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The Red Deer Rut

Home of Ireland's Red Deer: Forest & Mountain

The red deer is Ireland’s biggest land mammal and the only native deer species to the country. While red deer can be encountered in a number of places all over Ireland the animals roaming the Killarney National Park are the only true natives and have been living in the area for some 5000 years. For most of the year they wander around the hills, either as solitary loners or they form small groups which always consist of animals of the same sex. In late summer however this begins to change. The shortening of the days triggers the production of testosterone in the stags which makes it harder and harder for them to tolerate each other and the groups break apart. The physical appearance of the animals changes as well. They shed the velvet covering of their antlers and develop a mane which makes their neck appear bigger and stronger. Not surprisingly the testicle size increases as well.

Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Hind

Killarney during the rut

The hinds start to move to their traditional rutting areas in late September, followed by the stags, and the rut, the mating season for the red deer, begins.

During this time, which can last 4 to 6 weeks and usually reaches its climax in mid-October, the stags round up groups of hinds in order to gain the privilege to mate with them. During this time the valleys and mountains echo with the distinctive roar of the stags, a loud, deep, hollow call that lingers in the air. This call is a warning to other stags: I am here, this is my herd so stay away. This warning doesn’t always have the desired effect and often other stags wander close, try to lure away hinds from the herd or openly challenge the stag in charge. What follows is a power display from both animals, more roaring, antler display, mock fighting and chasing. Most of the time this is enough and one of the stags backs down.

Sometimes, especially during the height of the rut, warning calls and power displays aren’t enough and the only way out of a confrontation is a fight. While this is what every observer hopes to witness, I always have mixed feelings when it comes to a full blown fight. Stags can weigh over 200kg and when these amounts of muscle and testosterone clash into each other, it can cause severe damage or even lead to death.

This year I witnessed two fights. One was over very quickly and the intruder retreated almost instantly. The other fight however lasted over five minutes and during the encounter one of the stags was lifted off the ground repeatedly which shows the power of these animals. When I visited the spot of the fight the following morning I came across a stag lying on the ground, barely moving, breathing shallow and laboured.

Later I found out that the animal had suffered multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung and had eventually died from these injuries. It might well have been one of the two opponents from the previous day.

Carsten Krieger, October 2020


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