As you read this, all around the heath and woodlands in the east of Suffolk and similar areas in the UK, red deer stags are battling to protect their hinds and territory from would-be pretenders to their throne.

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Red deer at Wesleton Heath, SuffolkRed deer at Wesleton Heath, Suffolk

Westleton, Dunwich and Minsmere Heath and woodlands have a robust population of red deer – and from the end of September and through October this population reaches boiling point as these mighty and majestic animals begin their mating season.

Red deer are the largest deer species we get in the UK and in the East Anglia they tend to have easier winters to their Scottish counterparts, so do thrive. Generally the stag or hart can weigh up to 500lb and can stand up to 51in tall to their shoulders and the hinds up to 370lb. The word “hart” is an old English word meaning a stag that is more than five years old.

Only the stags have antlers which can grow to 36in in length and weigh up to 7lb each. These are made of bone and can grow at peak at a rate of 1in a day. In the spring you may see them coated in a soft velvet to protect the new growth; during the summer this coating is rubbed off against trees as the antlers will have stopped growing for that year.

The individual protrusions are known as fingers or tines. A royal stag has 12 points or tines; an imperial stag has 14 points; and a monarch has 16 points. During my shoot I was lucky enough to photograph all three of these. The 16-point stag is a stag at his peak. At the age of 10, each following year the number of tines start to decline.

Red deer at Wesleton Heath, SuffolkRed deer at Wesleton Heath, Suffolk

When the rut begins, competing stags have an elaborate and sometimes deadly ritual when they are seeking to exploit another harem or gain dominance over another stag. Bellowing is the obvious sign, a loud roar that will be heard at a great distance. Close quarter manoeuvres include parallel walking to size up the opponent and finally fighting, the clash of the antlers. Fighting can lead to serious and sometimes fatal injuries. Fighting is usually only between stags of similar age when bellowing or visual sizing up has failed to find a dominant male. The eventual winner ensures exclusive mating rights with the harem.

If you visit the Suffolk coastal heaths at any time of the year its likely that you’ll see small herds of red deer roaming around. In open areas they tend to stick together as there is safety in numbers; these groups are usually single sex groups, in denser woodland they may well be solitary or small groups of mother and calf. The stags remain solitary and only make their appearance during the breeding season.

A word of warning: these animals are large, heavy and can run very fast when they need to. If you are out walking, keep a safe distance if you come across a herd, especially at this time of the year, as hormones are running very high. If you have a dog keep it on a lead, as mature stags will not think twice before turning on your beloved pet if they get too close.

If you wish to see these sights have a look at the RSPB Minsmere (Westleton Heath) website. They have an organised look-out point from 3.30pm until dusk this Saturday and Sunday, as well as 4x4 safaris if you feel you wish to get a close look at these beautiful creatures (charges apply, call 01728 648281, booking essential).

Red deer at Wesleton Heath, SuffolkRed deer at Wesleton Heath, Suffolk

www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/index.aspx

Check out the website at www.ukwildlife.me.uk or email me on steve@ukwildlife.me.uk

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