Month of the stags

The roar of rutting red deer across a Highland glen or hillside is one of the most evocative sounds of autumn as stags battle for dominance of territory and hinds. For many people it represents the quintessential Scottish wildlife experience. But the evolving story of this iconic species in Scotland is a complex one, as we explore in our latest blog.

Red deer stag roaring ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Although we have four species of deer in Scotland – the native red and roe, as well as fallow and sika – it is the red deer that is firmly embedded in our culture. They are our largest native land mammal and have been in Scotland for at least the last 10,000 years – the end of the last ice age. Our reliance on the species also goes back a long, long way, even as far as the mesolithic period – as shown by the presence of red deer bones in middens from the west coast island of Oronsay, which may be as much as 6,000 years old.

This connection is reflected in the Gaelic language. The modern Gaelic name for October is An Dàmhair. It has been derived both from damh + dair meaning ‘stag copulation’ and damh + gàir, meaning ‘stag clamour’, the latter referring to the roaring of the animals during the rut. An Dàmhair probably originally occupied a period straddling the latter part of September and mid-October, but would have varied from year to year, depending on the activities of the stags. Indeed, recent research on the Isle of Rum has suggested that climate change may be driving the rutting season earlier each year.

Red deer herd in Kilmory, Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve ©Laurie Campbell/NatureScot

Over time, the preferred habitat of the species has been changed beyond all recognition as a result of the way humans have used the land. While they are now associated most frequently with hill and glen, red deer evolved as a herbivore of the woodland edge. The species probably became more dependent on open moorland as humans felled more and more of the native tree cover of Scotland.

However, it seems they never quite lost a penchant for their original habitats: from the 1970s, as commercial afforestation began to significantly build up Scotland’s woodland cover once again, browsing by all deer species began to cause increasingly serious damage to the new plantations. Large numbers of deer can also limit the expansion of new native woodlands in Scotland, and have a serious impact on other habitats such as peatlands. Deer have no natural predators left in Scotland, the last Scottish wolves being killed around 300 years ago. This means that deer numbers need to be managed to limit their potential impacts.

Red deer grazing in a commercial forestry plantation ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Today, as awareness of the climate change and biodiversity crises grows, so too does the recognition that a significant reduction in deer numbers will be needed to protect and restore nature through forest regeneration, woodland creation, peatland restoration and habitat improvement. NatureScot is leading work to achieve this, together with partners and, crucially, those who live and work on the land.

Deer are, of course, an important part of the rural economy – deer stalking in Scotland is thought to be worth more than £100 million annually, and venison is increasingly recognised as providing a source of high quality, healthy and sustainable meat. Most deer control in Scotland is carried out over the autumn and winter period – you can find out more about managing deer on our website.

Red deer against a snowy Liathach in Torridon © John MacPherson / NatureScot

Importantly, selective, humane culling also ensures healthy deer herds. When deer populations grow to high levels, competition for food increases. Climate change is increasingly causing winter precipitation to fall as rain, instead of snow and these harsh, wet conditions make it more difficult for deer to survive without shelter.  Already drained after the rut, animals can lose condition further and can die from starvation during these tough months.

So in the month of the stags, what do you think of when you hear that roar? A wilderness icon? An environmental menace? A tourism asset? An economic resource? Or perhaps it’s a combination of many of these things. Whatever your perspective, there can be few other species in Scotland that mean so many different things to different people.

Find out more about deer in Scotland:

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