Deer-ly beloved

Bucks clashing during the autumn rut at Attingham Park

This month we'll be looking at how the deer have been shaping up for the October rut, what this means, and what we expect to see in the Deer Park during the month.

With their spotty coats and distinctive antlers, they are the stars of Attingham Park; but around this time every year something gets the herd riled up. This activity announces the start of the mating season, commonly called ‘the rut’.

Early beginnings

The Deer Park as you see it now was originally created in 1798 by Thomas, 2nd Lord Berwick and was around 400 acres in size, about twice what it is today. Created primarily as a status symbol, the Park enclosed wild fallow deer that were already living in the woodland around Attingham. The Park was particularly loved by Thomas, 8th Lord Berwick who often went out to feed the deer, with some taking straight from his hand.

Thomas, the 8th Lord Berwick, feeding the fallow deer
The 8th Lord Berwick out in the Deer Park feeding the fallow deer
Thomas, the 8th Lord Berwick, feeding the fallow deer

From then to now

Today’s herd is directly descended from those original wild deer that were fenced in 220 years ago, and have been selected in that time towards the lighter coloured coats you can see today. You may spot some deer that look a little darker than the others, this is because on one side of the Park we have what is known as a deer leap, which allows any escaped deer back into the Park. This sometimes has the side-effect of allowing wild, darker coloured deer into the Park, which pass on these darker colours to their offspring.

The lighter coat of the fallow deer, and darker coat of the wild deer at Attingham.
The deer herd at Attingham with fallow and wild deer.
The lighter coat of the fallow deer, and darker coat of the wild deer at Attingham.

There are around 250 deer at Attingham, of which about a third are males (bucks), the rest are females (does). You’d think that with the abundance of does that each buck would each be able to mate, but a buck’s nature is to mate with as many does as he can. To do this he needs to prove his worth to the does, and also fight off any rival bucks who may try to steal does away from him.

Tools of the trade

Bucks have a variety of ways to prove themselves during the rut. The one you’ll likely encounter first is the noise they make. Officially known as belching, but also called roaring or bellowing, this noise shows that they are fit and strong, as they are able to make such a deep noise for a long period. Should other bucks still try to challenge him, they have another trick up their sleeve. Bucks will tear up vegetation with their hooves before sticking their antlers in it and wearing it like a headdress. While this may look comical to us this makes the buck appear bigger to rivals and, by posing and pointing their chin in the air, they show off their neck muscles, an important part of their final tactic - making other bucks think twice before making a move.

Bucks in the deer park at Attingham.
Bucks in the deer park at Attingham Park.
Bucks in the deer park at Attingham.

If there is still a rival looking to steal away some does, the two bucks may then walk side-by-side in a line. This gives each of them a good look of the other, checking out any potential strengths or weaknesses the other may have. It also acts as a bit of a mind game as either buck may decide that it isn’t worth the fight and will back out. However, should all of these tactics fail; the final resort is the one most familiar to all, and the most dramatic: clashing antlers. This battle between bucks is essentially a deer sumo wrestle; each buck tries to push the other one back using their powerful neck muscles displayed earlier. These contests can vary in length depending on how evenly matched the bucks are and will end when one get pushed back enough that he realises he’s lost and then quickly departs.

Bucks clashing during the autumn rut at Attingham Park
Bucks clashing during the autumn rut at Attingham Park
Bucks clashing during the autumn rut at Attingham Park

The rut is a special time of year for both the deer and us here at Attingham, however although the Deer Park remains open in this time, it is important not to get too close to the deer. Any disturbance puts unnecessary stress and pressure on the deer and may have consequences for their reproduction. As tempting as it may be to get a close photo of two bucks clashing together, please stick to the paths, keep dogs on close leads, and enjoy the deer safely.