“Oh the rising of the sun and the running of the deer”. This was the tune running through my head yesterday as I began my pre-dawn attempt to observe and photograph the rut. (As an aside, this ancient carol “The Holly and The Ivy” gives a fascinating insight into how common words used to be pronounced, but that will have to be another post.)
What I knew about the mating rituals of deer came mostly from videos: the dominant males set up “rutting stands” where they big themselves up by roaring and stamping and thrashing nearby trees with their antlers. There is one dominant male in the herd and he gets to mate with most of the females. The other males must challenge him to have any sort of sex life, and this leads to much clashing of antlers with attendant bellowing and stamping. I had the idea that this happened mostly in the early morning and late evening. I knew from online searches that Fallow Deer were different, but didn’t really understand how their rituals differ, so I began the day not knowing what to expect. On Monday I had made a similar early morning attempt, and had spent a long time in the park stalking and watching the deer, but saw only very relaxed looking groups of bucks and does. I found several obvious rutting stands, one of which was near a public track, and since I can’t get into the park until 10:00 I decided to station myself there at daybreak – 7:00.
By 7:15 I was back in the van. Not only was there no sight or sound of deer, but a couple in high-vis clothing had just walked their dog past the spot! I drove back to Home Farm and then up to the big house – Newton House – where I had identified another stand quite near the house. Again, no sign of any unusual activity. As was the case on Monday there were a few does wandering around on the opposite side of the valley. I spent the next hour in the Castle Woods bird hide trying to count the numbers of ducks of each species, all in deep shade and high contrast with the silver of the water – very difficult, even with a telescope. I estimated a total of 120, but that included Coots, and there are usually around 20 of those. I knew 8 were Gadwall, 4 were Tufted Duck, 3 were Goosanders, but I could only make a rough guess of 20 for Wigeon. The rest would be Mallards. I also, for the second time, watched a heron chasing a Great White Egret, presumably seeing this recent immigrant as a threat to its food supply.Blog post: Immigrants versus Natives
Ten O’clock came and the deer park gates were unlocked. I began my daylight quest, heading steeply up-hill from the gate to the Capability Brown Path. This is the only public path which passes close to the sanctuary area, and I must stress that anyone ignoring the notices and wandering into the sanctuary area without permission is not only abusing the National Trust but risking a serious disturbance to the social life of the deer. I have, as a volunteer, been patrolling the boundary to the sanctuary area for a year, always putting the comfort of the deer first, and now I am fairly sure they accept my presence.
Here, as on Monday, I was able to get very close to a small group of does apparently eating fallen chestnuts, with a mature buck watching. My object was first to get to the Badger Hide where I was to put out some peanuts for the badgers. They are fed once a week during the winter to keep them near the hide for the summer evening badger watches. To get there I had to encourage this group to move away. The wind did the job for me: the heads came up and they all trotted away. Having got to the Badger hide and found I had left the key behind, I then had to work out what to do about the wind. I needed to move along the ridge to the high ground where I hoped to find the main rutting stands, but if I moved in a straight line, my scent would alert them. I decided to do a wide loop to the south-east so that I would have the wind in my face. All this time I had been aware of a strange moaning sound which, distorted by my hearing aid, could have been machinery, a flock of jackdaws, or even deer. The deer were close now, and I was thrilled to see, for the first time, what could only be rutting behaviour. This had to be the boss man, Mr half-and-half, Mr upside-down Capuchino, with a clear line along his side dividing cream underbelly from even brown back and flanks. He was running up and down and I could clearly see him vocalising, but couldn’t hear the sound. Moving the camera very slowly I focussed on his antlers to get a clear record of their shape – a distinctive pattern which I had seen on Monday near the water tanks: only 5 distinct points and a long wavy edge to the blade. Looks like hard work the rutting.I even got a few shots of him mounting some of the does, but the autofocus tactfully blurred them. As I stood there scarcely moving I noticed two more mature bucks to my left. Were they challengers? They passed very close to me and then ran up the slope towards the rut stand.After some milling around the strange noise stopped and they all moved away from the ridge. I again made a loop to get to the south of them, very carefully placing myself where I could see the main group without alarming them. After watching for a while I noticed a paler mature buck on my left and very close. He began moving up and down in the bracken.There were two does shadowing him. He raised his head and grunted. That was the sound! It’s a roaring, barking grunt with an edge of moan. This was it! Right here beside me was a rutting buck, marching up and down, thrashing the bracken, and eventually mounting both the does; all this within a short distance of the boss man with his 30 odd does. They did not need to fight!
In the afternoon I got the key and put out the badger food, watching for a while as two Jays made repeated trips to carry off as many nuts as they could. Moving up to the high ground again I saw another clear instance of mature bucks tolerating each other, although this walking and head turning in parallel might be aggressive. The further one seems to be Mr Bracken Basher from this morning.
It seems that Fallow Deer have a less winner-takes-all approach to mate selection. To what extent is this influenced by the artificially high numbers in the total herd? The answer to that will have to wait until I can find a suitable book on this species. So far I have been getting enormous satisfaction from learning in the field, from observation, just as Gilbert White and the early pioneers of animal behaviour used to.