Ready to rut and roar
For the most part red deer stags are reasonably eventempered.
But as summer drifts towards autumn, as their new antlers reach maturity and the velvet is rubbed off, testosterone levels rise and a new spirit of individuality, self-worth and aggression imbues them with a very different mood.
They have lived in bachelor herds, in equanimity with their fellow stags – until now.
Now is the climax of their year, a time when they can at last fulfil the purpose now facing them in the guise of rivals which until now have been compatriots. Now those erstwhile companions must vie for the right to sire the next generation of red deer.
Stags are now decidedly no longer even-tempered. Every other stag must be considered to be a direct rival. Thus they posture, strut and roar. Sometimes they must fight, head to mighty head, pushing, straining every sinew to achieve sufficient advantage to emerge triumphant.
To qualify for membership of this extremely exclusive club the applicants must first be big and strong. Therefore membership is reserved for older animals which have assumed relatively gargantuan proportions and, of course, developed extremely fine heads containing many points.
They must also be possessors of nerves of steel and be full of attitude. There is no place among the elite for shrinking violets and a sonorously deep voice will add to the invincible aura they must achieve.
Thus is there a real sense of drama about the annual rut. These days it is generally conducted in glens and on familiar hillsides yet, as our growing population of red deer increasingly returns to the lowland woodland they once might have regarded as their natural habitat, new battlefields are being created.
The destruction of our woods and forests during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries forced red deer to establish a new way of life out on the bare hills and moors, most notably in the mountains and glens of the Highlands.
As may be imagined, life in the exposed Highlands is considerably tougher for today’s generations of red deer than it is in a lowland forest. On the Continent most red deer live in the dense forests that still cover vast territories, especially across Eastern Europe. A red deer stag in that environment has the major advantage of shelter, more choices of food and an altogether kinder environment. It can weigh in at least a third heavier than a Scottish stag, if not more.
Monarchs of the glen, however, are more visible and against such a background perhaps appear so much more impressive. That is certainly the case at the time of the rut.
I have red deer roaring locally but these deer are not generally easy to see for they dwell in a substantial and dense forest, which is in places almost impenetrable because of its extremely boggy nature. Thus the roaring is muffled and deadened by the trees. Out on the open hill the roaring is strident and far-carrying.
I have frequently witnessed the ferocity that is generated by the ranting of red deer. Master stags will take up what they regard as advantageous stances on the hill and roar their imposing presence upon that landscape, their stentorian voices carrying far across the glens.
They will gather together loose harems of hinds which are the ultimate prizes. The winners take all.
The deep roaring seems to come from deep within the animal. It is guttural and it is extremely challenging. Other master stags join in the chorus, responding to the challenges and returning them in kind.
Often two well-matched stags will approach each other and march side by side in a parallel war dance. Suddenly they will turn to face each other. Heads lower and come together with a mighty clash. Now it is a test of both physical strength and nerve. They strain every muscle as they push against each other head-tohead. The more experienced protagonist will seek to gain the upper ground and thus the upper hand.
If the two are really well matched this struggle could go on for a long time. If they are not so well matched the one in the ascendancy will quickly redouble his efforts. Often, when a stag is under pressure and knows he is facing defeat in the face, his nerve will snap and he will attempt to break away and flee, probably getting his flank raked in the process.
No quarter is expected and no quarter is given. A victor may find himself quickly challenged by another and another and by the end of these challenging weeks the master stags will be tired, even close to exhaustion, and some of the protagonists damaged both physically and mentally.
It is not entirely unknown for two stags to become so inextricably locked together in such combat that they cannot separate themselves. Young stags may sometimes combine to cut out the odd hind or two from a master stag’s harem when he is otherwise engaged in battle. These opportunists may, by their very boldness, be on the way to developing as the master stags in waiting. Such clandestine operations may be a vital part of the learning curve they must tread if they are in time to seek their own places in the pantheon of monarchs of the glens.
Fighting fit A red deer stag