WE HEAR them long before we see them. Into the pre-dawn half-light erupts an extraordinary, drawn-out groan, harsh and amazingly loud in the dawn silence of Exmoor.
An answering roar, deep and melancholy, echoes from the hillside opposite. “Ah, there they are, dear old boys, giving each other the early warning,” smiles Richard Eales, Exmoor National Park Ranger of several years’ experience and a born deer fanatic.
“There are about 4,000 red deer on Exmoor,” whispers Richard.
“The stags can tolerate each other’s company most of the year, in a laddish sort of way – a fair amount of bumping and barging, and even a bit of boxing with their forelegs when their new antlers are growing and itchy.
“But come this time of year, a hint of rough weather gets the old hormones flowing. Their necks thicken up into a big, dark mane and they get all edgy and restless. That’s when they have to collect a harem and try to hold on to it.”
The throaty roar, like a turbo-charged ram in full voice, comes up from the edge of a wood that we’re cautiously approaching. “Some call it belling, others say boving,” Richard murmurs.
“It’s a challenge and a threat. Usually that’s enough to keep a rival away, but sometimes two stags will come face to face. If they’re serious, it’s heads down and let’s get to it.
“Lots of people think they fight to the death, but normally it’s just a clash of antlers. Or you’ll see them walking round each other, sizing one another up, like two blokes in a pub – ‘Come on, then, if you think you’re hard enough’, that sort of thing. Then one will back off, and it ends there.”
Hunched down and tiptoeing through the wet grass, we creep towards a five-barred gate.
Here he comes, cantering into view a couple of hundred yards away, a magnificent stag with heavy antlers and a big muscular body.
He launches himself clean over a five-foot barbed-wire fence and then a hedgebank before charging straight up the hillside towards his opponent, who’s guarding a small hind – sole member of his harem.
The other stag skitters about nervously.
And a particularly loud roar seems to convince him that the game is not worth the candle, and he backs away and moves uphill.
The victor stops to bell a couple more times, then turns his back and makes his way downhill and into the wood. Behind him trots the hind, now his exclusive property – unless and until some new stag, bigger, stronger or more aggressive, can manage to lure her away.
Crouched by the gate, we draw breath at the conclusion of this drama. “That one up on the common has to start all over again,” Richard says.
“And this one in the wood, he’ll have one more hind to guard. And that’ll go on for another month or so, until the rut’s over and he’s mated with as many hinds as he can. The stags get really run down by the end of it, all thin and on edge.
“They’re absolutely knackered, poor old boys. Come to think of it – I was up at five this morning, so I’m feeling a bit that way myself. Fancy a cup of tea?”INFORMATION:
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£69.For information and tips on how to spot red deer, and for places to stay within the national park, contact the Exmoor National Park Centre, Dulverton (01398 323841/exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk).The Bark House in Oakfordbridge, Bampton (01398 351236/barkhouse.co.uk) is within easy reach of Exmoor and offers doubles from £95 per night (two sharing), including breakfast.Porlock Visitor Centre (01643 863150) is run a special deer-rutting weekend from £195pp, including two nights B&B accommodation, two red deer walking safaris across Exmoor National Park led by a park ranger, and a dinner and talk with ranger Richard Eales.Visit Exmoor: 0845 166 1001/visit-exmoor.co.uk