Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Deer drama

Half past five on a Sunday morning. It is cold and dark and quiet. There is no moon. I climb into the car and drive. A badger dashes across the road and a roe deer’s eyes shine red from the verge. As the sky turns from black to indigo, Exmoor’s hills begin to appear above the mist. I park the car. During the summer, I saw a hind close to this spot and I have returned, on a hunch that it might be a good place to see the red deer rut. As the sun rises, turning the brume pink and the sky forget-me-not blue, I start to walk. 

Seconds after leaving the car, I hear a sound, a strange blend of a lion’s roar and a cow’s moo. I recognise it from dozens of wildlife TV programmes; it is the bellow of a red deer stag. Sensing that it must be just the other side of the hedge, I hurry on. From the gate, with the moor rising up behind me and wooded valleys snaking to the distant grey sea below, I see him. He holds his head forwards on an outstretched neck, mouth open, with white froth at his lips and spectacular, multi-tined antlers. The stag momentarily acknowledges my presence, but then returns his attention to another stag, which is standing a few hundred metres away. There isn’t a breath of wind, but tension ripples the air like static. A hind barks. The first stag starts to trot towards the second, which also breaks into a run. I wonder if there will be a fight, which only happens if the males are so evenly matched that victory cannot be determined by any other way. The contest is a serious one, as only the dominant stag will mate and sire offspring, but a fight is the last resort, as it can lead to injury and even death. The pair close in and it looks as though they will meet head-on, but, instead, they run straight past each other and the second stag gallops away down the hill. Perhaps he has seen enough to know that he can’t win.

Lifting his head to the sky, the victorious stag bellows again and the sound echoes around the moor. He is answered by belling from the opposite side of the valley and I lift my binoculars to spot the calling stag. Another stag roars behind me, higher on the hill. In this natural arena, I am surrounded by some of Exmoor’s 3000 red deer and swept up in their drama, which has been played out here since pre-historic times.

The stag rounds up a few hinds and herds them back towards his own waiting females. Then, the whole group melts into the bracken. Eager to see more, I drop down into the woodland edge and conceal myself amongst some pine trees. In a clearing, a hind twitches her huge, grey, furry ears, listening. A stag, bleeding from the mouth, joins her. I wonder if it is the stag that fled earlier, or if it is a different animal. A fox snuffles past, but the deer are more interested in whatever is thrashing around, unseen, in the undergrowth. They scurry away, to hide in the wood and I trek back up the hill, as the sun turns everything to gold and Exmoor becomes quiet once more.

Now you do it

Scotland is the obvious place to head if you would like to watch the red deer rut, but there are smaller populations throughout the UK, including Exmoor and the Quantocks, New Forest, as well as various deer parks. Countryfile provides a list of places to see rutting red (and fallow) deer and the Forestry Commission lists places that red deer can be found.  

You can join rangers and safari tours to see red deer, but I think that there is something special about going it alone. There is such a sense of achievement in using your field skills to first find the right place to watch and secondly creeping close without disturbing the deer. At this time of year, red deer are conspicuous at dawn and dusk. For information on how to identify red deer and their field signs, check out the New Forest Gateway and the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly websites.

The rut lasts from October to November, so get out there straight away if you want to catch it this year!


  1. Earlier this month I visited the Royal Parks and saw rutting red deer at both Bushy Park and Richmond Park. Whilst I fully endorse the view that going it alone is more fun; if you can't do that for whatever reason, at these and other deerparks these spectacular sights can be seen - and heard - without even leaving the car if you are so inclined.

    Here on the Isle of Wight we have no deer at all so I was delighted and excited to get such a display. Well worth the visit.

  2. I was walking with my daddy in the woods late in the evening about two weeks ago, and we heard all the stags roaring all around us even though we couldn't see them. It was really strange and a little bit scary. It sounded a bit like a moo, like you said.

  3. We get quite a lot of Roe deer around this area, unfortunately there is starting to be quite a few killed on the road now. So there is talk of having a cull.

  4. One of the Isle of Wight's best kept secrets is that we have a small number of Red Deer living and breeding in the wild. They are very shy and secretive and far more difficult to spot than any farmed deer. Scientific studies have shown that when deer are at low numbers such as we have on the island their browsing and grazing can enhance biodiversity by creating valuable woodland edge mosaics of grassy and shrubby understorey favourable to some of the other rare mammals that we have here including red squirrels, hazel dormouse and woodland bats