The Rut Or Roar


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Explains in detail the red deer mating season

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The Rut Or Roar

  1. 1. Chapter 4: Mating season “The rut and roar” The mating season, better known as the “rut” and “roar” is the most exciting time of year for red deer and for red deer trophy hunters. Mature stags roar, moan and bellow--an eerie sound for the uninitiated--calling hinds to become part of their “harem” to be protected from the sexual advances of other stags. Stags also roar to announce their presence to rival stags and aggressively roar back and forth at each other. For trophy hunters the roar is their favoured time of the year, as this is one of the few times when the largest, wiliest stags with the biggest antlers willingly show themselves. Topics covered in this chapter:  Pre-rut  Stag signs  The rut or roar  Stag roars  Stag antlers  Stag movements  Stag harems In Southeast Queensland (SEQ), usually just prior to Easter (See Moon Phase Data), from the new moon when it starts to get cooler, stags begin to roar. The sound of a stag roaring is similar to a bull‟s bellow, but more drawn out, usually ending in a grunt or two. However stags will make all sorts of moans, grunts, and even bark like a hind, during the rut. This time of year is certainly the „silly season‟ for stags, when even the most cunning and shy stags--usually the really big ones!--throw caution to the wind as their raging hormones take over. If you want to bag a silly, smelly stag, then the roar is the best time to do it. For trophy hunters, those hunters who are looking for the biggest set of antlers, the beginning of the rut is the crucial time for finding the big stags with the best antlers in a particular area. The reason for this is that the biggest stags with the best antlers are dominant in their realm. Due to their dominance, big stags roar less
  2. 2. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE often, mainly at the start of the rut. Hence it will not take them long to call up hinds, gather them into their harem and sire as many progeny as they can by mating with as many hinds as possible. Meat hunters on the other hand tend to be disappointed with meat quality as hinds, and especially stags, become supercharged with hormones, making their meat more rank and gamier than at any other time of the year. Nevertheless, for those who know how butcher deer, red hinds and even stags shot during the rut can be taken for meat, provided the glands and skin is removed as quickly as possible from the carcass. In this chapter we will focus specifically on stags and their behaviour prior to, during and following the rut and roar. Hinds are discussed primarily in relation to stags and how they relate to each other during rut. Pre-rut Because the most dominant stags will gather and defend a majority of the hinds in the best territory in a given area in the shortest period of time, it is important to survey a target area before roaring starts. The reason for this pre- emptive action is to be in prime areas when roaring first starts. This is because the dominant stags move back into their most favoured rutting areas a month or more prior to the roar starting. Part of the reason dominant stags do this is experience. Hinds congregate where there is good feed and cover. Dominant stags have been doing the same thing for a number of years and are familiar with the area and its hinds. Another reason is hormonal. The stags are in hard antler and the hinds are nearly ready to come into oestrus or heat. (See Image 11: “Hard Antler”.) Testosterone levels are changing, causing stags to travel with hinds and spar with other stags to establish dominance. Dominant stags usually return to the same rutting areas year after year, provided hind numbers remain relatively stable. Hinds in the area appear to recognise and gravitate towards these stags, since they are often seen travelling together prior to the rut. ©Paul Rattray --1--
  3. 3. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Image 12: “Hard Antler” (Source: Author) Familiarity breeds success Research by Reby, Hewison, Izquierdo and Peapin (2001), points to hinds choosing to mate with the stag that is most familiar to them. In other words, the stag that spent the most time and effort in roaring at them and retaining them within his harem is the one most likely to be successful in mating with them. Ultimately however it is the females rather than the males that make the choice of stag with which to mate. The proposed mechanism of female choice is the ability of females to discriminate individual characteristics in the stags' roars. While hinds obviously have the ability to discriminate between a stag‟s roars, based on my observations, one of the reasons hinds gravitate towards certain dominant stags is that they have already been spending time together during the pre-rut period. In other words they are familiar to each other. Thus, in the pre-rut period, the stag that ©Paul Rattray --2--
  4. 4. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE sets up his territory in prime deer country with lots of feed and hinds is usually the dominant stag in the area (Pineland, 2008). Even before the roar starts, these dominant stags have already started travelling around their territory with a group of hinds. Essentially the stag is courting these hinds and becoming familiar with them so that when roaring starts, these hinds will seek him out because he is familiar to them. I know one particular ridge in Lower Wonga which is a large stag‟s territory and he consistently travels around with a group of hinds just prior to the roar. Even before the roar starts he is standing high on the ridges looking around for any potential challengers. He patrols this territory regularly. Knowing these spots gives you the best opportunity for taking the biggest stags in the area, because you know the location of prime feeding areas where hinds will congregate during the rut. By default these areas are where stags are most likely to be. Experienced hunters know to go to potential rutting areas well before the roar starts to scan the area for potential trophy stags. Essentially the aim here is to get an idea if there are large stags around and where they are most likely to be during the upcoming rut. One skilled trophy hunter in the Widgee area starts camping in the most promising rutting area at least a week before roaring starts. Prior to this he has already spent considerable time scanning the most promising areas to see where the biggest stags are likely to be later during the rut. He does this pre-rut work to stake out the best territories for himself and because he knows that the biggest stags will start roaring and collecting their harems of hinds before the less dominant stags even get started. Multiple harems By the time roaring is in full swing, the biggest stags have usually mated with the hinds in their harems. There is even evidence that dominant stags may move back to their normal haunts in thicker cover before the end of the rut (Keck, 2008). Thus, once dominant males have collected and mated with the females in their harems early in the rut, usually they leave these rutting areas and head back into seclusion before the rut finishes. Another probability is that some stags may actually move to other areas and collect other harems during the same mating season. From my own field observations, I believe it is possible that one stag may in fact service more than one harem of hinds in a mating season. While I have not personally observed the same stag gathering two separate harems of hinds, the pattern of the rut suggests that stags move through different areas roaring for hinds and contesting these harems with other stags. If this is the case, then the most dominant stags would win most of the harems they ©Paul Rattray --3--
