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Searching for the red deer rut


The rut is the one most amazing wildlife events in Britain. It is when the red deer stags (males) round up the female red deer (hinds) for mating, and fight over them with other stags. The stags actually change shape slightly at this time of year and grow a thick neck mane, and you can hear roaring in the woods from miles away.

The rut is also one of the scariest times to be out in the woods when you at in a dark wood at twilight and hear strange roaring from both sides of you, or - and this happened to me yesterday - when you see a huge angry stag roaring and coming towards you, armed with a massive set of 10-point antlers. Read on if you want to know what happened next !

Before I tell you about my encounter with the angry stag, let me tell you how I tracked him down.

Day 1

Last year, I watched two stags fight during the rut at a place called Suicides Graves. This is a clearing in the middle of a pine forest where people were buried hundreds of years ago if they committed suicide, since the church didn't allow them to be buried in a graveyard. To the north of a clearing is a steep valley, and on the other side are more trees. If you are just at the edge of the woods, you can watch the clearing, but it's very difficult to be seen. The wood is the same one I have explored for years and years, and is where Wild filmed me a few weeks ago

This seemed the best place to start by watching for red deer rutting, so I waited:

This was the first deer that we saw was this young stag. He looked about a year old, with a  tiny set of 'spiker' (one point) antlers. He would normally still be with the hind herd, but here he was alone. He was too young to be rutting himself. I called him "R2D2".

After that deer moved away further down the slope, three other deer came into this clearing. .This stag looked older, maybe 2 or 3, and had what looked like a second set of antlers, since they had the main spike as well as a "brow tine" pushing forward. He was old enough to have developed the mane that older deer had during the rut, but probably not old enough to have his own 'harem' of females, or to fight older stags. I called him "Luke"

He was with a hind, as well as a younger calf, which looked like one of the ones born in June this year.

Here's one of the calf sniffing the air.

Then another stag come out, who I called "Han". He also has small antlers with brow tines, like the earlier one, and a mane. He had a darker coat, and the top of his antlers had a "wobble" in them.  

Unlike Luke,  Han was very interested in chasing the hind to try and mate with her. He had his tongue out to try and 'taste' whether she was in season. He didn't seem to have any luck and they all went into the woods.

Then Luke came back out of the wood.

They grazed for a while at the edge of the clearing, until it started to rain.

I had already decided that this was going to be a pretty good place to leave the trail camera for a few days, but first I had to wait for the deer to leave so to not scare them away from the clearing. Luckily, another stag started roaring in the distance, which seemed to get them to move away.

And if that wasn't enough, there was a sudden flurry of long tailed tits around a tree in the valley which I watched while dad put the trail camera in position.

I heard more roaring from the woods as we left, but it was difficult to work out where the stags were. I just hoped they would come into the clearing and trigger the trail camera.

Day 2

The next day, I looked at the videos on the trail camera. There was an older stag, with what seemed to be eight points, and who looked about 4-5 years old. But he seemed to be alone. I called him "Lando".

I was disappointed that there weren't more videos on the camera. Dad mentioned that he had spotted a younger spiker stag in the fields at the south of the woods:

The spiker was with two older females and a calf. That made me wonder whether the older stags were taking their females on the fields and moors at the edge of the woods instead of the Suicides Graves clearing in the middle of the wood.

Day 3

The plan for day three was exploring the woods to try and see where the dominant stags and their harems were. It started well, because as soon as I turned into the first path into the woods, there was a year old calf.

Her mum was on the other side, and they quickly ran off.

We worked through the wood, first to the south-east corner where you can often find deer grazing, then through the middle of the woods, then back to the south edge. All this time there were no sounds of roaring from the stags, which was worrying.

I checked a clearing at the middle of the south edge of the wood, and just south of there were two spiker stags grazing, who looked too young to be interested in the females.

We moved through the south edge of the wood going to the west. There was another clearing in the south-west corner, but there was nothing there except a couple of massive frogs, and the remains of a few skeletons in the woods.

This is the west edge of the wood and already the sun was starting to get low. There were no deer to be seen on his huge space. The wood you can see to the north is Titus Well wood. I followed this fence north, then through the next bit of the wood to the moor beyond.

This is the north-west corner of the wood, which looks out onto a huge moor. The good news is that there were some red deer...

...but the bad news is that the three hinds seemed to be alone, with no stag.

There is a path through the wood that runs south-east from that spot to the very centre of the wood. If you cut off from that path, you get to the spot which overlooks Suicides Graves, which is where I was on day one. There were just two deer there, a mum and a calf, who looked like the same ones as we saw on day 1, although it is almost impossible to tell. Here's a picture of them in front of the trail cam as they turned to leave the clearing:

And this frame is from the exact same time but from the viewpoint of the trail camera.. The arrow shows where me and dad were hidden. It looks closer than it really is because you can't see the huge valley between us.

As dad and I went back to the car, we heard roaring for the first time ! We walked almost all the way back to the car, then carefully worked through to the north-east corner. From a distance, we could see a few hinds:

We slowly and carefully went to a strip of trees to the west of a big field. It was a adult stag rounding up twenty females and calves ! Finally I got to see the rut.

I was overwhelmed that I finally got to see this. My and dad were far enough into the wood so they could not see us and we were against trees so they could not see our outline.

The stag, who I called Obi-Wan, was rushing round the field roaring. It was hard to see what he was doing, but he seemed to be trying to keep the females together. In the picture above it looks like he was scaring off the younger stag, but that stag seemed to be part of the group, so Obi clearly didn't think he was a threat.

Here's Obi chasing a female, with two other spiker stags close by. By this time, it was starting to get very dark.

Dad and I moved to the north edge of the field, hidden by a thin strip of trees.

Then the stag appeared to see us ! He came closer...

...and closer...

...and closer !

...and closer !

A red stag during the rut is about the only land animal in the UK that could cause you injury. There were two things we could do. One was to show ourselves, to scare him off, but that would mean he would leave the field with his harem and possibly not come back. The other was to hide and hope he hadn't seen us. So we ducked down and hoped.

He kept coming closer and closer and we could hear the thud of his hooves. Then when he was about ten metres away, he stopped, roared, then went back ! 

That was really scary but that was the closest that I have ever been to a wild deer !

We watched him for a bit longer, chasing the females, although it wasn't obvious whether he was trying to round them up or mate.

Some geese flew overhead noisily. They are greylag and pink-footed geese that migrate to a loch nearby from Iceland over the winter.

It was starting to get darker and me and dad could not do or see much more so we worked our way back through the wood and went home.

I was really lucky to see this. I did not think that I was going to see this until I heard the roaring. Since the trail cam was in the wrong place, this morning, me and dad moved the trail cam to a tree over looking this field. I hope we get some good footage !

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Jake said...

They are amazing to watch.

Matt Williams said...

Wow! Wish we had red deer in south east of England!

Jo said...

What an extraordinary experience – the switch from them being in your world to you being in theirs! I had no idea the males actually changed shape. Nature is amazing. Thanks for the great account and great pictures.

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