As of February 2016, after 416 posts, and over six and a half years of blogging, I'm taking a break.
I've explained why here. There's plenty of past posts to read, though - hope you enjoy them !
Looking for a brilliant present for a young naturalist ? Buy my book ! Available from Amazon UK,
Amazon US and worldwide but buy from a local bookshop if you can.

The epic battle between Homer and Flanders


For most of the year the red deer stags (males) and hinds and calves (female and kids) live in two separate groups, but in the autumn, the 'rut' begins when red deer stags want to have sex with the females. They split up, go find the females, and get a group of them together, called a harem. The stags then fight with each other for females, and only the biggest and strongest end up with females, so that 80% of each year's calves are fathered by only 20% of the males. (It's a bonkers way to have kids, but it's still better than what salmon have to do.)

For the last few weeks I have been watching my local red deer during the rut, like I did last year. It's difficult to do, because deer are hard to track (I wrote a guide here), and harder to sneak up on. Even so I've seen some great action this autumn !

The hide

The first thing on day 1 was to find where the stags were. You could hear the roaring right from the edge of the wood a few miles away, but finding them was more difficult. Dad knows the woods well, so he worked around the south edge, then the west edge, then to the moor, then moved in from the north down a deer tunnel I call Woodcock Alley because I found a woodcock skull there. 

All the time he saw hinds (female deer) in twos or threes, all moving around and lot more than you would normally see, and in smaller groups too, but no stags yet. He thought this was because the stags were disrupting the usual female herd. Eventually he crept up on this clearing where the roaring was coming from.

The clearing is called Suicides Graves because hundreds of years ago people who committed suicide weren't allowed to be buried in the churchyard, so they buried them here instead. It is a clearing surrounded by pine trees an a few paths leading into it. Between the hide and the clearing was a steep valley with a stream at the bottom., but the hide and the clearing were at the same level. The edge of the hide had channels between the rows of trees which helped to hide.

This was the view from there (this is my dad's legs):

It looks really exposed, until you look at it from the other angle and it's really well hidden:

The only thing to do now was turn up and wait !

Day 1

At the start of day 1, there was originally the sound of roaring, but only this hind and her calf was visible. She was a strong hind with a dull red/grey coat, and the fluffy calf would have been born in June, so would be about four months old. The two reminded me of the mother and daughter I saw in the same spot last year, where the daughter ended up killed shortly afterwards:

Then came the big bit of excitement WHICH DAD DIDN'T GET A PICTURE OF !!!! After some more roaring and the sound of antlers crashing together, one stag chased another into the clearing, and down into the valley ! This was the 'winner' stag when it came back ! I nicknamed him "Homer".

Stags are easier to tell apart from hinds because they have antlers, which often grow in unique ways. Here are some of the things I noticed about Homer:

  1. He was a mature stag with big but not fully grown antlers. The antlers were brown with white tips.
  2.  The brow tines - which are the first spike over the forehead - pointed horizontally.
  3. His right antler had four 'tines' and ended in a pair of small spikes.
  4. His left antler had three 'tines' and ended in a long spike.
  5. He had dark marks or stains at the end of the mouth and in front of the eye.
  6. He had a thinner mane.
These points are important if you are watching a lot of stags ! He looked maybe six or seven years old.

The other problem with antlers is that you can't tell the same stag between years because red deer antlers fall off in April/May and start regrowing straight away, so the same stag last year would have different antlers. Here is a 'shed' (fallen off) antler I found the same day:

After grazing for a bit with the hind and her calf, he started roaring at the woods behind the clearing:

Then he started to get suspicious about the sound of dad's camera:

Then after a while, he thought that maybe the sound was from a competing stag, and charged down the valley towards the hide ! This was a good time to leave for the day ! This is the one time of the year when red deer can be dangerous.

Throughout the day there has the occasional gunshots. At this time of year it is legal to shoot stags but not hinds in Scotland. Dad found this pool of blood from the deer:

And close to it was this gralloch, which is the innards of the deer which the stalker or poacher cuts out and leaves behind. You can see the throat, the liver and the stomach:

Very gross image. Click and hold down to see the full picture or click here to see in a new window.

I know that some red deer have to be carefully shot to manage herds, and sometimes it's the best thing for an old or sick animal, and I know it brings in money to pay gamekeepers, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It made me sad knowing a stag was shot just like the one I had enjoyed watching.

Day 2

The second day of watching the red deer was two days later, and this stag was there straight away. I thought originally it was Homer again, but the brow tines stuck straight up, so it was a different stag ! I recognised it as the same one which Homer chased away on day 1 !

It looked like Flanders was now in charge of the harem, because five other hinds and calves were around him. This is what I noticed about him:

  1. His antlers are lighter brown than Homer's
  2. His right antler had five points and ends in a three point 'cup'
  3. His left antler had three points and ends in a long spike, and had a circular mark by the second tine.
  4. His brow tines point more straight up
  5. There wasn't the big mark or stain in front of the eye, and the one by the mouth was smaller
  6. He had a thicker mane than Homer.
He looked less muscular than Homer and looked younger.

After about half an hour he heard something in the woods at the back and went back to check. One of the deer took a doze while he did. 

Then there were roars and sounds of a fight !

Then he came back, only it wasn't him, it was Homer !

It looked like after day 1 that Flanders had fought and won with Homer for control of the herd, but now Homer had won it back ! The score was Homer 2: Flanders 1.

The hinds didn't really seem to care about the change in stag, and Homer watched the herd carefully in case Flanders came back.

After about half-an-hour he heard a noise at the woods at the back and went in to investigate:

The hinds and calves carried on as normal. The hind who is sitting looked like the same hind from day 1. Her calf was still around as well.

There were sounds of a fight again:

Then from the far right, a stag emerged from the woods. It was Flanders ! But he didn't stop and ran down across the valley and into the woods where the hide was ! He had been defeated by Homer again ! Homer 3:Flanders 1 !

For the next hour Homer watched over his harem carefully. Flanders didn't come back.

But if you looked carefully you could see Homer had injuries from Flanders antlers on his flank, although there didn't seem to be much blood.

After another hour of watching, we carefully left.

Day 3

Day 3 wasn't as successful as the other two days. As we crept up to the hide there was a stag in the clearing which was suspicious and looking our way. This picture is poor because it was shot in shadows through trees but there was enough to show it was Flanders. It looked like Flanders was now back in charge of the harem ! Homer 3: Flanders 2 !

For the next hour Flanders and at least two hinds grazed behind the first row of trees, almost impossible to see from where we were, but if we had gone closer we would have been spotted:

After losing sight of them, we decided to call it a day. Dad suggested we creep up and take a path down by the side of their territory. On the way down, a hind ran in front and spotted dad before running off again. It didn't look like any of the hinds we'd seen before but it was hard to say:

Then a stag ran out in front of dad but didn't spot him. You can tell it didn't spot him because its ears would have been angled back to listen to him if he had. It was Homer, who was still in the same territory !

Homer ran into trees at the end of the path going south.

Day 4

I was hoping to see more on day 4 but it was a disappointment. On the way there I released the frog that I had been studying since it was a baby. I'd fed it up well to prepare for the winter when they hibernate. I hope it has a long and happy life.

I brought a book to read while we waited, but Homer and Flanders didn't show, and neither did any other deer:

I also found this on the way back out the wood. It looks like a huge walnut, or a brain, and was in a pool of water.  I asked on Twitter, and I now think it was a fungus called bleach cup (Discotis venosa).  (Thanks to the Smith Museum, Stephen J Henstridge and Jan Freedman on Twitter !)
So it wasn't a wasted day after all !

Enjoy this post ? Share it !


Ric Morris said...

Excellent sightings, Jake!

Christine Sutcliffe said...

Is it normal for antlers to develop so asymmetrically? I know that if the pedicles are damaged then obviously the resulting antler would be a bit wonky but seeing just how different each of Flanders' are it got me wondering.

Jake said...

Thanks !

Jake said...

A lot of the ones I have seen in these woods have had odd/different antlers (and see my antlered skulls here http://www.jakes-bones.com/p/my-red-deer-skulls.html ) Not sure if it's just these woods, or if it's quite common for all red deer. I see a lot of 4 point + 3 point stags.

Jake said...

It might be that the stags with full antlers get shot as trophies as well.

Psydrache said...

I wish we would have so many red deers arround here. They are so shy! I only see hoof prints on the ground.

Free counters!