  5. 5. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE contested. I suspect that to some extent some of these behaviours are dependant on the extent of competition between stags, especially dominant stags. What is obvious from anecdotal evidence and formal research is that stags move around a lot, have large home ranges and increase their overall movements during the rut to obtain access to more hinds. As a consequence stag home ranges increase dramatically during the breeding season (Kamler et al, 2004, Jarnemo, 2008). These seasonal movements may be due to them being displaced from their current territory by a more dominant male or by them opportunistically seeking out a more promising territory with more hinds. Another factor influencing stag movements may be hind movements to areas that have better feed due to local rainfall patterns just prior to the rut. What is clear is that the big stags get the best position in rutting areas by spending time with hinds prior to the roar. They also familiarise themselves with the territory and mark it with various signs to let other stags know they are in the area. Stag signs in the pre-rut are important markers to the hunter for the upcoming rut and give the best indication of where the rut is likely to be most concentrated in a given area. Stag signs During the solitary season and into the pre-rut period the best signs of stags are tree rubs, where stags rub the bark off small trees and saplings with their antlers. Tree rubs found during the solitary season indicate a stag‟s presence in the area. If these tree rubs are consistently fresh and are found in good deer country and there is evidence of plenty of hinds about, then you can be pretty sure that during the upcoming rut, this area is where a stag will start collecting his harem early in the rutting period. Stags position themselves in a given territory by making antler rubs on trees. Once the rut starts, stags make scrapes on the ground with their antlers and hooves to indicate that this is their territory. They mark these scrapes with urine (and also urinate in their wallows) then rub this smelly mud into their fur. The smell of a rutting stag in his territory is quite pungent and is a good indicator that he is about. It is important to know the difference between scrapes, beds, wallows, mounds and stomping grounds. Scrapes are only used by stags during the rut, whereas mounds, and especially, beds, wallows, rubs and stomping grounds are used almost year around. Wallows are used by both stags and hinds, but not usually at the same time. Both stags and hinds wallow to keep themselves cool during summer and to keep the flies and ticks away. Tree rubs are only made by stags with ©Paul Rattray --4--
  6. 6. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE antlers, though both hinds and stags will rub their bodies on trees to scratch themselves and leave scent markers. Stags rub their antlers on trees during the rut to indicate dominance and before and following the rut to stain their antlers with wood sap. The height of a tree rub is a good indicator of the size of a stag. Keep in mind though that a stag will occasionally stand up on its hind legs to rub its antlers on a tree, making it appear much taller than it really is. Tree rubs can also be used by more than one stag as they move through an area and in some cases may be used and reused over a number of years. If you know where tree rubs are being used and appear to have been used more than once, you can pick up a good stag outside of the rut. An experience at Conondale in the Sunshine Coast hinterland aptly proves this point. During the Easter rut period one of the most productive deer properties I have hunted (I have shot approximately 30 head there and a friend has shot over 100 head) was closed for other hunters as a family came and stayed over the Easter holidays to hunt the area for stags during the rut. Following their departure I returned on Anzac Day (25 April 2007) and started moving up Sandy Creek. I didn‟t think it was likely that any deer would be around the creek area as there were tracks mowed for vehicle access and a recently abandoned camp site not more than two hundred yards down the creek from where I was sitting higher up on an embankment. I carefully surveyed the area, and through the early morning fog, saw a deer standing on the other side of the creek on the opposite embankment near a regularly travelled deer trail and where there had been tree rubs previously. It was too far away and foggy to know if it was a stag or hind. The deer moved out of sight down into the creek bed, apparently moving downstream towards the abandoned camp site. I set off quickly down the embankment and into the creek basin, an area of bracken fern, to see if I could catch sight of it in the creek bed. Trying to move through shoulder-high bracken fern quietly but quickly, I was having a hard go of it. Half-way through, I could see the camphor laurel saplings down near the creek being thrashed about. It was then that I knew it was a stag in hard antler. When he was thrashing the bushes I moved, not needing to be quiet. I slipped a 150 grain bullet into my .270, in expectation of a large animal at relatively close range. When he stopped rubbing, I stopped moving and when he started up again, I would continue stalking. Then he stopped rubbing altogether. I couldn‟t see him because he was in the hollow of the creek, so I wondered if he had gone up the other side. Next, I could just see his antlers above the bracken fern. He was walking parallel to my position at no more than twenty metres away! I set up my shooting sticks and waited. As he came abreast with me, I could see the whites of his eyes he was so close! Even though I could not see his body clearly, I knew the stag‟s approximate height through the ferns. I fired and dropped him on the spot. He was a perfect double-four. Even though his antlers were small, they were perfectly formed and still look great with all my hunting gear hanging off them. ©Paul Rattray --5--
  7. 7. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Scrapes are only made by stags during the rut and the main distinction between a scrape and a bed is that stags only urinate in scrapes during the rut, whereas at other times of the year stags use scrapes as beds where they can sit and survey their territory and rest in relative safety. While scrapes and beds are essentially no different in form: as shallow impressions in the ground where the animals lie down or squat on their haunches, only stags use scrapes, whereas hinds and stags both use beds. Knowing the difference between a scrape and a bed will save you wasting time with a bedding area for hinds or immature spikers during the rut when you are searching for mature stag scrapes. There is a distinct difference in smell between a scrape and a bed for starters. Secondly, stag beds and scrapes will have marks in the ground from the stag‟s antlers, while they have antlers, whereas hind beds obviously will not. Otherwise, it is difficult to tell the difference between stag and hind tracks around beds except for size and the slight variations between stag and hind tracks which are discussed in more detail in the “deer tracks” section of chapter 7. Stomping grounds are areas where groups of stags congregate to spar and stomp around in their territory. Stomping grounds are used outside of the rutting period when stags are in same-sex bachelor groups. Similar to stomping grounds, though smaller in area, are stag mounds, high points that are used by stags to scan their territory for potential mates and rivals. Stag mounds are commonly used pre-rut and during the rut by an individual stag. The important point for hunters is to know the differences between scrapes, beds, mounds and stomping grounds. That way, you can find stomping grounds and beds during group season and stag mounds during the pre-rut and scrapes during the rut. If stags are not severely disturbed, they will reuse stomping grounds and mounds year after year. Wallows too will be used and reused. One wallow near Woolooga has provided me with three deer over the years. As mentioned previously, wallows can be used at any time of the day or night by deer. Wallows are visited most regularly during hot, dry days. I have shot a stag near another Woolooga wallow during the roar at 10.30 in the morning, long after I expected to see any deer out and about. At the first wallow mentioned in the previous paragraph I have shot deer in the early afternoon. Because the deer could get to this wallow using a creek bed for cover, they were willing to use it even during the hotter parts of the day. For hunters in particular, it is important to realise that stomping grounds, wallows and rubs will continue to be used by stags throughout much of the year, especially while they have antlers and congregate in groups, particularly following the rut. Knowing where these regularly used red deer „hot spots‟ are and when deer are ©Paul Rattray --6--
