Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 7.10.14

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Slowly but inexorably, autumn is advancing. It is a slow advance in the wake of a memorable summer. Mr Frost has been noticeable by his absence thus far, yet the end of the benign weather conditions we have enjoyed, as they always apparently say, is surely nigh with a change very evident during the past few days! Yet in that ending, so predictable in the general scheme of things, there are the seeds to be sown of an entirely new beginning. The farming community is already injecting the landscape with new energy as next year’s crops are sown to keep the momentum of the inevitable cycle of life on the move.

And, there are stirrings in the glens as the sap begins to rise in the breasts of the Monarchs of those glens. Their year is about to reach its dramatic climax as the more ambitious members of each community of stags prepare to do battle. Meanwhile, the hinds which, over the next few weeks, are destined to be the prizes competed for, await their inevitable fate and perhaps wonder at the heat that is so energetically generated by their male compatriots. There will also be around the periphery of all this frantic action, stags not experienced enough to be involved in the main events, yet ambitious enough to become bit players in this annual drama – on the under-card of the main contest so to speak.

These may be animals lacking the years and the stature of the master stags but not entirely lacking in ambition which, as opportunity arises, may be cute enough to carve out for themselves mini harems of hinds. They nip in like massive collie dogs to purloin a few choice damsels whilst the main protagonists are pre-occupied. Sometimes two such young stags, aware that they cannot yet be among the main players, may work in concert together to ‘beat the system’! 

The pre-occupation of the master stags is clearly focussed upon maintaining a strong and in the end, a dominating presence, usually in a carefully selected location, where advantage over any adversary is likely to be gained. And gaining advantage over rivals by any means possible, is very clearly manifested, for the red deer rut is often as much about mind over matter as it is an issue of physical prowess. Their deep, guttural roars bring vocal chords into use that will have been almost entirely dormant throughout the rest of the year. Red deer stags are generally pretty mute except for when they attend ‘the lists’!

The louder and deeper the roars issued by individual ‘master stags’, the more respect they command among both rivals and indeed the hinds. Rivals roar and posture. They even make themselves look more threatening and more imposing by rolling in bogs, coating themselves with peat and mud and adorning their famous ‘heads’ with vegetation and muck. Thus they look so much more imposing. Competing stags may run parallel with one another across a hillside, every sinew taut, eyes wild and wide, eyeing each other up before one may turn and face his opponent. Antlers clash and now it is literally a test of strength as each strains every muscle in an effort to push the other back. Sometimes as the strength of one begins to dominate, the nerve of the weaker stag frays and he breaks off to flee the arena, usually hotly pursued by the victor until he is sure that the day is decisively his.

This age-old ritual has always been a part of the aura of autumn. Yet red deer stags, live out their lives in relative harmony for the rest of the year in their single sex herds. They are apparently content in the companionship offered by fellow stags, without fear or favour; cool and calm with few hints of disharmony. And then, as the days dwindle down to a precious few and Jack Frost begins to cast his brittle spells, the bitter rivalry suddenly rises to the surface. Companionship is swapped for confrontation, as erstwhile colleagues suddenly become fire-breathing adversaries.

Such events are these days associated in particular with our Highland glens. Yet red deer must have once roamed widely throughout Britain, when much of the landscape was covered by natural woodland, for these are by origin, woodland dwelling creatures. However the demand for more and more acres for the burgeoning farming industry followed by a rapidly increasing demand for timber during the early years of the Industrial Revolution brought massive change. During the years in which the fast growing coal mining industry was producing a demand for pit props and the rapid development of the nation’s railway network necessitated an equally dramatic demand for millions of sleepers, much of the landscape was stripped of its natural woodland.

Thus our herds of red deer were forced to trans-locate, in Scotland, to the hills above what was left of the tree line. In addition, deer stalking, which became increasingly popular among the nouveaux riche as well as the aristocracy, saw the creation of deer forests across great swathes of the Highlands. Ironically these were ‘forests’ which were virtually bereft of trees! However in more modern times, the creation of new forests in the wake of the First World War, offered some of our red deer the opportunity to return to a forest environment. Much of the new forests are of course defended from such incursions by many miles of deer proof fencing. Nevertheless, many deer are making their way back into forests, many of them in Lowland Scotland.

The spectacle of the rut therefore is no longer confined to our Highland glens. Not that the rut is any less spectacular in those forests. It is perhaps more covert in nature, the voices of the stags more muffled. Out in the glens, the roaring literally does reverberate across the glens and may indeed therefore, create even more apparent rivalry. No matter where these events are taking place, the excitement generated is amazing to behold. If you are ever in a location close to where the action is, you may be quite taken aback by just how seething is the behaviour of the principal protagonists. They simply cannot contain their fervour, to the extent that they somehow seem to be almost out of control, urinating freely and without constraint, almost beside themselves with sheer passion.

This is their time; when fervour and passion are the daily driving forces; when the flame burns more brightly and fuses are apparently so short that there are sudden explosions of uncontrollable emotion. The stags are distinctly bellicose whether making their stances in Highland or Lowland. Meanwhile the hinds await their fate. Next summer, a new generation of red deer will be born. These are the moments of their creation.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods