A staggering spectacle is on offer from the ‘Monarchs of Minsmere’
- Credit: Archant
It’s rutting time for the red deer on Suffolk’s most famous nature reserve - giving visitors the chance to view one of nature’s most dramatic events.
Amid the autumn stillness, on misty morns and as dusk darkens the vast Suffolk skies draped over the convergence of Westleton Heath and the heather-clad wildness of RSPB Minsmere, it’s the bellicose bellowing that’s the first sign of the red deer rut.
It doesn’t so much attract your attention as demand it, wrench it, seize it. It’s a far-carrying, rumbling, roaring expulsion of air from the very depths of the stag, delivered with proud, antler-crowned head held forward and raised for maximum projection and the most dramatic of effects.
If the stag soundscape doesn’t work - if it fails to establish the mightiest of the beasts’ rights to mate with as many of their preferred females as they may choose - there’s only one thing for it. The jolting, shuddering, crashing clash of antlers, often repeated and repeated until the lesser stag backs away, is the clincher. The strongest, the most driven, the ultra-dominant will win the right to pass on his genes.
This is very much nature in the raw. And it’s become one of the most sought-after sights in East Anglia. The red deer rut played out through October on the western edge of RSPB Minsmere frequently attracts scores of visitors eager to watch the dramas unfold from a viewpoint located at a safe and respectful distance from the antler action.
The sexes spend much of the year apart, but they come together in autumn as the normally peaceful grounds of the females are turned into a battlefield as rutting season begins - and RSPB Minsmere holds the largest herd of red deer outside Scotland.
As the females gather on the famous reserve’s heath and grasslands they are joined by playful young males, followed by the large and intimidating stags - the largest weighing perhaps 25-plus stone, standing well over four feet at the shoulder and possessing huge elaborate antlers that can sport up to about 16 points.
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These giants are intent on nothing but mating. The male with the loudest bellow establishes himself as the dominant stag and holds court with a harem of females in the centre of the rut. But sometimes bellowing isn’t enough. The battle commences as a stag of similar size decides to challenge an old-timer for superiority – and the right to mate with the harem. The rival paces back and forth, sizing up his opponent. If neither stag backs down, they lock their antlers in violent conflict. It’s a last resort, as injury can be fatal, and the fight is often brief but brutal, ending with the winner proclaiming his rights.
RSPB Minsmere visitor experience officer Ian Barthorpe is one of the many observers who are regularly transfixed by the unfolding dramas.
“The annual red deer rut is one of those natural spectacles that should be high on any wildlife fan’s must-see list each year,” he said. “It’s an all-round sensory experience. Not only will you see large herds of hinds gathering, you’ll also hear the impressive, deep-throated bellow of huge stags battling for supremacy. With luck you may even smell the musty scent of the males, which urinate to mark their domain. They, in turn, ‘taste’ the air to determine if the hinds are ready to mate.
“As darkness descends, and the bellowing intensifies, you’ll even feel the hairs on your neck stiffen.”
Optimum views of the rut could be obtained at a public viewpoint on Westleton Heath, on the north-western edge of the reserve about two miles from the Minsmere car park and visitor centre, said Mr Barthorpe.
“The watchpoint looks south across the main rutting fields, and the deer are usually about a quarter of a mile away,” he said. “A visit near dawn or dusk is best, especially during October, but the deer are usually visible throughout the day. It’s also possible to see smaller numbers of red deer around the visitor trails at any time of year.”
A map and directions to the viewpoint could be obtained from RSPB staff and volunteers in Minsmere’s visitor centre, he added.