Autumn rut at Knole
Autumn is Dom's favourite time of year in Knole Park – cooler weather, changing colours and the deer rutting season, which lasts for most of October. As the Sackville family's Park and Deer Keeper, Dom knows the behaviour and signs to spot for the deer rutting season.
During September the bucks are focusing on preparing for the rut. They are grazing hard and concentrating on building up their body condition. As well as eating grass, the acorns are starting to drop from the trees and the deer will jump up and try to get them – they absolutely love acorns.
During the rut the bucks don’t eat for two or three weeks to allow them to concentrate on mating. When a buck starts feeding again you know he is done for the rut that year.
We have around 60 bucks in the park at the moment. As September progresses they become really muscular. They tone up and look very impressive – their necks thicken and their Adam’s apple drops to give them the deep bark they use as a mating call. The sika deer’s mating call is more of a whistle or scream compared with the bark and grunt of the fallow deer. It is all about sounding loud and impressive.
From mid-September onwards their magnificent antlers are fully grown, which signifies the highest levels of testosterone. The strongest visual sign that the rut is about to start is when the bucks make and hold their rutting stands. This involves scraping a small area of ground which they will then mark as their own by urinating in it and rolling around to release their scent.
The main rutting stand is up on Echo Mount near the front of the house. The bucks try to take the higher ground as it is the strongest position and most prestigious. Look out for the stands up there – there are lots of holes that the bucks have scraped for themselves.
Generally there is one buck per stand but there can be fighting over position. The highest stand is usually owned by the biggest, strongest buck but that does not stop others challenging them.
By the end of September the bucks are all fired up and holding their stands, but the rut does not kick off until the does come into season. It is the doe who really controls the rut - she will follow the scent of the buck to find them. Not all bucks are attractive to her though and she will avoid being covered by a particular buck if she is not impressed by him!
The biggest, most impressive buck will hold a hareem of 20 or 30 does. He will constantly circle them to keep them there and his intention is to mate with them all. The slightly smaller bucks will be close by in satellite stands or ‘scrapes’, holding maybe 10 or 12 does.
The bucks sometimes try and steal does from another hareem, which is when fighting happens. In reality it is mostly posturing and gesturing but the deer can hurt each other and they will fight to the death if necessary.
The best time to see the rutting action is at dawn or dusk. It’s fine to watch but just remember to keep 60 or 70 yards away. This is more than close enough to see what is happening and witness some impressive fights. When the deer are holding their stands they don’t want people near them. If a buck gets too close, visitors should keep out of its path and let it get on with its business.
During the rut I pay more attention to the deer, making sure none are struggling through not eating or have been injured in a fight. I check them during the day and I will always be around at dusk to keep a close eye.
The rut is over by the end of October and by then the deer can become thin and lethargic, so we need to make sure they start eating again. The rut uses huge amounts of energy so once it is over it is important to get the deer on a supplemented feeding programme to get their condition back before winter.
Elsewhere in the park, the leaves are changing and we are finishing the summer schedule by rolling and topping the last bits of bracken. We will soon be starting on our tree surgery work, thinning the plantations and tidying up dropped limbs. I am also busy putting new way-markers in the park to highlight our walking routes for visitors.