  8. 8. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE likely to use them gives you a hunting advantage because you can plan to visit places that have the highest deer concentrations and traffic in a specific area at a given time of year. The rut or roar Given the evidence that dominant stags start roaring and collecting harems during the pre-rut period and abandon their harems before the rut ends, getting in quick before roaring starts is particularly important for trophy hunters. Once the stags start roaring, you need to be in the area to get a crack at the best stags, since the ones roaring towards the middle and end of the rut are usually those that have missed out on collecting their own harems and are looking for stragglers. During the mid-to-late rutting period I have seen less dominant stags roaring and hinds in their proximity apparently ignoring them. Given the importance of skilled hunters getting the timing of the rut right, defining the terms „rut and roar‟, which are often used interchangeably by hunters, is a helpful point of clarification for our discussion. The “rut” is the most exhilarating of seasons in the red deer calendar and is generally defined as a recurrent period of sexual excitement in red deer. Based on this definition, I believe that this period of sexual excitement is already building prior to the roar, in what I have defined as the pre-rut period. However it may be that the pre-rut is really part of the rut, and that the “roar” should be defined as the period in the rut when hinds and stags are ready to mate. Either way, it has been generally accepted that the roar starts when the majority of breeding hinds in a given area start coming into oestrus. In other words, the stags start roaring when the hinds come into heat, not the other way around. Contrasting research by McComb (1987) suggests that roaring by red deer stags can advances the date of oestrus in hinds. Either way, once the roar starts, it may be only a week or two before a dominant stag has his harem established and served. Whilst he will maintain his harem for the duration of the time that his harem hinds are in heat, he will go quiet and roar much less once his harem is established. Once all his hinds have been served, this dominant stag may move on and establish another harem in a different area. Onset of the rut For trophy hunters especially, knowing when the roar actually starts and its duration is vitally important to get the best chances at a big stag. Other than increasing stag signs such as tree rubs and stags travelling with hinds, it is the first roars from the biggest stags that herald the true beginning of the rut for hunters. As previously discussed, ©Paul Rattray --7--
  9. 9. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE what actually sets the stags roaring is a combination of factors, the most important being the onset of oestrus in hinds. Whether stags start roaring in anticipation of hinds coming into heat or as a reaction to it is a bit of a mystery, given the combination of other factors that influence the onset of the rut. See Image 12: “Roaring Stag”. Image 12: “Roaring Stag” (Source: Other than sexual factors such as increased levels of testosterone in males and oestrogen in females, there are four main factors influencing the timing of the rut: length of the day, moon phases, weather factors and herd condition. These inputs work interdependently and when combined they trigger and determine the breeding cycle. As such, the inputs affecting the rut appear to come together like pieces in a puzzle. When one or more pieces do not fit properly, the puzzle is incomplete and breeding times are altered. Apparently, the biggest piece in the puzzle is the amount of light, which determines the ideal timing window for oestrus in hinds. Next in importance is moonlight, which pinpoints the exact time within the window for breeding. Weather and herd condition are the remaining pieces which complete the puzzle. For example, in SEQ, red deer watchers say that stags usually start roaring at the first cold snap in April. In years where there has been a long ©Paul Rattray --8--
  10. 10. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE dry, it appears that the roar is more subdued than in good years, which suggests that less hinds may come into heat in drier seasons due their being less nutritious feed available. Other likelihoods that I have observed in some of my own hunting areas are that stags migrate to areas with more hinds in season (oestrus) during that rutting period, or do not roar at all in areas with low numbers of hinds in heat. Thus, in order to complete the deer breeding puzzle, and bring about the onset of the rut, all the pieces of the mating puzzle must fit together. When the puzzle doesn‟t fit together exactly due to one of these components changing or being absent, such as the weather, stags and hinds will behave differently, for example, roaring or coming into heat out of season. Duration of the rut It is most likely that the abovementioned factors influencing the onset of the rut also contribute to the significant differences in duration of the rut at various places and locations in different years. As already discussed briefly in chapter 2, and in the previous section, in some years the stags seem to roar long and loud in one area, yet are quieter in another area that has had significant rutting activities in previous years. This information is based on my own observations, and those of others, of rutting stags over a number of years in various locations. What this anecdotal evidence suggests is that stags move from one rutting area to another in different years depending on their ranging cycle and access to hinds. However, this anecdotal evidence is inconsistent with continuous red deer research over a 30 year period by Clutton-Brock, Pemberton, Kruuk and Coulson (2008) on the Island of Rum. They suggest the opposite behaviour in that before each rut, stags move off to their traditional rutting areas. This apparent contradiction may relate to the environment of Rum being that of an island, which limits stag movements somewhat, whereas the areas that I hunt in SEQ put virtually no limits on how far stags can roam. Since we discuss stag movements later in this chapter, we will reengage with this discussion then. At this point our discussion remains focused on the duration of the rut whilst keeping in mind that all the previously mentioned factors in this chapter are strong contributing factors. As mentioned previously, the normal duration of the roar in wild red deer in SEQ is between the new moon and the next new moon, a period of about 28 days. That is the period that red stags are heard roaring. While this is anecdotally the norm, research on farmed deer in Mexico, one a temperate highland farm and the other a dry subtropical farm show significant differences in the duration for the rut (Flores, Luna, Tapia, Rivera, Vásquez & Shimada, 2005). ©Paul Rattray --9--
  11. 11. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE On the first farm, the rut has, on average, started in late October and ended in early December, the duration being 50.8 days. The second farm yielded observed results of the rut being from mid October through to December with a mean duration of 71.2 days. While it is worth noting that these are farmed deer, these findings are confirmed by reports from the Rum Island research that the duration of the rut there is for a similar period of time, even though the timing is a month or so earlier (mid-September to mid-November). The importance of these findings to our study is to confirm that the rut can start at different times and run for different periods of time even in the same hemispheres. Though about two or three months is the norm in the literature for the duration of the rut in both hemispheres, it is noteworthy that the rut is significantly longer than what has been anecdotally observed. The most likely reason for these differences in rut duration relates to how the rut and roar are defined. Most hunters define the rut or roar as the period in which stags are heard roaring. This is usually for a month or so. Red deer farmers and researchers on the other hand tend to define the rut as the breeding period, which apparently runs for about two and a half months. Obviously this period includes the pre-rut and roar, and is defined as one continuous mating season, commonly known as the rut. Stag roars Despite differences in the terminology used to define the duration and timing of the rut, what is not in dispute is that stags roaring heralds the mating period. Once the rut commences, dominant stags establish themselves and their harems first. This means that most of the action later in the rut is from smaller stags trying to muscle their way into these harems. Then, it is the smaller stags that do most of the roaring, so the most roaring definitely does not necessarily mean the biggest stag. In fact, the biggest stags roar least, usually every 2-3 hours. Rather, the main factor indicating dominant roaring is the pitch and timbre of the roar itself, with larger animals having a deeper throatier bellow and roar than their less dominant rivals. This is due to more dominant stags having longer vocal tracts. This dominance factor is evidenced by the research of Reby, McComb, Cargnelutti, Darwin, Fitch, and Clutton- Brock (2005) using playback experiments to present red deer stags with re-synthesized vocalizations. Stag vocal tract resonances or formant frequencies were systematically altered to simulate callers of different body sizes. A ©Paul Rattray --10--
  12. 12. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE formant is defined as the sound produced by the vocal tract. Different formant frequencies allow animals and humans to distinguish patterns of sound. For humans, formants allow us to attribute meaning to these sounds, like when we speak. In response to stimuli where lower formants indicated callers with longer vocal tracts, stags were more attentive, replied with more roars and extended their vocal tracts further in these replies. This demonstrates that stags not only pay more attention to the roars indicating larger opponents, they also gave more roars in response. These results are consistent with previous experiments showing that mature harem holders roar less in response to playbacks of young stag roars than to playbacks of mature stags‟ roars, even when the roaring rate is kept constant. Furthermore, the researchers found that when these replies included harsher, louder more conspicuous roars, red deer stags were able to vary their own formant frequencies by a small, consistent amount in relation to those of a perceived rival. It was found that red stags tended to roar with a more fully extended vocal tract when faced with more threatening opponents. Other than being able to modify their roars to match their rivals, red stags tend to have different roaring patters depending on times of the day or night and at different times during the roar. During early morning and late afternoon at the peak of the roar, stags roar every few minutes or so, whereas during the hotter parts of the day and later in the night, stags may only roar at fifteen minute to half-hour intervals. At the beginning of the roar, and as the roar draws to a close, there are longer gaps between roars and fewer stags answer the roars. Hinds too show less interest. Learning to roar along similar lines by making sure that your roars sound most similar to dominant stags and have the correct intervals for the time of day and the roar will give you the best chance of getting a shot off at the big stags with the best antlers. Roaring techniques are discussed in the final chapter. Females do the choosing Recognising a stag‟s maturity and dominance due to the pitch of its roars, is the main reason why hinds are able to discriminate between the roars of their current harem-holder stag and those of other neighbouring stags. This ability of hinds to discriminate between stag roars, a necessity for individual recognition, is theorised as being important in female mate choice in red deer (Charlton, Reby & McComb, 2007). This ability of hinds to distinguish between stag roars, and prior familiarity with dominant stags during the pre-rut, are what most significantly increase a dominant stag‟s chances of collecting a harem more quickly at the beginning of the rut. ©Paul Rattray --11--
  13. 13. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Other than recognition of dominance due to their roaring displays and familiarity from prior encounters, dominant stags gain good access to hinds because they know where hinds are likely to congregate due to good feed and the presence of other dominant stags. In fact, it appears that it is the hinds that actually do the chasing of stags initially. Then the stags sort each other out while the hinds look on, watching to see who is the best at roaring and fighting. However, only occasionally do stags fight, as it is potentially dangerous or even deadly to do so. See Image 13: “Stag Harem”. Image 13: “Stag Harem” (Source: Most of the time the stags roar loudly and repeatedly both toward competing stags and toward the hinds that they actively herd into harems. As such, red deer hinds may actively choose their mate on the basis of a comparison of the roaring rate of competing stags. Furthermore, hinds apparently try to position themselves in the best spots based on the availability of high quality feed and the presence of dominant stags. Given that dominant stags also choose similar mating areas with high numbers of hinds in oestrus, it appears to be a win-win situation for both sexes. Findings by Carranza and Valencia (1999) noted this mutually beneficial relationship between hinds and dominant stags by observing 20 areas of meadows used by hinds before, during and following the rut. They found that at the onset of the rut, the number of females increased in some areas and decreased in others. The opposite pattern was found after the rutting period. They found that hinds collected on clumps of male territories or „leks‟ (1999:525) to ©Paul Rattray --12--
  14. 14. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE avoid sexual harassment from immature stags and to increase their chances of mating with highly competitive stags. Hinds that were collected in larger harems during the early rut, in mating areas containing several rutting males surrounded by other harems, were found to do best. Interestingly, it was also found that hinds select particular sites based on food availability rather than the presence of a particular male. This is in contrast to the research cited earlier (Reby et al, 2001) which claims that hinds tend to gravitate towards the dominant stag they know best. Thus hind preferences for a specific stag or the most dominant stag may be primarily influenced by red deer numbers in the area, particularly the ratio of stags to hinds and access to good feed. Therefore, if a dominant stag is displaced by another more dominant stag in an area where hinds congregate due to good feed, the vanquished stag will probably lose out, whereas the hinds remain in a win-win situation. Confirming this factor in relation to stag hierarchies is research that shows lower ranking males switch to less preferred grass patches because they are displaced from their preferred forage by dominant males in the area (Chevallier-Redor, Verheyden-Tixier, Verdier & Dumont, 2001). It is in situations where dominant, equally- matched stags are competing for hinds that they are most likely to fight. Fighting success In fact Clutton-Brock, Albon and Gibson (1979) found that individual differences in reproductive success in males depend principally on variation in fighting ability. For red deer stags, fighting both has appreciable costs and yields considerable benefits. Fighting is dangerous and stags use roaring displays to assess rivals, only fighting when a stag thinks it has a reasonable chance of winning. The reason for this behaviour is that the above study shows up to 6% of rutting stags are permanently injured in fights each year. Fighting success and reproductive success are closely related, within age groups as well as across them. (See Image 14: “Fighting Stags.”) ©Paul Rattray --13--
  15. 15. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Image 14: “Fighting Stags.” (Source: Thus, stag fighting behaviour is sensitive to changes in the potential benefits of fighting. In other words, stags fight most frequently and most intensely where potential benefits are high and tend to avoid fighting with individuals they are unlikely to defeat. The cited study observed that rutting stags may fight every five days or so during the rut and that one in 100 fights leads to permanent injury or death. It is estimated by Clutton-Brock et al (1979) that 20% of individual stags may be permanently injured at some time during their lifespan. However, the authors propose that these estimates may be conservative. This is because the frequency of fights may be greater than one per five days and injuries may occur which are invisible (e.g. abdominal puncture) plus all fights may not be observed. While I have not personally observed nor heard of hunters reporting red deer stags being permanently or mortally injured in fights, I have seen puncture wounds and deep bruising in the forequarter area of stags shot. This indicates that these stags had been fighting savagely. Furthermore, the fact that wild (hunted) stags stick to heavy cover even during the rut lends weight to the argument that in the field not all stag fights can be observed. ©Paul Rattray --14--
  16. 16. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Stag antlers From the previous section we have established that the main weaponry for stags in establishing dominance during the rut is the depth of their roars, antler and body size, and fighting ability. Stags can be twice the size and weight of hinds and their antlers can weigh up to seven kilos. There are three key factors that influence antler size: age, genetics and particularly nutrition. Feed with high nutritional quality is the key ingredient for antler growth, with studies from the United States and New Zealand showing that red deer calves having unlimited access to high quality forage initiated pedicle (antler) development much earlier than those with access to 30 percent less quality forage (Demarais, 2002). Thus, if high quality feed is one of the primary determinants of antler size, dominant stags that have access to the highest quality feed in a given area would be naturally dominant due to their increased body and antler size. Furthermore, if these stags are able to mate with hinds that also have access to highly nutritious feed, the presumed consequence will be the production of dominant offspring. This reasoning is confirmed by the research of Loeske, Kruuk, Slate, Pemberton, Brotherstone, Guinness and Clutton-Brock (2002) in the United Kingdom, mainly on Rum Island. Antler size in red deer, they claim is heritable and selectable. They found that stags with large antlers had increased life-time breeding success, both before and after correcting for body size. Despite substantial age- and environment- related variation, antler size was heritable. However the observed selection did not generate an evolutionary response in antler size over the study period of nearly 30 years and there was no evidence of a positive genetic correlation between antler size and fitness. In other words, dominant stags and hinds, and their offspring did not continue to get bigger and more dominant simply because they had access to better feed and breeding partners. This is because certain genetic limitations started to appear. These genetic factors are discussed in more detail in chapter 5. Similar to Demarais‟ (2002) aforementioned research in the United States and New Zealand, Loeske et al (2002) also found that both antler size and success in fights for mates are heavily dependent on an individual‟s nutritional state. This research makes sense, because I have observed that in areas where the soil and feed are better, the stags have, in general, better quality antlers and larger bodies. For example, the Glastonbury-Widgee areas seem to consistently produce some of the biggest stags with the best antlers in SEQ. Thus, as a rule, a bigger body equals better quality antlers. ©Paul Rattray --15--
  17. 17. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE In fact, there are even methods of calculating the live weight of stags that helps predict their antler weights in velvet and hard antler (Ball, Thompson & Fenessy, 1994). These calculations are mainly to help breeders select the best breeding stags. A simple calculation is live weight divided by 0.04 to predict the approximate weight for velvet antlers and 0.05 for hard or dry antlers. For example, a 100 kilo stag is predicted to have, on average, velvet antlers weighing 2.5 kilos and dry or hard antlers weighing 2 kilos. However from reviewing the research of Janiszewski, Niczyporuk and Hanzal (2007), these calculations are rough at best. Their study of the quality of red deer harvested in hunting grounds of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest in Poland revealed that the heaviest antlers were on average above 4.5 kilograms. This study‟s comparison of carcass weight to hard antler weight, based on three stag age groups were as follows: 1) 2-5 years, carcass weight approximately 100 kg, antler weight 2.2 kg, 2) 6-10 years, carcass weight approximately 128 kg, antler weight 4.6 kg and 3) 11- years and older) carcass weight over 132 kg and antler weight 5.7 kg. These findings are interesting because they indicate that stags continue to grow larger and heavier with age during the same period that their antlers are growing larger and heavier, even though their sexual peak declines after about 7 years of age. Since antler growth takes a significant amount of a stag‟s energy resources, one would expect that stags with smaller antlers may potentially be larger in body size due to them not needing to expend so much of their energy on growing antlers. Possibly confirming this theory are my field observations that shot stags with smaller or malformed antlers are often heavier in the body than their better antlered counterparts. Contrary to my experiences is research from the study of “Hummel” deer, stags that do not produce antlers (Li & Suttie, 1996). It was found that hummels occur due to having insufficient testosterone levels, possibly caused by low nutrition in feed during adolescence when antler pedicles are growing. The two hummels in their study were found to have lower than average body weights during pedicle development. However body weight over their life time was not mentioned. Personally I have no experience with hummels, having never observed nor heard anecdotal evidence of hummel stags from my hunting contacts. Thus, it would be interesting to test how antler size in relation to body weight applies over an individual stag‟s lifetime and across wider populations of stags. Judging antler quality What becomes immediately obvious from the above research is that antler size is directly related to genetics, weight, age and nutrition. Thus the bigger and older a stag gets, the heavier his antlers are likely to be, until he starts to get past his prime and the quality of his antlers diminish. Or, consistently poor nutrition would, over a ©Paul Rattray --16--
  18. 18. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE year or so, presumably reduce antler quality during the next growth period. Given these inputs alone, judging the quality of a set of antlers is a complex process. In fact, judging the quality of antlers is another field of study in its own right. For the purpose of this book, we will limit our study to look at the main criteria for judging red deer antler quality. The reality is that for hunters in Australia, there are few red stags that will have the quality of antlers required to be world class anyway. If you want world class antlers, New Zealand and New Caledonia are probably the best places for hunting quality stag antlers in this part of the world. Even then, there are significant differences in antler sizes and shapes even when stags are similar in body size and weight. Stags of a similar age and size can have antlers with a significantly different length and breadth. For an actual example, see Image 15: “Different Antlers”. Image 15: “Different Antlers” (Source: Author) Generally speaking, antler quality is judged on the following factors: antler length, breadth and spread, the diameter or circumference of the main beam and the number of tines or points. The relative symmetry, colour and texture, and length of points, also contribute to antler quality when scoring. For most red deer hunters, unless they are serious trophy hunters, a balanced set of antlers with a good and equal number of points on each side is enough to satisfy them. ©Paul Rattray --17--
  19. 19. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Antler terminology However, if you are serious about knowing where your set of antlers sits in the scoring stakes, then here are some guidelines. In laymen‟s terms, red stag antlers are scored by their number of points. For example, eight- or ten- point antlers are counted as having eight or ten tines or points on one set of antlers. Good quality antlers are those that have an equal number of points on each side. Thus a double-five set of antlers has ten points of five tines on each side. There is a specific vocabulary used for red deer antlers. Three main antler terms are used: 1) Coronet – the rosette of bone at the base of a deer‟s antler where it joins the skull, 2) Beam – main trunk of the antler from which the tines protrude and, 3) Tines – Projections or points which protrude from the main beam of the antlers. Tines or points are further subdivided into Brow Tines, which protrude from near the brow, just above the coronet. Next are the Bay Tines, protruding above the Brow Tine and below the Tray Tine. Tray Tines are usually the longest tines and protrude from above the Bay Tines and Below the Crown Tines. Crown Tines, as the name suggests, protrude from the top of the main antler beams. Antler scoring systems All antler scoring systems utilise variations of these terms. If you are serious about scoring antlers, there are at least four main antler scoring systems in use internationally. Europeans in particular use the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), in North America Boone & Crockett and Buckmasters are the most popular and Safari Club International is more commonly used amongst British, Australians and New Zealanders. All of these antler scoring systems provide a “score sheet” for the measurer to record various measurements. For a sample “Red Stag Antler Scoring Sheet”, see Appendix 2. Commonly, the measurements score the number of points on the left and right antlers, the tip-to-tip spread, the greatest spread between the antlers, the inside spread of the main beams, total lengths of abnormal points, length of the main beam, the length of each individual point, circumference at smallest place between burr or coronet and first point, circumference at smallest place between each of the points and various other required measurements. The overall dry weight of antlers is also scored. See Image 16: “Antler Measuring”: ©Paul Rattray --18--
  20. 20. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Image 16: “Antler Measuring” (Source: CIC, 2008) No matter what antler scoring system is used, the main problems with conventional antler scoring systems is that they require an individual to first measure using a tape measure or similar instrument then record the measurement in writing upon the score sheet. This process is time-consuming and prone to mistakes or misunderstandings. There is also some subjectivity, especially where beauty and penalty points are involved. Beauty and penalty points are added and deducted based on the degree to which a set of antlers meets authentic colour and pearling standards of the surface texture of the antler beams and tine ends. ©Paul Rattray --19--
  21. 21. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Penalty points relate to defects that warrant a deduction of points. They include irregular attachments of antlers to pedicles, a pronounced lack of symmetry in the length of the antler beams and any irregularity in the brow, bay, tray or crown tines. Broken or cracked tines also attract penalty points. The only exception is the Buckmasters BTR system which accounts for every inch of the antler without deduction for abnormalities (Wilson, 2008). As you can see, antler measuring can be quite subjective, even when recognised measuring systems are used. Given the high value and prestige placed on scoring trophies, some hunters lose sight of the historical premise upon which conservation-based scoring clubs were founded. Without exception, every scoring organisation places a high value on, or at least pays lip service to, not only trophy classification, but more importantly on wildlife and environmental preservation. Despite these laudable aims, trophy hunting for antlers is by its very nature wasteful, since the meat of trophy animals is, more often than not, left to rot in the field, with minimal amounts of meat taken for human consumption. Stags movements Irrespective of the antler scoring measures you use, it is the skilful hunting of a red stag or hind to the point of shooting it that is the main aim of this book and to this objective we now return. As mentioned previously, during the rut there are three main signs that stags are moving around: Antler rubs on trees, scrapes in the ground and wallows in use. Finding these signposts is important because it is around these spots that you are most likely to see a stag. As mentioned previously, antler rubs on trees, like stomping grounds are used well before and after the rut. However unlike stomping grounds, during the rut tree rubs may only be used a few times, similar to scrapes, then not be used again as the stag moves to another spot in his territory. Nevertheless, some antler rubs are used from season to season and knowing their location is important for picking up stags outside of the rut period. Note the example I gave earlier in the chapter about the stag at Conondale. Antler rubs during the rut can usually be differentiated from antler rubbing during other parts of the year by their freshness and the often violent way in which small trees, bushes and saplings are thrashed about and even broken off from frenzied rubbing and thrashing. Antler rubs during the rut can also be found in proximity to scrapes and wallows. As mentioned previously, scrapes are indentations in the ground where a stag scrapes away leaves to ©Paul Rattray --20--
