In the summertime they are more social and feed on grasses, sedges and rushes. They will also browse young trees, especially Rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia). In the winter Heather (Calluna Vulgaris) is an important part of their diet when most plants are finished for the year.
In the summertime their antlers are covered in velvet, which is full of blood vessels that serve to harden their antlers with calcium. The reason calcium is important is because the deer know that after the summer is finished, they will need their antlers to be as strong as possible. Why? Because from late September through to November, one of the most important events for deer takes place. The Rut.
The Anatomy of the Rut
The rut can make a trip to the hills exciting if slightly nerve wracking. That’s because at that time of year stags can be heard roaring. It’s an evocative sound that echos across the hills. This is how the fight to establish the next generation begins, to warn other stags of one another’s power and attract the hinds to their harems.
The harems can be from two or three to as many as seventy hinds. The stags that hold them are around nine to eleven years old. After that age they may have trouble keeping them together. This is because as they age, they become less able to take on the younger challengers. Red Deer can live for up to twenty years, but most don’t live past sixteen.
It should be noted that although males are capable of mating by the time they’re sixteen months old, they’re unlikely to be able to get that chance before they’re six. That’s because prior to being stags (six years old is when they qualify) they lack the fully developed antlers needed to challenge their rivals.
Stags may not eat much during the rut, and it’s believed there are two reasons for this. One is that the stags may consider rest more important than feeding, as they need to rest in order to fight at their best. Therefore, they can’t rest if they’re feeding. The other proposed reason is that the rut weakens them so much that they may not be as capable of dealing with the parasites they ingest in their food.
One thing that stags will do to prepare themselves is they’ll rip up vegetation with their antlers and the mud and plants hanging from them make them look larger.
If stags meet and their roars are not sufficient to make the other back down, they’ll engage in parallel walking. This is a means of sizing up one another, where they’ll turn their antlers side on whilst watching one another with the corners of their eyes.
If this still doesn’t lead to one backing down, they’ll clash. Their antlers have branches known as tines that allow the antlers to lock together so they can test their strength. In these contests the stags will try to gain the higher ground to get the edge on their opponents. Most fights have a non-lethal outcome, but in fights between well matched individuals these can be fatal.
On another, related note there are some stags that fail to form fully developed antlers. This can happen as a result of a genetic condition, or it can sometimes be as a result of injury to the pedicles (the bony structures from which the antlers grow). This can put them at a disadvantage when facing other stags, though conversely in one case from the Isle of Rum, one individual with only one antler was known to have killed other stags, since without the full set of antlers to lock onto another, this one used its antler to stab opponents.
But the rut isn’t all about brawn. When the stag has seen off the competition it does have to show its tenderness towards the hinds before being allowed to mate. This will only happen when the hinds are in estrous, something the stags seem to be able to detect before it happens.
After the rut the winter sets in and those stags that are weakened from the rut have a higher chance of dying of fatigue and starvation. But assuming they survive the winter, they’ll have their chance again the following year. The result of the rut means that single calves are born from mid-May to July. This is how the Red Deer life cycle has been repeated for millennia.
One word of safety for those wanting to see Red Deer rutting. It’s best not to get too close. Remember, these stags are high on testosterone and maybe be bolder than they would be at other times of year. This is especially true for deer in parks, which are more used to people and allow a closer approach. In which case people and dogs have been injured. It’s relatively unlikely that Red Deer will attack humans, but if they start parallel walking you, that’s a sign that you need to back away. But do it slowly, don’t run - as this may prompt them to chase you. Likewise, don’t wave or shout. Remember, they’re in a mood to respond to anything that might be a challenge. When you’re out of its personal zone, it’s more likely to lose interest in you.
But lastly, if you have the chance to see Red Deer rutting it’s well worth watching. Like many things in the animal kingdom, it’s a spectacle.
If you would like a chance to see Red Deer rutting plus many other species in the Cairngorms, please head to our Day Guide Page at: http://bit.ly/sw_DG and book one of our guides for the day.