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Seeing red for the annual deer rut in Devon
Stephen Hussey
By Stephen Hussey
Devon Wildlife Trust

Red deer at the DWT reserve
October is the best time to see the red deer rut at the DWT reserve

Stephen Hussey of the Devon Wildlife Trust goes in search of Devon's biggest beast.

The Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserve which encompasses both Rackenford Moor and Knowstone Moor is big.

Big in a literal sense - its 120 hectares make it one of Devon Wildlife Trust's largest nature reserves.

This place is big in other ways too. Its mix of grassland, heathland and bog lend this landscape a grand scale.

This means wonderful views over a huge swathe of Devon's interior, reaching Exmoor to the north and Dartmoor to the south.

It is a shame that the A361 Devon Link Road cuts through the nature reserve, pushing people north and south without causing them to pause.

For those that do stop, Knowstone and Rackenford Moors provide good walking and wildlife-watching opportunities.

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The Two Moors Way crosses the nature reserve, bringing a steady trickle of walkers - but stray from the path and you should have the place to yourself, apart from the wildlife.

Rackenford and Knowstone Moors possess an impressive bird list, which includes curlew, snipe, nightjar, whinchat and hen harrier. Its butterflies and moths include two rarities - the marsh fritillary and the narrow-bordered bee hawkmoth.

A sense of space and the feeling of freedom often seem like scarce commodities in our modern world, but at Rackenford and Knowstone Moors Nature Reserve, they can be had in abundance.

These moors are also home to Devon's largest land mammal, the red deer. Autumn is the best time to see red deer, and October is the time to catch the rut, or mating season, when the animals are often active during daytime.

Knowstone Inner Moor
Knowstone Inner Moor, where there is plenty of wildlife to be seen

This is the period in which red deer society loses its normal calm and enters a state of unrest. Dominant stags spend their time guarding groups of hinds (females), bellowing out warning to potential rivals and occasionally coming to blows with them.

These stags cut imposing figures with their antlers, shabby manes and muscle bulk.

The deer, which have spent the summer and early autumn enjoying the year's best and most plentiful feeding, are also in tip-top condition.

The behaviour of the red deer is also spectacular.

In September, herds of red deer stags begin to fracture as the males go in search of hinds.

Stags in a rut
Although fights can last up to 30 minutes, serious injury is rare

It is the largest stags in their prime - between six and 12 years of age - that usually come to dominate. Big antlers matter too, but a large-bodied stag with comparatively small antlers will normally succeed over a smaller stag with larger antlers.

Dominant males cut imposing figures. Posturing displays of power, accompanied by bellowing, are often enough to deter rivals - but physical confrontations do happen. Fights can last up to 30 minutes, with each animal lunging and using their antlers to push the other back.

Serious injury or death is rare - the multi-pointed antlers are to lock combatants together, making battle more sumo than sword fight.

The prize in ensuring their own genetic inheritance. The next generation of red deer calves is born in May and June.

Where to watch red deer in October:

• Significant herds are on Exmoor and its southern hinterlands to Tiverton and South Molton.

• DWT's Rackenford and Knowstone Moors Nature Reserve is especially good.

• Witheridge Moor (north of the B3137 between Tiverton and Witheridge)

Dawn and dusk are the best times to see red deer. Remember to observe local access conditions at the sites.

The full text of this article first appeared in the October 2010 edition of Devon Life. Reproduced with permission.

Stephen Hussey works for the Devon Wildlife Trust.




SEE ALSO
In search of the red deer on Exmoor
18 Oct 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Autumnwatch 2010 in Devon
06 Oct 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Johnny Kingdom takes us on safari
28 Oct 09 |  Nature & Outdoors

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