Part 2: Get to know their behaviour as Don Caswell covers the optimal hunting time – the mating period
Seeking red deer during the roar is a major interest to many hunters. While deer hunting is never easy, the month or so of the roar offers the best chance of bagging a stag as they are concentrated into the smaller breeding grounds and their natural wariness is diminished by a flood of hormones as they compete with other stags for breeding access to the in-season hinds.
After the roar, the stags carry their hard antlers through until September. In that period, they return to their preferred location, usually quite distant from the breeding grounds, and regain their acute circumspection once more.
By December, the older stags have significant velvet-covered antler growth. The stags, gathered together into ‘companies’, favour areas of more open brush and avoid fences where there is less risk of damaging their delicate new antler development.
The stags urgently need calcium to support antler progress and seek food sources rich with that mineral. They will gnaw on cast antlers and bone at this time. By February, as antler growth is completed, the velvet becomes itchy and annoying.
The stags strip the irritating fraying velvet off their antlers with vigorous sweeping through light bushes. By early March, with now bare antlers, the stags then look for solid trees to rub and polish their new antlers against. The stags feed voraciously on the late summer growth, seeking to build body mass and strength for the approaching roar.
In early autumn, from around mid-March, the stags become agitated. Their daily movements increase, and they exhibit a high prancing gait. The companies break up as the stags travel, sometimes long distances and at night, to their traditional rutting sites.
These areas can be 10 kilometres, or much more, from the stags’ home ground. The rutting zones are situated on the edge of the less-mobile hinds’ territory. By the time they reach the rutting grounds the stags have begun to spar with similar sized males. The more vigorous jousts come later in the rut.
The stags begin their preparations for the roar by reopening the wallows used every year. Stags will frequent a number of wallows depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Visits to the wallows increase through to the peak of the roar when the stags will regularly immerse themselves in the muddy water and roll about vigorously. The stags urinate frequently into the wallow, which quickly develops a strong smell of stag.
The stags use the keenest senses of their species to announce their presence, which is smell and sound. Each stag has its own unique aroma and they emphasise that by urinating, wallowing and by wiping a strong-smelling scent from their pre-orbital gland on trees and sticks.
For most of the year stags occasionally bark, similar to the hinds. However, as the roar begins, stags begin to grunt. Initially, this is just single grunts. As the roar develops, this evolves into a series of as many as 10 short roars, all from a single big breath. The frequency of these series of roars is indicative of the size of the stag.
Stags will seek out formations in the terrain that have the effect of amplifying their calls, especially when weather conditions, such as still frosty mornings, assist the roars to be heard over great distances. These efforts at broadcasting their signature by sound and smell are all for one purpose only – to identify themselves as ready to mate and bring the hinds to them. The goal of every stag is to amass as big a harem of receptive hinds as possible. This creates a major workload for such stags as they need to constantly herd their hinds together, check for mating readiness, mount receptive hinds and fight off the many challenging stags that appear to contest ownership of the harem.
The fighting of stags is a carefully orchestrated affair that ensures only similarly matched stags actually engage in combat. A lengthy ritual precedes this and in fact most challenges are resolved during the ritual lead-up.
The initial step in the process is the competitive roaring. Mature stags can judge a rival’s size and strength by the frequency of their roaring, which can be assessed from afar. Only those stags rated to have equal, or lesser, roaring abilities are sought out for the next step. The stags now approach to within about 100m and a serious, prolonged roaring duel ensues. This is the intense, full-blown roaring of the rut. Only about 50 per cent of these contests proceed to the next phase as half the challenging stags assess that the odds are against them based on the strength of the close-range roaring clash.
Those stags who believe they still have a chance then advance closer and the pair slowly parade up and down in close parallel. During this time, they have the opportunity to assess the size and power of their opponent from close range. Once again, only about 50 per cent of confrontations go any further.
Stags that have determined they are likely to lose a physical challenge are free to break off and retire from the field. Physical combat begins with one of the rival stags lowering his antlers to invite contact. The other stag then locks antlers and an intense pushing struggle begins.
The stags exert all their brute strength seeking to dominate their rival. An experienced old stag will also use a number of tricks, such as pushing harder to one side and neck twisting, to steer its rival into a downhill, or other unfavourable position. The contest, a series of such pushing episodes, continues until one stag realises it cannot match the strength of the other.
Mostly, the loser quickly departs the scene of the meeting. It is unwise for beaten stags to dally about and there are many recorded cases of losers being gored, sometimes fatally, by the victor if they are slow in retreating. If uncertain spiker wannabes show up in the vicinity of a mature stag guarding a harem, the juvenile is sent packing with a single, gruff warning bark from the ruling male.
Towards the end of the roar the ruling stags, exhausted by weeks of intense activity and combat, are often displaced by younger ones that have not been so stressed. However, by that time, most of the hinds have been serviced and have begun drifting away back to their nearby domain. By the end of April, the rutting season has generally petered out and the remaining stags and hinds have gone their separate ways.
Hunting the roar
During the roar the hinds and stags are all gathered into a relatively small area. The hormone-addled stags lose a lot of their natural wariness during that time, but the hunter must still be totally vigilant to the wind. A stag coming into a hunter’s roar will still most times circle around to test the wind before approaching closer.
When roaring to draw in a stag you have heard, match your roaring to his, maybe even slightly less. The stag may slip away if the hunter is too convincing with the roar of a big, mature stag.
A soft hind, or fawn, call will often bring in both stags and hinds. A red deer bark will likely scare away any nearby spiker stags.
A successful stag hunt in the roar is based on many visits throughout the year. Find where the hinds are living and then work the edges of that area looking for wallows that indicate the immediate proximity of the rutting grounds.
The information presented is greatly sourced from the Red Deer in New Zealand – A complete hunting manual by Roger Lentle and Frank Saxton. There is a wealth of guidance and anecdotes in this book, which is highly recommend for any red deer hunter.