The tension is palpable. We wait with baited breath. A fight is brewing. Will one protagonist back down, or will violent conflict follow?
We spoke to RSPB Minsmere
Visitor Experience Officer, Ian Barthorpe, ahead of one of nature's most spectacular scenes; the Red Deer Rut.The scene may be familiar outside city centre nightclubs on a Saturday night, but not in the wilds of a Suffolk heath. However, this is October, and the testosterone-fuelled beasts are not drunken youths, but red deer stags battling for the right to mate with as many females as possible.It comes as a surprise to many people that the Suffolk coast is one of the best places in the UK to watch deer. In fact, the area around RSPB Minsmere
is home to one of the largest wild herds of red deer outside Scotland. What’s more, with better climate and optimum habitat, the deer are generally bigger and healthier than their Scottish counterparts. From mid September, for about six weeks, most of the herd gathers on a few favoured fields at the northern edge of the reserve. Large groups of hinds (the females), and their young from the spring, feed in these fields while the stags try to corral them into smaller harems.
The rut is all about a show of strength, and it starts with sound. The stag with the loudest bellow is the strongest and his rivals will be wary. So throughout the rut the woods and heaths reverberate to the prehistoric bellows of stags.Sometimes two evenly matched rivals meet and bellowing simply isn’t enough, so they begin walking in parallel, chest out, strutting their stuff in a defiant show of strength. This is usually enough to settle the argument, but if not, then a violent battle may ensue.The stag’s antlers are impressive weapons, and can inflict serious injury, or even fatal wounds on a rival, so these battles are not to be taken lightly, and are avoided if at all possible. But, one way or another, each stag is determined to win control of as many females as possible, and not lose them to a rival.There are several opportunities to watch the red deer rut at Minsmere. A viewpoint on Westleton Heath offers excellent views across the rutting fields, where as well as deer you might spot rabbits, foxes, green woodpeckers or even the rare stone-curlews. The viewpoint is open at all times, and on the weekend of Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 October RSPB staff and volunteers will be present with binoculars, telescopes and kids activities.
For an even closer view, and extra special spectacle, why not book on one of the popular 4x4 deer safaris.
You’ll be driven onto the rutting fields by an RSPB volunteer, giving superb photographic opportunities. Your guide will try to find the biggest stags as you explore parts of the reserve that are usually closed to the public.There are three deer safaris per day from Saturday 12 September to Sunday 25 October, starting at 9 am, 11.30 am and 2.30 pm, and lasting 90 minutes. Tours are for up to four people and cost £90 per vehicle for RSPB members or £155 for non members. They are very popular, so book early by calling RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648281.For further details about visiting Minsmere, see www.rspb.org.uk/minsmere