  22. 22. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE expose the dirt on which he then urinates and rolls. Remember, scrapes are only used by a stag during the rut and should not be confused with beds, which are discussed in more detail in chapter 7. Scrapes are not re-used again by stags. Thus, even though stags may control the same area year after year if they are not disturbed or displaced, they make new scrapes every rut by scraping the ground with their hooves and antlers then urinating and rubbing themselves in the mud created. A stag may have dozens of scrapes around his roaring spots, usually in thick cover, where it is cool and moist. A stag usually makes scrapes along the outer edges of the trail he makes as he marks and patrols his range during the rut and roar. While wallows are regularly used at all dry and hot times of the year, they are particularly well used during the rut as the stags urinate in the wallows then rub themselves in the urine saturated mud to spread their acrid scent around. This scent marking lets other stags and hinds know of each other‟s presence. Wallows can be used any time of the day or night, but usually rutting stags visit wallows early in the morning and late in the afternoon and occasionally at night. Subject to water availability, some stag wallows, similar to scrapes, are only used during the roar then abandoned after the rut. Due to the need for water to create mud, more permanent wallows are usually found in and around dams, streams and waterholes. However, during the rut, the slightest bit of pooled and puddled water is used by stags to mix with their urine to cover themselves with this urine-saturated mud. The smell is unmistakable. During the rut, stags tend to use wallows more than hinds, as they roll in the mud to spread their scent around. Stags will often rub themselves and their antlers on trees around the wallow. The higher the muddy rub marks up the tree, the larger the stag. Stags will also shove their antlers into the mud in the wallow as they rub their bodies in the mud. This may be why, later in the year, stag antlers are often found cast in wallows. Lay of the land Apart from recognising these key stag rutting signs, the next most important factor is to understand the lay of the land and how the stag will use it during the rut. Stags that are roaring are in the process or have already established themselves in a territory. Almost without exception stags will choose a hillside with thick cover on one side and more open country on the other side so they are protected from behind but can see any potential challengers or predators without being easily seen themselves. Finding a roaring stag in this terrain is more difficult than it first appears. ©Paul Rattray --21--
  23. 23. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE Hunters often expect that a roaring stag will be standing out in the open, silhouetted against a bare hillside. This may be the case in deer hunting parks or on properties where deer are seldom hunted, but in most cases roaring stags are difficult to find and see, despite their roars. Often a roaring stag will secret himself in thick brush making him almost impossible to see. Or if he is suspicious of you will hunch down on the ground making him virtually invisible until you are nearly on top of him. Sharing some personal hunting experiences during the roar helps explain these stag behaviours. High in the hills around Wonga, Queensland at least five stags were roaring in the vicinity. The hills echoed with their roars. I had narrowed down the location of at least three stags and started moving towards the one nearest to me. The rainforest was so thick that I had to crawl on my hands and knees towards the nearest stag through cane grass and lantana. As I crawled, I roared to the hidden stag and he answered back. After an hour or more I was so close I could smell him and hear his hooves scuffing the ground, yet I still could not see him--even though I was no more than 20 metres away! Then the wind changed, he picked up my scent and was gone in an instant. What I learned from this experience is that stags will almost always roar with their back to thick brush and face more open country where they can see anything that is coming. If I had followed the tree line from the more open side of the hill, I may have had a shot at him. Trying to stalk a stag from behind through thick brush is extremely difficult and time-consuming, especially when a roaring stag may move every half hour or so. As it was, he turned out to be a large, though immature young stag with underdeveloped antlers. Another lesson I have learned is that roaring stags will stalk other stags (or what they think is a stag--in this case me!) by crawling along the ground to keep a low profile, making them very hard to see. I was moving slowly along a mountain top where I had heard four or five stags roaring in thick brush and lantana below me. Moving from the open cover above towards the thicker cover below, I was careful to remain hidden in a tree-covered gulley. There were stag footprints everywhere, especially from stags travelling down a steep gulley towards the tree line. I could hear a big stag roaring down in the trees below me and another to my right. He would respond to my roar almost immediately. The closer I got, the more time he took to answer my roars. When he did roar though, it was close. I crawled towards the last place I heard him roar keeping below the grass line. I knew he must be close but I still could not see him. How frustrating! I scanned the bush with my binoculars. Nothing! I sat and waited. Then, just above the tops of the grass, not more than 30 meters below me, I saw the slightest of movements. They were the tips of his antlers. I tried to see his body, but could only make out the tips of his antler crowns. As I stood up to see more of him, he exploded out of his crouching position and crashed back down the mountain through the thick brush. He had followed my roars by crawling or sliding along the ground towards me, ©Paul Rattray --22--
  24. 24. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE making him unseen to me, but enabling him to see me silhouetted against the hillside as I stood up to shoot him. I was filled with admiration for this magnificent and clever animal. Thankfully, I was able to shoot the other stag nearby who was standing out in a more open area. He responded to my roars by staying put, making him an easy shot. As you can see, even though red deer are generally predictable, especially during the rut, there are exceptions due to competition and raging hormones. Why the concentration of roaring stags fluctuates in a given area during the rut is a mystery to me. Some hunters say it is due to the stags moving to congregate in an area where there are more hinds. Others suggest that it is due to hunting pressures or access to better feed. Stags too are naturally nomadic and may range for many miles in search of mating opportunities with hinds. Stags harems Probably the most important factor influencing stag movements during the rut is the number of hinds a dominant stag can access and breed with successfully. Red deer breeding is “polygynous” because it is a mating pattern in which a male mates with more than one female in a single breeding season. Under this breeding regime the most important thing for a stag to do is to collect a harem of hinds to mate with and for a hind to join a harem and be mated with by the most dominant stag she can find. Research using DNA fingerprinting and field observations shows that a hind in oestrus can conceive over an 11- day interval during the rut (Pemberton, Albon, Guiness, Clutton-Brock & Dover, 1992). Thus the probability that a stag will father a calf with his harem hinds increases significantly the longer he can hold each hind in his harem. Their findings show that a stag‟s chances of reproductive success increase from 0.12 for one day to 1.0 for six days of holding a hind in his harem. Given that other research (Clutton-Brock et al, 1979) shows stags hold hinds, on average, for 20 days during the rut, it is understandable that stags put so much effort and energy into the rut. In fact, stags can survive partial or total starvation during the period of active rut so they can focus exclusively on their harems. During the peak of the rut stags may drink only enough water to refill their bladders so they can spread their urine scent around. This supreme effort is understandable considering that under optimum conditions, a stag may successfully breed for ©Paul Rattray --23--
