Crowned lead­ers of the herd

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Stephen Moss

It is au­tumn, and the trees in a coun­try park are rapidly drop­ping their leaves. Those cling­ing to the branches are shades of red and am­ber; their fallen neigh­bours blan­ket­ing the ground be­low. In a clear­ing, two mag­nif­i­cent stags ap­proach one an­other war­ily; more so, the chal­leng­ing male, who is here to wres­tle supremacy from the in­cum­bent. As they ad­vance, each ut­ters a loud, deep roar. This is the height of the an­nual red deer rut, and the event is in full swing. Of­ten the chal­lenger will sim­ply back off, hav­ing sized up his chances and re­alised he will not be vic­to­ri­ous. But when the two an­i­mals are evenly matched, the phys­i­cal bat­tle be­gins. Time and again, the ri­vals clash to­gether, lock­ing their huge antlers mo­men­tar­ily be­fore pulling apart and start­ing again. Mean­while, the other males, and more im­por­tantly the fe­males, who will mate with the even­tual win­ner, stand on the side­lines, sim­ply watch­ing and wait­ing for the con­flict to be re­solved. Antlers are only found in the deer fam­ily, Cervi­dae. There are al­most 100 liv­ing species, only one of which, the Chi­nese wa­ter deer, does not have antlers at all, pre­fer­ring to rely on its sharp tusks. In al­most all cases, antlers are con­fined to males, though fe­male rein­deer do have small antlers, which they use to clear away snow when search­ing for food.

Show of strength

Antlers vary hugely in size from species to species, the largest be­ing those of the fal­low deer and rein­deer. They also vary con­sid­er­ably in shape and com­plex­ity,

some be­ing flat, or pal­mate, and oth­ers sim­ple spikes. Deer antlers are ef­fec­tively an ex­ten­sion of the an­i­mal’s skull and are made from the same sub­stance as their bones. They may look large and heavy, but they are very light and make up only a small frac­tion of the an­i­mal’s over­all weight, usu­ally less than one per cent. They are, how­ever, very flex­i­ble and strong. When antlers first emerge, they are soft and pli­able, and known as vel­vet antlers, be­cause of their soft cov­er­ing and tex­ture. The ‘vel­vet’ has a cru­cial func­tion, car­ry­ing blood packed with oxy­gen and the nu­tri­ents needed for the antlers to grow. They grow at an as­ton­ish­ing speed: up to 1in (2.5cm) a day, much faster than any other bone. They grow from the tip; ini­tially as car­ti­lage, only later hard­en­ing into bone. Antlers have one main func­tion: to help de­cide which male deer will get to mate with a harem of fe­males. Hence the an­nual rut, dur­ing which the males use their antlers not only for fight­ing, but also to dis­play su­pe­ri­or­ity to the watch­ing fe­males. Once the antlers have fully emerged, which can take up to three months, the blood ves­sels at their base are shut off, al­low­ing them to harden. This process is re­peated ev­ery year, with old antlers be­ing shed and new ones grow­ing, in a con­stant cy­cle. It used to be thought that when deer rub their antlers on trees, they are re­mov­ing the vel­vet. In fact, that is only part of the rea­son: they also rub trees to mark them with their scent. Just six species of deer live in the wild in Bri­tain. Of these, only two are na­tive: the red and roe deer. And it is the red deer that has the largest and most im­pres­sive antlers. It also has the most spec­tac­u­lar rut, which takes place each au­tumn when the fe­males come into oestrus, mean­ing they are fer­tile. Although the clash­ing of antlers may look highly dan­ger­ous, there is method in the rit­ual. Red deer antlers are forked, and these smaller pro­tu­ber­ances, or tines, al­low one male’s antlers to lock into place with those of his op­po­nent. This means that they are able to clash their antlers to­gether pow­er­fully and fre­quently,

“But ere the branch­ing horns could reach, That ob­ject of ill-founded ire, Sounds of re­sist­less magic teach Sub­mis­sion to the sav­age sire” William Hay­ley, ‘The Stag’

with less chance of caus­ing harm. Even so, in­juries can oc­cur and, in ex­treme cases, fights may even be fa­tal.

