Autumn has settled upon the forest, delivering a scent of decay, a change in the colour of the vegetation and a noticeable dip in temperature first thing in the morning. While these changes mark the end of summer and herald the approaching long dark winter months, they bring with them a freshness that is both uplifting and energising. There is a real sense of transition, a renewal if you like, as plants shed waste accumulated over the summer and direct resources towards next year’s growth. The animals are also preparing for the winter ahead, laying down fat reserves and, in some cases, getting down to the business of breeding, initiating a process that will see young delivered just as spring erupts in a burst of new growth.
Red deer have started their annual rut and the early morning forest soundscape now carries the soft, bewitching roar of a distant stag. There is something very primitive in the stag’s evocation, heard at dawn in a forest landscape draped with tendrils of mist. It is a sound that hints at unseen mystical creatures, haunting the edges of vision and the shadows that sit deep within the dark ranks of conifers. The roar is part of a wider ritualised display; mature males also thrash vegetation, wallow and anoint themselves with urine. The frequency and duration of roaring has been found to indicate the dominance of the individual, with the dominant stags the most vocal.
Stags leave the bachelor herd in September to seek out hinds, favouring traditional rutting areas from which they will attempt to round up hinds into a harem and then retain access rights over other stags. My local patch appears to have just a single roaring stag this year, calling from slightly further west than the three heard in each of the last two winters. Perhaps this is a consequence of the clearance work that has been carried out in this part of the forest. Rival males may follow up the roaring contest with ritual display, walking side by side in an attempt to size one another up before (sometimes) escalating the contest to a more physical challenge. Individuals may fight by locking antlers, pushing and twisting with their powerful bodies in an attempt to gain the upper hand and force the other to concede defeat. Serious injuries and deaths are not uncommon. Access to a group of hinds is the ultimate prize and, following successful mating, the females will deliver their young at the end of May or start of June.
As summer comes to its end, the forest’s Red Deer are beginning a new cycle; the roaring males the signal of something promised by this time of renewal.