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Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 09:48 UK
Stags locked in 'mortal combat'
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News


BBC Autumnwatch presenter Simon King explains how two stags on the island of Rum fight for access to hinds, a rivalry that later turns fatal

Two red deer have been seen engaging in a fight to the death, an event witnessed by a field biologist working with a BBC film crew.

One of the stags killed the other during the fight, on the island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland.

While red deer stags are known to engage in mortal combat, it is rare for anyone to see it happen.

The implications of the deer rut will be broadcast on the BBC series Autumnwatch.

Mr Sean Morris, a biologist who has observed and recorded the behaviour of red deer on Rum for a number of years, saw the fight take place.

I think the reason that this stag died is that he's unlucky. If they hadn't have been on the wet rock and he hadn't have slipped it probably wouldn't have ended the way it did.
Field biologist Sean Morris

Two resident stags named Percy and Titus squared up to one another in an area containing sloping wet rocks. The weather had turned wild with big heavy showers coming through.

The stags locked horns as usual, to push against each another in a test of strength.

"The next thing I saw was Titus must have somehow slipped," says Mr Morris.

"So Titus ended up on his back with all four legs up in the air and Percy just carried on fighting, with his head down into the belly area of Titus and Titus was struggling to get up.

"And this all happened within less than two minutes."

At first Morris thought that was the end of the fight, which occurred too quickly to be caught on camera.

Red deer stag Titus
A fallen Titus

"Titus managed to stand up and I thought he was OK, but I then saw his innards hanging out below his belly.

"Then just seconds after that he started to stagger like he was drunk and then he just fell into a gully out of sight where we couldn't see and Percy ran off and started rounding up hinds."

Titus later died, either directly from his wounds, or by drowning in the pool of water into which he staggered and fell injured.

Such violence does take place between red deer stags, but it is unusual.

During the rutting season, stags often engage in a type of behaviour known as "parallel walking".

Instead of fighting, two stags will slowly walk alongside each other, around 20 yards apart. Then they will stop, face away from each other and roar.

Listen to a red deer roar at BBC Wildlife Finder

Then they carry on walking again, quite often turning around to parallel walk the way they came.

This gives the males a chance to size each other up and most often the smaller male will concede without fighting.

"The less dominant stag will just run away, because he thinks he's going to get beaten," says Mr Morris.

"They are only going to fight if they think they have a good chance of winning."

Battle of strength

Even when they do fight, deaths are rare.

"They are fighting to breed which is the ultimate prize and obviously being killed isn't the aim," explains Mr Morris.

"The antlers are designed that they can fight and push against and interlock and it's a battle of strength."

Wild Red Deer
The Rum Red Deer project assesses the lives of the wild red deer

Titus and Percy had previously faced each another in a significant battle that left both stags unharmed, a fight that was filmed by the BBC crew. The rivalry then turned fatal.

Mr Morris thinks that Titus only died because of the location of his last fight.

"I think the reason that this stag died is that he's unlucky. If they hadn't have been on the wet rock and he hadn't have slipped it probably wouldn't have ended the way it did."

The battle between Percy and Titus was the first mortal combat Mr Morris has seen in his years spent observing red deer on Rum.

"It's very rare to actually see it. It's not an annual event in the study area," he says.

Scientific studies

Rum is owned and administered by Scottish Natural Heritage, and scientific studies of the ecology of the behaviour of the deer on the island are undertaken by the Rum Red Deer Project, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, UK.

While red deer research has been conducted on the island since 1953, since 1972 a specific study of deer has been conducted in the Kilmory area in the north of Rum, known as the North Block.

Here approximately 12 main stags service 200 hinds.

Red deer stags on Rum usually live to an age of around 12 years, while hinds can live to around 14 or 15 years.

Percy, at around 14 years old, is one of the oldest stags on the island.

A more detailed analysis of the encounter and the implications of the deer rut will be broadcast on BBC Autumnwatch on Friday 9 October at 2100BST on BBC Two.

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