Growth and spread

Red deer males be­gin to grow their antlers in the spring, when there is plenty of food avail­able to pro­vide the en­ergy they need for this ar­du­ous and en­ergy-con­sum­ing task. Young males grow their first set of antlers in their first year, at just 10 months old, though they will not take part in the rut un­til they are more ma­ture. With each pass­ing year, they grow a larger and more com­plex set of antlers, en­abling them to grad­u­ally progress up the hi­er­ar­chy. Some­times, how­ever, they may not have to wait. To­wards the end of each year’s rut, when the dom­i­nant males have re­tired, ex­hausted, younger males oc­ca­sion­ally get the chance to mate with any fe­males com­ing late into oestrus. The process of antler growth is gov­erned by changes in day length in the spring, which trig­ger the higher lev­els of testos­terone needed for breed­ing. This an­nual cy­cle is fol­lowed by species of deer in tem­per­ate and Arc­tic re­gions, though in trop­i­cal re­gions, such as In­dia, sam­bar deer may shed and re­grow antlers through­out the year. Usu­ally a set of antlers will grow to a length of ap­prox­i­mately 28in (70cm), yet they nor­mally weigh just 2lbs 5oz (1kg). A typ­i­cal stag weighs be­tween 350-530lb (160 -240kg). How­ever, antlers can grow much big­ger; up to 45in (115cm) long and weigh­ing as much as 11lb (5kg). As the stag ma­tures, his antlers may also be­come more com­plex, with more ‘points’. These ma­ture stags are much val­ued by deer­stalk­ers, who have their own ter­mi­nol­ogy to de­scribe the ma­ture males. A male with 12 points,

six per antler, is called a royal stag; one with 14 points is an im­pe­rial stag, and rare ex­am­ples with 16 points or more are known as mon­archs. One stag found on Ex­moor had 17 points on his antlers.

Sign of health

A deer’s antlers are one of the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples in na­ture of what are re­ferred to as sec­ondary sex­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics, an­other be­ing the pea­cock’s or­nate tail. In ef­fect, they have no prac­ti­cal use, apart from en­abling a stag to at­tract a group of fe­males, and so re­pro­duce. Grow­ing large and im­pres­sive antlers is cru­cial, as their size and weight de­cide the male’s po­si­tion in the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy of the herd and so in­crease his chances of pass­ing on his genes to the next gen­er­a­tion. Stud­ies have also shown that the stags with the largest antlers, rel­a­tive to their size and weight, are in­deed health­ier. They are able to put more en­ergy into antler growth and are more re­sis­tant to dis­ease than oth­ers. But hav­ing large antlers may also come at a price. Dur­ing the rut, the dom­i­nant stags will not feed and can be­come ex­hausted through a lack of nu­tri­tion and the con­stant de­mands of see­ing off ri­vals. A large set of antlers may also mean that the stag is less likely to sur­vive a hard win­ter, hav­ing used so much en­ergy to grow them. This may ex­plain why, over time, the av­er­age size of antlers in a herd does not ap­pear to in­crease, as might be ex­pected, given the pres­sures of sex­ual se­lec­tion. Oddly, con­sid­er­ing antlers are not needed once the rut is over, stags re­tain their set un­til late win­ter, usu­ally shed­ding them in March or April, in time to re­grow a new set. The an­nual rut is the only time when male and fe­male red deer roam to­gether. The rest of the year, they usu­ally live in sin­gle-sex herds, though mixed-sex groups can be found in parts of the Scot­tish High­lands. Af­ter the rut, they re­turn to their sep­a­rate ex­is­tence, the fe­male giv­ing birth ap­prox­i­mately eight months later, from mid May to mid July. Soon af­ter­wards, the cy­cle be­gins again, and the spec­ta­cle of the au­tumn rut is played out once more.

In Bri­tain, the fal­low deer, Dama dama, is dis­tin­guished by its pal­mate antlers. It is most com­monly seen in Eng­land and Wales.

The vel­vety sur­face of a young stag’s antlers. Highly vas­cu­lar, this furry skin sup­plies the grow­ing bone with oxy­gen and nec­es­sary nu­tri­ents.

A red deer af­ter its antlers have dropped, usu­ally once win­ter is over. Each new antler grows from an at­tach­ment point called a pedi­cle.

Antlers grow from the tip and are ini­tially car­ti­lage, to be re­placed by bone tis­sue as they de­velop.

A stag sheds vel­vet from its antlers in au­tumn, once they are fully formed. The bone then dies, to be­come what is known as a ma­ture antler.

The red deer’s antlers grow at al­most a 90 de­gree an­gle from the brow, an im­por­tant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic.

A fallen roe deer antler. Un­like those of the red deer, they usu­ally fall in Novem­ber. If a deer dies when it has antlers, they are al­most im­pos­si­ble to break off, re­main­ing stuck to the skull bone.

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