Saturday, 25 October 2014

Red Deer Rut

Nothing encapsulates the sound of autumn better than the roar of a red deer stag in his prime. October is undoubtedly the best time of year for watching red deer as they fiercely fight for the chance to pass on their genes. The rut is now in full swing at Lyme Park and the next few weeks will present fantastic opportunities to witness this awesome wildlife spectacle first hand.

A dominant stag with his harem.

Here are some key facts about the red deer rut and what to look out for over the coming weeks:
  • In order to gain exclusive mating rights, dominant stags form ‘harems’ - groups of several females (hinds) - which they will fiercely defend as the hinds individually come into oestrus (oestrus being the period of sexual receptivity when successful mating can occur).
  • In red deer, oestrus is triggered by the shortening of the daylight period, which is why the rut takes place at this time of year.
  • Obviously it is the ambition of every stag to hold his own and preferably the largest harem but there are only so many females to go around. To maintain control of a harem, a dominant stag must therefore persistently drive away rivals. Dominance between rival stags is determined through a combination of one or more of the following:
  • Roaring - By repeatedly bellowing a deep resounding roar, dominant stags are broadcasting their superiority and warning other males to stay away from their females (see video below).

  • Parallel Walking Rival stags will often engage in an intense walk to determine which of them is the largest. Moving in parallel, their gait will be slow and steady and they will often raise the hair on their backs to make themselves look bigger.
  • Fighting - Fighting can occasionally result in serious injury or death. Therefore, rival stags will only willingly engage in a fight if they cannot determine dominance by other means. Contact will be initiated by one of the stags lowering his antlers. Antler locking quickly follows and the two stags will push each other back and forth until one of them is driven rapidly backwards and loses the contest. The video below was taken last week and shows two of our dominant stags engaged in a fierce dual.

  • Despite the obvious magnificence of their antlers, it is the red deer stags ability to roar which holds the key to attraction. Females will often choose the male with the lower roar as they tend to be the larger bodied stags, which indicates strength and good health. It may sound unromantic but it makes perfect biological sense.
  • During the rut stags will often appear much darker as they will regularly wallow in their own urine. The odour from the urine also helps bring hinds into oestrus.
  • Given half a chance, smaller stags will attempt to move in on harems and mate with females. These opportunities usually only present themselves as the rut progresses and when a dominant stag is either in battle or exhausted from a recent fight.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare but please be mindful that the stags are currently pumped full of testosterone and much more aggressive than at other times of the year. So if you do manage to get out and see the rut here at Lyme then please keep a safe distance and remember to keep dogs under close control. Having 200 kilos of angry stag hurtling towards you would not be an advisable experience! 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Rhodi Bashing Returns

It’s that time of year again when we’re out tackling the swathes of rhododendron down West Park drive. In addition to our committed volunteer groups who have cleared and burned vast areas of rhododendron every autumn/winter since the ‘English Woodland Grant Scheme’ project started several years ago, we have also recently welcomed a couple of volunteer work parties from the Coop Bank. Over the course of the two days they spent here to assist with the project, they cleared and burned a substantial section on one of the slopes. The steep topography prevents us clearing by mechanical means, which is why regular volunteer groups and work parties armed with bow saws and loppers are essential to this important conservation project.

Bow saws are typically the weapon of choice for 'rhodi bashing'.

It is beyond doubt that rhododendron is here to stay and will never be totally eradicated from the British countryside, however it is imperative that we do not allow it to thrive at the expense of native habitat. Due to its toxicity and alien status in Britain, few native animal species are known to be associated with rhododendron. To put this in perspective, over 400 insect species are known to be associated with oak trees, which in turn support an array of birds and mammals. Every bit of rhododendron cleared is helping us move towards our principal aim of re-establishing 1.62ha of broadleaf woodland in the West Park drive area of the park to the benefit of countless native species.

Scaling the slopes is no easy task and it requires team work to get the cuttings down and onto the fire.

Significant progress is being made, so a massive thank you is due to everyone who has contributed to the project since its beginning. If progress carries on as it is, the days that this invasive heavyweight has to dominate this area of the park are surely numbered and we can look forward to a resurgence of native flora and fauna.

Volunteers from the Coop Bank enjoying a well earned cuppa.

If the thought of rhododendron rampaging across our countryside annoys you as much as it does us, then why not join one of our regular ‘rhodi bashing’ volunteer groups over the autumn/winter? It’s a great way to contribute towards nature conservation at Lyme and also provides an opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills and keep fit! If you are interested in joining one of our regular groups then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the ranger team by emailing or by giving the rangers office a call on 01663761411.