Understand the red deer rut

Improve your understanding of one of autumn’s greatest spectacles. 

Red deer
Illustration by Sandra Doyle/The Art Agency


Rutting red deer in October and November are a highlight of the wildlife calendar, but the spectacle is more varied and dynamic than is often assumed. “Contrary to what many people think, fighting is a last resort,” says deer expert David Dixon. “You usually only see stags battle at the end of the rut, when a hard-working, dominant male is losing condition. He may have lost 20 per cent of his body weight.”

The annual rut is primarily about display – complex visual, acoustic and olfactory posturing between rival stags to gain dominance and thus win a harem. Key visual displays include the antlers themselves and ‘parallel walking’, in which two stags strut side by side to assess each other’s status. The main vocalisation is bellowing, often several times a minute, combined with low grunts. The sound brings hinds into heat.

Stags hit their sexual peak at seven years, and are larger in lowland deer parks due to supplementary feeding. The best time to watch them is dawn or dusk, but stags can be aggressive – never be tempted to edge too close!

There are many interesting signs to spot during the rutting season, which can be seen in both a stag's behaviour and appearance, as well as in its immediate habitat. Here are nine to look out for:

1 Foliage head-dress Stags often adorn their antlers with scooped-up grass and bracken. This is a visual display to make them look bigger and more intimidating.

2 Bellowing Stags throw back their heads to roar – this also shows off their thick necks and manes to best advantage.

3 Antler shape Older stags have more branches in their antlers, with up to 16 points. In our calcium-poor uplands, stags crunch up and eat their antlers shed back in March–May.

4 Gland secretions Preorbital (lachrymal) scent glands under the eyes discharge a dark fluid that may broadcast information about sex and age.

5 Smeared mud A rutting stag’s flanks, chest and legs are often caked in smelly mud – in upland areas, his fur may end up jet-black from the peat.

6 Wallowing Rutting stags urinate in muddy pits under trees or by water, then roll in it to anoint themselves. Both sexes also wallow in spring and summer to remove moulting fur.

7 Bark damage to trees Bark scraped off the trunks of trees using the lower incisors may be part of the rut, or simply a feeding sign.

8 Thrashed vegetation In August, stags thrash the foliage to rub the dry velvet off their antlers. In the rut this becomes a display.

9 Snapped branches Head-shaking stags also break off branches up to about 1m above the ground.

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