Dominant display
of primeval power

A red deer stag roars a warning.
A red deer stag roars a warning.

Written by Heather Elvidge

The glens are ringing – it’s the rutting season for red deer. Dominant stags gather a harem of hinds, but keeping them is a full-time job. Other, younger stags try to sneak in, or drive the defending stag away.

A mature stag normally has 12 points on his antlers – a “royal” head – and in case that’s not enough he rolls in mud to look even more threatening. When he detects a rival the stag roars a challenge. If the interloper doesn’t take the hint a fierce fight can erupt.

The stags rush at each other and clash head on, wrestling back and forth with locked antlers. Usually the weaker one will back off. However, wounds from those sharp-pointed antlers sometimes prove fatal.

This dramatic display of primeval power certainly impressed our ancestors. In myth and legend the stag was a symbol of the sun, the dawn, and fire. Sometimes hunters discovered that the animal they were chasing was not what it seemed. A stag could be the messenger of a god; a moon goddess could take the form of a white hind.

Long ago red deer lived in open woodland, until our tree-felling habit forced them onto the open hills. Today they’re found mostly in Scotland, although England has indigenous populations in the Lake District and on Exmoor. Other herds scattered around the country, including in North Yorkshire, are escapes or releases from parks and deer farms.

It’s best to keep away from red deer during the rut, which continues throughout October. The stag is highly aggressive and will assume you’re coming for his hinds.

Night life

The nights are drawing in now but even before the sun sinks, barn owls come out to hunt. They are often glimpsed beside country roads, a gliding ghost in search of small rodents.

Barn owls have had a good breeding year. The weather has been mild, the voles plentiful. But these beautiful birds have a precarious existence. They need old barns for nesting and rough grassland for hunting, the kinds of places that we tend to see as ripe for improvement.

Like other creatures of the night, barn owls used to be feared as birds of ill omen. Anyone who has heard that unearthly screech in the night will understand why it foretold disaster. And barn owls do frequent graveyards – it’s quiet, there are mice – where their heart-shaped face and white wings raise age-old fears.

Autumn is the time to hear our favourite owl, the tawny. This shy, nocturnal hunter is seldom seen, but its classic “to-whoo” can be heard in the darkness as young males search for a place to call their own. If there’s a hooting duel, or screeching and wailing, then a youngster is challenging an adult male for his territory.

The female’s call is a sharp, “kee-wick”, so if you hear the traditional to-whit, to-whoo that’s a male and female calling to each other. Woodland is their preferred habitat, though an urban park with mature trees will do as well. Tawny couples hunt the same territory, listening in the darkness for the tiny sounds of voles, mice, and small roosting birds.