Red Deer (Cervus elaphus): A Jeckyll and Hyde character.
THERE IS NO DOUBTING THE GRACE AND ELEGANCE possessed by the red deer, the largest wild land mammal in the U.K., particularly when they are in their full summer pelage, yet this normally sedate herbivore has another side to its character, one played out during the early weeks of autumn that imbues the animal a Jekyll and Hyde persona. This change of personality only affects the males -- more often referred to as stags -- and is brought about by the annual rut, a time when the red deer breed and tensions run high.
For the majority of the year, the Breck's red deer population are happy browsing peacefully amidst the cover of Thetford Forest by day and emerge into the surrounding farmland by night. Subsisting on a mixed yet healthy diet of pine shoots, fresh herbs, grasses, rushes and arable crops -- even digging up root vegetables during the colder winter months for extra sustenance -- they can often go unnoticed due to their largely crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyle. The tell-tale signs of their presence are more likely to be clues left in their wake; regular, well used tracks passing through the Forest's plantations leading out onto fields and heaths, or areas of hedging where a distinct 'browse-line' gives the impression that a skilled topiarist has been at work.
If you are lucky enough to catch sight of the deer during daylight hours, the chestnut-red sheen of their pelage is characteristic during the summer months, giving way to the thicker, grey-brown, double layered coat that develops once summer has past. It is this time of year that you are most likely to see them, and the time for the most dramatic change in the animal's appearance; in particular, that of the stag's. To view a full grown red deer stag during mid-summer is to see an animal at peace with fellow males and his surroundings, having broken away from the hinds (females) during the winter, with nothing more on his mind than eating and sleeping. His coat will be short, red and shining, his belly fat and round like a cow's; his antlers, up to a meter wide, will be covered in soft, nutrient transporting velvet. To see him at the end of September is to see a different animal.
There are several roaming herds of red deer in Norfolk, with distinct groups forming from the northern fringes of the Broads to the centre of the county, carrying on south towards Thetford Forest and the Brecks. The rutting season is without question the best time to observe the behaviour of these animals, when their guard is lowered and matters of procreation take precedence. However, do not be tempted to approach too closely. Your best chances of viewing interesting behaviour are to stay put and watch from the cover of a tree or vehicle; the roaming nature of the deer may bring them surprisingly close to you.
A gland located under the eyes of the red deer, know as the preorbital gland, is used to secrete olfactory messages as a means of communicating with other deer. These scent messages are left in conspicuous locations such as low growing bushes and trees and may be one reason why, particularly during the rut, red deer stags are so keen to thrash young trees and saplings with their antlers.
Fuelled by a cocktail of hormones he has become restless, stiff-legged and strutting, intolerant of other stags and driven with a singular need to find the opposite sex. He is now in possession of a shaggy, leonine mane and the bulk of his round belly has metamorphosed to his shoulders and neck, giving him a lean, tapered and powerful appearance. The following three weeks consist of guarding the largest harem of hinds he can manage with a mixture of self-appreciating bravado and guttural burling that can be heard half-a-kilometre away. If this doesn't work, he will resort to brawling and fighting with any stag who dares to ignore his posturing. Once November arrives, all is peaceful again.
The brutality of the rutting season is obvious for all to see as a large red deer stag struts his way across a Breckland heath. Lodged into the side of his neck is the tip from a rival stag's tines; the consequence of fighting over rights to mate with the hinds.
The burling of a red deer stag is a primordial sound that has echoed through the forests of Britain for centuries, which can still be heard in several locations throughout Norfolk. The Brecks is now a favoured site with well over 100 animals using the area throughout the year.
A young stag performs what is known as the Flehmen response, an action that allows him to transfer the hinds' pheromones left amongst faeces or urine to his vomeronasal organ (located behind the front teeth). This allows him to determine how soon they will be receptive to his amorous advances.