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New Forest deer - annual life cycles

Fallow bucks in tatters
Two fallow bucks, both in tatters

In the New Forest, only male deer, the stags and bucks, have antlers, the familiar solid bone structures grown annually and used for both defence and attack, primarily during the deer’s breeding season, or rut.

Indeed, the stags’ and bucks’ annual cycle can be said to begin when the previous year’s antlers are cast off – in May for red deer, fallow deer and sika deer, and around November for the earlier breeding roe deer.

Replacement antlers start to grow almost immediately, but for a short while males are almost indistinguishable from females until the new antlers start to push through from the pedicles, the permanent, protruding stumps that are part of the skull.

Providing a degree of protection and also carrying nutrients and oxygen to the new antlers, a layer of initially soft, hairy skin covers the growing bone. It looks a bit like fur, and is known as velvet, so at this time the deer are said to be ‘in velvet’.

Red deer stag during the rut
A red deer stag during the rut

A full size set of antlers on a large stag or buck takes up to 15 or 16 weeks to form, after which the blood supply to the bone is cut off, and the velvet dies back and is rubbed off on convenient tree trunks or over-hanging branches. Whilst old velvet is present, the deer are said to be in ‘tatters’.

As the annual rut approaches, the physical condition of stags and bucks changes, equipping them better for the tussles ahead - necks thicken and strengthen, thigh muscles become better developed, and Adam’s apples bulge. A persistent, pungent rutting odour is also noticeable as each animal becomes increasingly aggressive towards its fellows.
The timing of the rut varies for each species.

In red deer, the rut starts around the third or fourth week of September, whilst for fallow deer the start is in early to mid-October. For both species, it lasts around 4 weeks. The sika deer rut also occurs in the autumn, but is often more prolonged, less concentrated than that of red deer and fallow deer. Roe deer breed considerably earlier than the others – their rut takes place in late July and early August – but a system of delayed implantation of the blastocyst into the uterine wall means that births take place at broadly the same time as the other species.

Births take place from late May to the middle of June, synchronised to take advantage of abundant food supplies and extensive ground cover.

Red deer, fallow deer and sika deer normally give birth to single youngsters, whilst, outside the New Forest, roe deer often give birth to twins, and very occasionally triplets. In the New Forest, however, where competition from other deer and commoners’ stock reduces food availability, roe deer usually give birth to a single kid.

Youngsters remain under cover for their first few weeks of life, and subsequently often remain in company with mum until the next year’s young are due to be born. They then leave her side, or are driven away, to make space for the new arrival. It’s not unusual, though, to see small winter groups of fully grown does, and current and previous year’s youngsters, so maybe some teenagers eventually return to the fold.

Fallow doe with a very small fawn
A fallow doe with a very small fawn

Stags and bucks generally make poor fathers. In fact they make poor companions generally.

Roe bucks and Sika stags tend to be fairly insular creatures that for most of the year keep very much to themselves. Red deer and fallow deer herds, though, split into separate, single sex groups soon after the end of the rut, and do not usually come together again until just before the following year’s rut. Indeed, many red deer stags often leave the New Forest altogether, and spend much of their time on adjacent farm or parkland, or even in the relatively nearby Ringwood Forest.

The History of British Mammals: Derek Yalden
Deer Watch: Richard Prior
New Forest Roe deer: John K. Fawcett
Roe deer: John K. Fawcett
Sika deer: Rory Putman
Fallow deer: Jochen Langbein and Norma Chapman

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Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley