Pictured in Knole Park, Sevenoaks

Around February time fallow male deer (bucks) will shed their antlers. Antlers are made of bone and regrow each year. (Horns such as those found on sheep and goats are made keratin and are not shed – they just get larger with age.)

Only the bucks grow antlers. A good ‘display’ of antlers warn-off other males during the mating season, but are used if two males decide to fight it out during the mating / rutting season.

When last years antlers are detached – they may fall off or be knocked off whilst rubbing on a tree – a red ‘sore’ looking patch can be seen on the deer’s head. A male that has lost is antlers is said to be a ‘pollard’.

One down – one to go!

You have to be very lucky to find a discarded antler. Some say the buck eats it to recycle the nutrients. I find this difficult to believe as their teeth are designed for grazing/browsing not gnawing hard bone. I think it’s more likely that a fox will find them. The following pictures are of the end of an antler that has been shed. The end is now brown due to age whereas it would have been white.

Within a couple weeks the buds of the new antlers can be seen. The male is then said to be ‘in velvet’ as the skin covering the growing antlers looks like velvet.

Time to start growing a new set

If you look closely in the next picture you can see the veins that carries blood to the growing antlers. Also note the large Adam’s Apple / voice box of the male.  A loud bellow will help him when he has compete with other males for a mate – and to call females (does) to his mating “stand”.

During this time the – the summer – the males hang-out in bachelor groups – separate from the females and males that under the age of three years.

Bachelor group taking a rest

During this time the males establish a pecking order. There may be play fighting, mounting or a sly bite as seen in the next picture – saying I’m senior to you!

Middle older male showing younger male who’s the boss!

The idea of this ‘play’ is to establish an order of seniority that may prevent two males fighting over females during the mating / rutting season. Fights can be long, exhausting and even the winner can be badly hurt- therefore its best not to fight if at all possible. 

During the summer the females stay together with young males under the age of three years. A male with straight antlers can be found in the next picture.

Female herd with one immature male

How a young male knows it’s time to leave the females and join a bachelor group, is not known for certain. However I have seen a female bite and chase off a young male when he tried to suckle. Her reaction to my mind was quite understandable as the young male had started growing sharp anthers – see next photo. (Fawns, like lambs, head-butt their mother’s udders to stimulate the flow of milk.)

Headbutting the udder with these would hurt – and deserve ‘banishment’!

As the summer draws to an end the blood supply to the growing antlers is cut off. The skin dies and falls away rather like badly sunburnt skin.

Shedding skin from newly grown antlers – they’ll be larger next year

And the antlers dry out and harden.

Shreds of material picked up to ornate the antlers?

As the rutting season approaches – later September / October – the bachelor group breaks up and males begin to establish their mating patch called a ‘stand’. (Male fallow deer expect females to come to them for mating. Other deer such as with the sika deer, the male collects together a group of females – wherever he can.)

To make himself look more intimidating to potential male competitors the buck may ‘decorate’ his antlers with bracken or other material – see picture above. The aim is to create the perception of having a larger set of antlers than he actually has.

One the male has established his ‘stand’ he scrapes out hollows in the ground – see next two pictures. He had a gland between his toes which secretes during the rutting season that’s attractive to does. He mixes this into the mud he’s made with his wee. He will then sit in his hollow can get the ‘scented’ mud onto his coat. (The scent could also warn other males off.)

Muddy smelly (to us) scrapes

Splashing it all over to smell good

I have seen a female using the scrapes – perhaps to let the male know of her ‘interest’? There is also a thought that females also have a hierarchical system which enables alpha females to place themselves nearest to alpha males. I’ve not seen the search for this but biologically it makes sense if an alpha female mates with an alpha male.

Female making sure the male knows she’s there?

Although a male has secured his stand and a pecking order established during the summer, it doesn’t mean that another male will not try to move in.

Warning – do not approach deer. They are wild, the carry ticks, you could cause a female to desert her fawn – and during the rutting season you could be charged by a full grown angry male.

Note the white interloper on the right – he’s been spotted

However a fight can be avoided if one male through his appearance and bellowing is able to see the competitor off. Note the white male to the right has smaller antlers than the brown male.

Power-Display to avoid a fight – which could harm both victor and vanquished

And back to the rutting business!

Challenger seen-off

By mid to late November things settle down. Th rutting season is over. The males slowly return to the bachelor groups and the females progress with their pregnancy which lasts about eight months.

In June / July the fawns are born. The mother will hide her fawn – perhaps in bracken – and return several times a day to feed it. So if a fawn is found hidden – move away, leave it

The fawn has some amazing defences. It has very little odour which could attract a predator, and it can very effectively play-dead. It’s able to go into what is called a state of bradycardia by slowing  its breathing and heartbeat right down. 

Once the fawn is strong enough it will join the female herd – initially staying close to where it can hide.

Fawn close to mother and cover in which to hide

Soon the fawns like all youngsters are ready to play and continue the life of the herd.

Time to frolic

If you found this blog of interest you may like to view the blog that tells / shows jackdaws helping remove the winter coat from the deer Nature has it sorted!

Geoff Rambler – 21 January 2021.

When the Covid crisis has passed I can be booked to lead a walk / tour. I do not charge but seek a donation/donation for an agreed charity / good cause.