Focusing on two wild red deer stags, Jochen Langbein, shares fascinating insights into their cycle of antler shedding and regrowth…
The spectacular rate at which red deer antlers regrow year on year never ceases to amaze and fascinate me. For 18 months (2015 to 2016), I was fortunate to observe and film two particular wild Exmoor stags closely, using a number of wildlife trail cameras that I set up at some of their favourite haunts. In addition to this, I also ventured out at least once every 10 days or so with a video and stills camera in hope of viewing them again. In some weeks one or both stags would pass the cameras several times a day. For ease of identification, I have named the two stags ‘Cedar’ and ‘Ash’ and in this article, I want to look mainly at antler casting and re-growth through the spring months.
First, however, a bit of background on the antler cycle. With the exception of the introduced Chinese water deer, males in each of the other five deer species living in the wild in Britain (red, roe, sika, fallow and muntjac deer), shed their antlers annually and regrow a complete new set every year. Whilst roe and muntjac antlers are only of fairly modest size in relation to their body, in the case of red deer stags, each antler may be up to – or sometimes even exceed – 1m in length. For red stags in their prime, this may amount to regrowth of around 5kg to 9kg of new bone in less than four months, and add up to 7cm to the overall length of each antler per week. In moose (European elk) the growth is even more amazing, with growth of up to 419g of antler recorded in a single day.
In Britain, the first set of antlers do not usually develop before they are 10 months old in free-living red deer, although with supplementary feed, first antlers may develop earlier in calves on deer farms and in parks. In good habitat, the first antlers in the wild will typically comprise an unbranched pair of spikes (or prickets) 5cm to 35cm in length, whilst for deer in poorer condition, only partially developed pedicles may barely break through the skin.
Average size, red deer prickets – 9 months old (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
Below average size, red deer prickets – 9 months old (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
After annual casting of their antlers in spring, each new set grown by red deer then tends to become progressively more branched, increasing the number and length of tines (points) and the weight of the antlers year on year, up until around the age of 11. Depending on the physical condition of the animal, new antlers in later years may be found to be ‘going back’ – that is, not growing to the same length or amount of branching of past years, although even then, will often still show thicker beams.
‘Ash’ (left) & ‘Cedar’ (right) on 11/03/2016 with 12-point and 16-point set of antlers (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
Antler size or numbers of tines per se is, however, at best an imprecise indicator of age, with beam width, breadth of coronet and height of coronet above the skull much better indicators. Commonly, each red deer antler consists of tines on a main beam -not unlike a tree branch- with a fork and cup of points at the top. In the closely related Wapiti from North America, the top tines are not generally cupped, and some tines are directed backwards. This characteristic may also be seen in some red deer, quite possibly as result of previous hybridisation with cross-bred park deer.
The maximum total number of tines a mature red deer stag attains in Britain is variable – 8 to 10 points is common among fully grown adults in the wild, though up to 16 (8 per antler) are not unusual if they are allowed to reach over 7 to 10 years old, whereas 20 or more points (which would be referred to as “all his rights and 7-a-top” on Exmoor) is nowadays quite exceptional in our wild populations. Nevertheless, with selective breeding and good nutrition from an early age, near 50 points have been recorded in some British parks.
The picture above (and short video clip below) shows Cedar and Ash in early March while still in hard antler.
Big stags like these are usually also the first to cast their antlers. On Exmoor this will commonly occur during the early weeks of March, though some supplementary fed stags in enclosed British park herds may cast as early as mid to late February in some years. Younger stags below 4 years old on the other hand may not shed their antlers until well into April or even early May.
It so happened that Cedar and Ash both completed casting on the very same day – 17th March 2016 (two days later than Cedar had cast in the previous year). On my trail-cameras I captured Cedar on the 16th with just one antler but Ash still with both. All four of their antlers were, however, found the next day, all having been cast within less than 100m of each other.
It was intriguing to observe that both these stags cast on the same day, as Cedar is almost certainly 5 or more years older than Ash. In autumn 2014, Ash still had only 10 points in total, and did not reach ‘3-a-top’ (Royal) size until 2015. The older stag, Cedar, however, was already regularly observed in the same region of Exmoor with 4 or more points a-top, five years ago, and will be almost certainly be 10 years or older by now. Cedar did show some signs of reduced condition this spring (2016), and it remains to be seen if his antlers will once more be as magnificent as they were in 2015.
Cedar 17th May 2016 with 2 months of regrowth (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
Ash on the other hand has been looking in excellent condition throughout the spring, but as ever is a rather curious and accident prone stag. In 2015, he managed to entangle his antlers in soft netting, presumably whilst raiding strawberries in allotments on the edge of Exmoor. This year, at end of May I filmed him while entangled in a long length of yellow rope someone had discarded, but fortunately he seemed to get rid of much of this by the time I next saw him in early June. Fingers crossed he will not get caught up further or damage the soft vulnerable antlers whilst still in velvet.
Progression of Ash’s antlers over three successive years – 2014 to 2016 (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
Despite carrying an injury from 2015 that became infected and developed into a large abscess, Cedar’s antlers have grown bigger than ever (all his Rights and 6 a-top one side, 5 a-top (nearly six) the other).
Mid September 2016 – Seeing Cedar close up since shedding velvet eluded me for a while, however, here he is at the “Selfie cam” showing off his new tines (Photo credit ©Jochen Langbein)
In autumn 2016 neither of the two stags travelled very far for the rut. Cedar was mostly found on a nearby hill within 2 miles throughout most of October, while Ash travelled around a bit more widely from place to place but also usually seen less than 2 to 3 miles of his winter/summer range.
About the Author: Jochen Langbein is a mammalogist who works as a freelance consultant, wildlife photographer and aspiring film-maker, predominantly focusing on deer. Over the past decade, Jochen has been involved in assessing the scale and distribution of deer vehicle collisions across Britain with the Deer Initiative, Highways Agency and SNH, alongside parallel studies and design of mitigation measures aimed at reducing wildlife accidents for clients, including NGO’s, government agencies, local authorities and private developers. Other areas of expertise include survey provision and advice regarding deer management plans, and application of remote video surveillance techniques, trail cameras, GIS and radio-tracking (ground-based and GPS) for research purposes.
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