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Ready to rut

PUBLISHED: 17:55 14 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:55 14 October 2013

Red deer stag bellowing in mist

Red deer stag bellowing in mist

© Kiri Stuart-Clarke

Autumn is a time of golden harvests, blackberry laden hedgerows and the roaring of rutting red deer in the mist. Nature photographer Kiri Stuart-Clarke follows herds of red deer in Suffolk as they strut their stuff

For us humans, the time of courtship is traditionally springtime – the romance of Valentine’s Day in February followed by Easter and eggs symbolising new life.

Not so for our resident deer species, whose mating season – rutting – gets going just as the leaves start to fall in autumn. The annual red deer rut is a truly impressive courtship ritual, full of danger and drama.

There are six different species of deer living wild in the UK, only two of which are truly native – the iconic, long-muzzled red deer, our largest deer species, and the more diminutive roe deer, with its distinctive white rump. Spotted fallow deer, made famous by the cartoon film Bambi, aren’t truly indigenous. They came to our shores at around the time of the Norman conquest and are believed to have been introduced for hunting. The UK is also home to three more recent naturalised arrivals, Reeve’s muntjac, sika and Chinese water deer.

Here in East Anglia we play host to five of these species. Muntjac, originally from Asia, and our native roe deer have become widespread in the region, particularly in the Brecklands and Suffolk. There is a sizeable population of red deer in East Anglia which can be seen living in Thetford Forest, the Brecks and lowland heaths of coastal Suffolk around Westleton Heath. The Norfolk Broads, meanwhile, provide the perfect habitat for Chinese water deer, whose population is flourishing. Fallow is more a deer of woodland areas and regional populations are lower, though a good sized herd can be seen at Holkham in Norfolk.

With no natural predator other than man, deer populations are on the rise and conflict with humans is increasing. Concerns have been raised about over-grazing and woodland destruction, prompting an ongoing and controversial debate about the need for culling programmes.

Ready to rut

Red deer calve in late May and early June. From about 10 months of age red deer stags and younger bucks start to develop antlers. Red deer stags renew their antlers each year from March to August and spend the summer grazing to get themselves into peak physical condition for the annual rut.

The rut runs from September into early November, peaking dramatically in October. During the rut, the larger mature stags round up as many hinds as possible into a ‘harem’, which they fiercely defend from rival stags who gather, competing and displaying in hope of securing an opportunity to mate.

Rival stags display a great deal of aggressive, ritualised behaviour. They cover their antlers in mud and bracken, thrash vegetation, and start roaring, urinating on themselves and eyeballing each other. Competition is so intense that stags virtually stop eating during the rut and can lose 14% of their body weight.

Evenly matched competitors walk in parallel, sizing each other up and, if evenly matched, charge and lock antlers in a dangerous wrestling match, which occasionally can cause serious injuries and even death.

Sika and fallow deer also have their rut in October and November, but not all deer hold a rut in autumn, or even rut at all. Roe deer rut in July and August, >>

>>while Chinese water deer rut in December. Muntjac, which have a tropical ancestry, have no rutting season and breed all year round.

If you would like to learn more about the red deer rut and improve your wildlife photography skills at the same time, you can join a one-day beginners’ wildlife and deer rut photography course and enjoy two-hour wild deer Jeep safari and at RSPB Minsmere on Sunday October 6. Places are limited so booking is essential. To book online visit www.goingdigital.co.uk.

Kiri Stuart-Clarke is a professional nature photographer and tutor and runs Going Digital East Anglia offering a range of beginner, intermediate and special interest photography workshops, as well as one-to-ones across East Anglia.

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