  25. 25. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE only five years or so during its lifetime. Based on the above research, stags are found to reach sexual maturity at 4 or 5 years of age and tend to drop off their sexual peak around 9-10 years old. Safety in numbers Having as many hinds as possible in a harem is not just beneficial for the stag in terms of his reproductive success, it also helps him survive. Stags, especially dominant, experienced stags are wily and shy, staying in cover most of the time, even during the rut. However, when they are supercharged with hormones they become careless. Thus, having a large group of hinds surrounding him is beneficial for his safety, as hinds remain ever watchful and wary during the rut, keeping their eyes, ears and noses at the ready for warnings of harassment from other stags and attacks by predators. The number of hinds a stag may gather in his harem is largely dependent on the competition, which affects his dominance and the number of hinds in the area. Both factors ultimately affect the number of hinds a stag can collect during the rut. While anecdotal evidence suggests that a dominant stag may collect between 10-15 hinds in his harem, scientific research shows harem sizes to be significantly lower. On average, the ratio is between one stag to four hinds down to one stag to two hinds (Bonenfant, Gaillard, Klein & Maillard, 2004, Wade & Shuster, 2004). Where the ratio of hinds to stags is proportionately higher, the number of hinds in a harem may be larger. Harem sizes also appear to be influenced by the number of mature adult stags in the population, who tend to displace sub-adult stags more easily. As a rule, a healthy population of red deer will have a demographic of two or three hinds to every male. Given that this demographic naturally produces competition between stags, hinds are often held in the harems of numerous stags during each rut. On average a hind will be held in the harems of three to four different males during the rut (Pemberton et al, 1992). Interestingly however, it is unusual for a hind to mate with more than one stag during the rut. Males on the other hand mate with as many hinds as they can in their harem and may collect more than one harem, thus increasing their access to more hinds, which is their key to breeding success. Because the timing of the rut in one area can be slightly different and some stags appear to range quite widely during the roar, there is a high probability that a stag may collect more than one harem during a mating season. These factors make a stag‟s movements unpredictable and a large stag seen one year holding a harem in a particular place is not guaranteed to be in the same area next rut. I have personal experience of these changes in a stag‟s territory during the rut. ©Paul Rattray --24--
  26. 26. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE One example is a large stag, about a double-seven or -eight (according to the landowner) which regularly uses the area, sometimes during the rut, solitary and group seasons. One year he was seen with a group of hinds by the landowner, the next year he was seen by Rex and me with another group of hinds, after he had cast his antlers. He is the biggest stag in terms of body size that any of us have seen. The next year I saw the antler rubbings of a large stag, probably this same animal, during the solitary season in the same area. Surprisingly, during the next last year, while there were plenty of signs of a large stag about, and other stags still around as well, neither I nor the landowners heard stags roaring in this area throughout the rutting season. We know there were hinds in the area at the time, because Rex and I had shot several hinds before and after the rut. In previous years this area was a rutting and roaring hot spot. My assumption is that due to the increased rainfall this last year, local hinds were more widely dispersed or had moved into the next valley, where the rut occurred, out of my earshot and that of the landowners. Stag movements in relation to hind availability are vitally important factors in the management of red deer, the topic of chapter 6, especially during the rut. This is because the rut is the time when most hunters are in the bush, some illegally hunting on land without permission from the landowner, trying to take trophy animals. Thus, stag movements and their overall seasonal migrations increases the risk of overexploitation of males, because of the fact that they range so widely. Unless there is a high degree of cooperation between hunters and landowners, local sustainability of red deer, especially stags is put at risk.  This chapter began by emphasising the importance of pre-rut preparation to successful hunting in the rut. In particular the emphasis on pre-rut preparation lies in observing and interpreting the signs stags and hinds leave behind, which points to where they are most likely to be during the upcoming rut. It was emphasised that the onset of the roar, heralded by the roars of stags, requires the serious trophy hunter to be in the field as soon as possible, because the most dominant stags collect their harems early in the roar then move on. Next we looked at how stag roaring and fighting displays determine the dominance hierarchy. We learned that stags and hinds both discriminate between stag roars to determine their most worthy rivals or mates. Importantly for trophy hunters is the fact that the biggest stags roar far less often (sometimes once every couple of hours) than ©Paul Rattray --25--
  27. 27. RED DEER HUNTING: A COMPLETE GUIDE their less dominant counterparts, which means that you need to listen for dominant rather than regular roars. Mutual familiarity was another factor in mate choice. Fighting ability was yet another dominance factor, though fighting is only conducted as a last resort when there is good chance of victory, since its inherent risks to the combatants is high. From our study in this chapter it became evident that antler size, usually relative to body size, was a key indicator of dominance, though actual fighting ability, and potentially aggression, was even more important than antler size alone to red stag dominance. Not surprisingly, when we studied terminology and techniques for judging antler quality, the measuring systems used focused on size, weight and appearance, as the human equivalent for establishing dominance amongst trophy hunters. Following that, we looked at a stag‟s movements during the rut in relation to their ability to collect as many hinds as they could in harems and mate with them. Initially we focussed on the signs that stags leave behind as they move through their rutting areas, especially scrapes, wallows and tree rubs. Then, the places where stags position themselves during the rut were examined. It demonstrates that stags instinctively choose to position themselves between thick bush and their hind harems to protect themselves when they are naturally more vulnerable than normal. Finally, we looked at the composition of stag harems and the possibility that stags may collect more than one harem during the rutting season, as hinds are collected by more than one stag during a mating season. Interestingly, despite this polygynous mating system, it was found that a single hind seldom mated with more than one stag during the rut. This finding emphasises the importance of a stag holding the hinds in his harem during the peak of the rut when most of his hinds are in heat and are most likely to conceive. ©Paul Rattray --26--