By Charlotte Owen
The tranquillity of a woodland walk in October may well be broken by a deep, primeval groaning and the crack of bone striking bone as the fallow deer rut gets underway. This breeding frenzy is one of the autumn’s most impressive wildlife spectacles and the bucks are now in peak condition. They have put on a huge amount of muscle around their shoulders and necks, shed the protective velvet from their now fully-formed antlers and are pumped full of testosterone ready to attract females and drive off rival males. Having roamed around in bachelor groups for the last few months, separate from the females, there is now a triumphant return to traditional rutting areas where play fights and posturing soon develop into full-blown battle.
Bucks jostle for position with a great deal of stamping and parading, thrashing at vegetation with their antlers and churning up the ground to create wallows, urinating in them to make a muddy mess. This helps to mark their territory but is also a potent perfume when rolled in, advertising a buck’s strength, status and breeding prowess. These messages are reinforced by their belching groans, which communicate a range of vital statistics.
Generally, the more dominant bucks have deeper voices, often – but not always - because they are the largest animals. Fallow bucks can artificially deepen their voices by deliberately lengthening their vocal tracts while groaning, allowing smaller males to exaggerate their size. But as the rut progresses and the bucks start to tire, the length and quality of their groaning will decline and only the fittest males can groan loudest for longest. By listening for subtle changes in a rival’s calls, a buck can decide whether and when to mount a challenge and risk clashing antlers in a dangerous battle of strength and stamina. Competing bucks will push and shove each other with every fibre of their being until one of them relents, and injuries can be severe. The prize is worth fighting for though, as the victor will mate with a multitude of females and pass on his genes to the next generation.