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November Star Species: Red Deer

As the red deer rutting season draws to a close, we take a closer look at this magnificent animal.  And where better to look than Scotland, where they have been making their home for an astonishing 11,000 years?

Andy, our Forest Ranger at Ardgartan Argyll shares some red deer facts with us and explains how these almost mythical creatures have declined and risen again.

"The red deer is the largest land mammal in the UK, standing at up to 137 cm tall at shoulder height. Here in Scotland, red deer tend to be slightly smaller than those in England but if you come face to face with a proud stag bearing a magnificent set of antlers, it looks anything but small! Everyone has seen Landseer's famous painting, the Monarch of the Glen, which captures the red deer's majesty and is one of the enduring images of Scotland.

The stag's antlers are an outward display of his masculinity. The growth of the antlers is driven by testosterone and peaks in the early autumn when the rut starts. The deer's testosterone levels drop in the early winter and the antlers eventually drop off. Regrowth begins again in the spring, usually bigger and better than the year before. 

What is rutting and why do red deer do it?

The rut is the mating season, which begins in mid-September and lasts until early November. During this time, competing males, pumped full of testosterone, will engage in a series of behaviours aimed at showing off to the hinds (female deer) and establishing dominance over the other stags. The dominant stag will mate with all the hinds in a 'harem' which could be 20 or so hinds. The females give birth, after a winter pregnancy, in May or June.

They will walk alongside one another threateningly, in a behaviour called parallel walking. They will stamp the ground and roar fiercely. If two stags are of a similar size and these behaviours don't sufficiently establish a winner, they will literally 'lock antlers' and fight for dominance. The fights are ferocious and decisive and the winner takes all.

Are red deer a threatened species?

The interesting thing about the status of red deer is that they no longer have any natural predators. Once they would be hunted by bears, lynxes, and wolves but these animals are now extinct in the UK. Red deer have however, had a chequered history. After happily co-existing with Mesolithic man, along came Neolithic man, who destroyed swathes of forest for agriculture, robbing red deer of their natural habitat (although here in Scotland they survived well because lots of forest was left intact).

They were protected by the Normans, lost ground again in medieval times and were finally reintroduced with some helpful interbreeding with stronger stock, by the Victorians. They haven't looked back and are now thriving in many parts of the UK, including here in Scotland – where they have lived continuously for 11,000 years.

Where to find red deer in Scotland

We are lucky enough to have regular sightings of red deer here at Ardgartan Argyll and at our Strathyre location. The rut is an amazing natural spectacle to witness, although you wouldn't want to get too close to the competing stags! There are deer rut guided excursions in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, close to our Strathyre location – something for next year as they are over for this year.

The rut is exciting and slightly scary to witness but a more magical experience is likely when you see a stag or a hind near to your cabin in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park at our Ardgartan Argyll or Strathyre locations. Often to be seen in the morning mist or as dusk falls, they will captivate you. In my job, one of my favourite moments is when this happens on a Forest Ranger walk, and for some guests it is the first time they have ever seen a red deer in the wild."

Red deer facts
- 11,000 years ago, red deer shared their habitat with Mesolithic man who hunted them for their meat and hides and made tools from their antlers.
- A stag's antlers grow throughout the spring and summer and are protected by a soft skin, called velvet.
- There are lots of different terms for deer. Male deer can be called harts, stags, or bulls and females are called hinds, does, or cows. Baby deer are called fawns or calves.
- Red deer are not always red. Their coat is reddish-brown in the summer but browny-grey in the winter.

Images: 
By Lviatour (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Smudge 9000 (http://www.flickr.com/people/smudge9000/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Lviatour (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ritesh251123 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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