The Clash of Antlers

It’s a fine frosty morning, misty, and the cooler weather tips the trees from dull khaki towards those red and gold tints which shine in the low morning light. This has to be the day – probably my last chance – to get a better understanding of what is happening in the deer park at what should be the peak of the rutting season.

We know what the big Fallow bucks are supposed to do at this time: set out their stalls – their rutting stands. He who aspires to be the alpha male and therefore the one who gets to mate with most of the tail twitching eager does, choses a place to show how big and powerful he is, thrashing the trees, trampling the ground, pissing and bellowing. If one of his mates decides it should be him getting the does, he must fight for it, head to head, antler to antler.

That’s the theory, but here they just seem too relaxed and friendly to be bothered to fight. Last year I watched the two main men amicably share the spoils, giving rise to the theory that there are so many does in this enclosed cervid universe that they have no need to fight.

Today I have no volunteer duties and enough time to watch the three or four areas where I have seen rutting behaviour recently. I start at the northern end of the long wooded ridge. There is usually a group of does here; I see them; they see me; I freeze and they amble off. Good, now I can move towards a dark area of dense young trees much frequented by the group who hang out at this end of the park during the winter. I see movement: a stately procession of three of the biggest mature bucks is moving down towards the open ground to the west. Never much given to nerves, these magnificent beasts show their distain for us humans by walking slowly past. I carefully follow them down to where they have joined a group of around 30 does and a few immature bucks. The big boys move off southwards and the does follow except for a small group who hang around two immature bucks. They remind me of overgrown children trying out sexual behaviour. It’s all rather nice and peaceful. I return to the ridge.

There is a little grassy knoll which marks the highest point in the park, and was the scene of much rutting activity last year. Creeping carefully up the slope and slowly raising my head I see a gang of teenage bucks and a few does sitting peacefully enjoying the sunshine. It’s quiet – no sign of that grunting echoing bellow of the rutting buck. I’m beginning to wonder if some vagary of the weather and the temperature has reduced the number of does in oestrus. Where is all the excitement?

It’s lunch time and I retreat to the Kingfisher hide to watch my favourite patch of water – well rewarded with the rare sight of an otter, and even rarer, an otter out of the water.

The rut I observed last week was near the old boundary wall at the edge of some open grassland below and to the west of the ridge. The nearest cover is too far to get good pictures  so I decide to try to get to a patch of trees nearer to the wall. It’s a difficult and tiring climb-cum-scramble and the cover is not good. There is however a large group of deer in front of me. Crouching I throw a piece of camouflage net over my head, clumsily get the camera lined up and slowly stand. I can’t see properly and move about too much. I’ve been seen. The deer aren’t too concerned but steadily move away to the other side of the field – towards the ridge. My strategy has failed. There are several mature and immature bucks with them, but it’s too far away for really crisp pictures. Still, I’m here now so I’ll stay and see what happens.One of the big bucks is limping; wounded in battle? He’s very pale in colour – a Menil – and he’s restless. In the same group is another big buck, but this one is very dark (on the left in the picture above this one). The contrast is striking. They wander up and down along the edge of the steep woodland.

Suddenly, there is violent movement under the trees at the edge of the wood. A pale shape catches my eye and I swing the camera round. It’s a fight! The menil buck is pushing furiously at a dark shape. Both heads are hidden by bracken; click click click; the fight goes one way, then the other and now I can see the locked antlers.

Wow! The power and speed and violence of these animals is amazing!  Now Menil is literally pushing the dark one up the hill. Suddenly it is over. Menil has won and is chasing the other off, watched by several  younger bucks.  They are both rushing along just above the bracken, and burst out into the field. I’ve never seen bucks run like this before – they’re like racehorses.Phew! I have my pictures but the light was poor and the distance great. (Around 140 metres I discover later.) Will they be any good? I take a break and look at some of them – hm, not too bad. Then, suddenly there is movement again. The battle is being fought again in the same place, but with two different contenders. These two are both dull brown and astonishingly they are second or third year bucks with no chance of supplanting their elders in the winner-takes-all sex game.  The same chase ensues down the same path as the big boys. This must be a practise bout in exact imitation of the real thing. Were they the watchers? 

Now I really have learnt something new.

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