Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 30th October 2020

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I was reminded by a friend recently of an occasion, many years ago, when along with around fifty other souls, I spent a day in one of our glens.

It was a pristine, cloudless October day on which everything sparkled under a relentless sun. Frost had whitened the high tops, the brackens fairly glowed red and the red deer serenaded us with their sonorous roaring. We had come to see and listen to the deer and we were not disappointed. They were in magnificent form and we watched entranced as the master stags did battle, almost flinching when two mighty opponents came together, their antlers clashing. It was indeed a memorable day.

In fact, for one lady in the party, it was so memorable that as we descended from the glen, she literally burst into tears. However, she was not upset but instead said that this had been a day she would remember for the rest of her life. It was a day so full of emotion in the midst of spectacular scenery on a superb autumn day. And to cap it all, the deer were in top form, the stags roaring and hinds being ushered into their harems, as if herded by huge, antlered sheepdogs.

I have enjoyed many a such day down the years but that occasion was especially memorable and I understood entirely why the lady had burst into tears for it truly was a very special day all round. I reckon we saw around five hundred deer during our trek and there was plenty of action to witness, plenty of drama and of course, lots of noise.

The same scene has been repeated time and time again down the years, for the red deer rut provides the most spectacular and fitting climax to a year at a time when winter is just beginning to hint at bringing the year to its conclusion and indeed, closing things down.  In short, it is nature’s grand finale, a splendid and decisive end to the activity of the year. The results of all that huffing and puffing and the expressions of angst that are released, will come to fruition in the middle of the following year with the birth of the next generation of red deer calves.

Of course for most of the year, stags and hinds exist in different herds. In other words, the sexes don’t mix until as September dawns, they begin to move to the old stamping grounds where for centuries past red deer have gathered for the annual rut. The real contests are between the master stags, those senior animals that are at the very top of red deer society. They alone will challenge for the right to sire that next generation. The young stags cannot enter the contest until they too are old and big enough to compete, albeit that occasionally those youngsters may seize an opportunity to purloin the odd hind from the harem of one of the master stags while he is engaged in battle. Perhaps they, in particular, will also go on and in time become masters themselves.

Those that are able to enter the lists however, do so with a ferocity that is sometimes quite surprising. Deer generally give the impression that they are relatively mild mannered, but when their hormones begin to react to the arrival of autumn, any suggestion that they are quickly disappears. Indeed, the whole exercise, as far as most master stags, are concerned is about just how ferocious an image they can project. The competing stags do not eat during this period but liberally daub themselves with muck and mire by rolling in bogs, all in an attempt to look even fiercer than they already do. With their mud-ridden coats and a mighty pair of antlers they become the very epitome of ferocity.

Every such master will take up a position that he thinks may give him the advantage if and when it comes to physical battle. This is called a ‘stance’ and it is from that position that the challenges are now issued. Each master’s aim is to collect as many hinds as possible and to defend that harem. Should another master stag intercede, challenging the holder of a stance and of course the owner of that harem, they size each other up and often march side by side waiting for any sign of weakness to expose a crack in the resolve of one or other. That weakness is quickly sensed by the rival stag and that is when battle will often commence, although on many occasions the nerve of the weaker stag cracks and he may decide this opponent is likely to give him a beating. At that point, the erstwhile challenger will turn and flee, often sent on his way by the triumphant stag which may dispatch him with a rake to the flanks with his mighty antlers.

However, two well-matched stags, each with plenty of resolve will eventually face each other. Heads will go down and the two meet head-on with a mighty clash of their antlers. Each then heaves and strains to gain the upper hand, pushing with all its strength in an attempt to gain even the most minuscule of advantages. But two really competitive stags may be locked in this head-down struggle for some considerable time, in fact in some extreme cases for hours, before in the end one buckles and battle is over. On very rare occasions, two well-matched stags have been known to become so entangled that they cannot separate and in such circumstances, both are clearly likely to die.

The roaring contests continue and if you have red deer near to you, that sound will continue right through the lengthening nights. I well remember once playing golf in deer country and throughout my round being accompanied by those sonorous roars which seem to come from deep in the animal’s being – from the very gut of the beast. Defeat may have its price to pay for those older stags which are no longer able to offer the level of competition required to maintain the status of a master stag. For old stags that are past their best, the rut therefore is a time for reflection rather than angst. The brutal fact is, that if they are no longer able to compete during the rut, their future is fairly bleak. There is no coming back, no renewal of master stag status. Those who manage our wild red deer herds effectively will know exactly which of the stags have come to the end of the competitive road and act accordingly.

As November arrives at last, tempers begin to cool and the rewards are for the victors to enjoy. Now they will mate with their harems of hinds, their future well and truly determined. It is a fitting end to the red deer year and soon the stags and hinds will once more go their own way. It will be next June before the fulfilment is fully welcomed. That new generation will be dropped away in the glens where for centuries, red deer hinds have long brought a new generation of red deer into the world.

But that day all those years ago, will of course also live long in my memory and hopefully in the memory of that tearful lady as well.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods