Jon Snowdon looks at the tough world that bucks have to negotiate as they stake their claim for territory
All male deer will get embroiled in territory scraps at some point. Young bucks will fight with each other, particularly when there are two male siblings. I have often observed them play-fighting and it is a delight to see. The siblings will stick together for company but there does come a point when it will get more serious when deer kill each other; from my observations over the years, usually later in the season, compared with the older boys.
Eventually the young bucks will find a piece of land to themselves, on the borders of better ground where the more experienced buck has control. As May progresses they are constantly chased around and you will see very twitchy young bucks, always looking over their shoulder for the next bully boy to appear.
Generally, it can be said that the bigger the buck, the more ground and better habitat he will hold. That is partially due to the fact that older bucks cast their antlers, and come out of velvet, earlier than youngsters. Velvet is the protective covering deer have as the antlers grow. Antler growth and development is governed by testosterone. That increase in the hormone turns on earlier in the maturing buck. This also means that he naturally becomes punchy and builds more muscle faster than the younger buck, all depending on habitat.
In May, he will be bigger and more intimidating than the younger less-experienced male. He might also have been around for a while and held that ground for a number of seasons and the budding challenger is well aware of that. He has probably been trying to edge in from the borders. Better food, better cover: why wouldn’t he? His drawback is that he will also be very aware of the history; he will know all about the big dominant buck and, believe me, it will take some guts.
He has probably had a few close encounters and been chased off many times. He will need masses of commitment and positivity for a successful challenge. I often talk about positive mental attitude, PMA, when holding rifle courses. The challenging buck will need all of that PMA to win — no messing, bags of confidence, no doubts. Losing is not an option; wounds are often fatal. Yes deer kill each other.
There are many bucks which, after one or two skirmishes, decide that they do not fancy getting embroiled in such conflicts because they do not have those traits — better to be content with their lot, capable of holding a patch rather than go looking for trouble. Make no mistake, though, the dominant one will fight any young contender who fancies his chances. However, many bucks live, mate and die without challenging the really dominant buck. Not everyone can be a champion, and not everyone wants to be.
When deer kill each other
If the battle goes against one of the contestants he will always try to get away but that is not always possible if the stronger animal is really fired up and fighting mad.
Stags and bucks can sometimes inflict horrendous stab wounds on each other from which one or both may die.
They can also fight to the point of total exhaustion and die of heart failure or pure stress.
Years ago the skeletons of two stags were discovered on the very highest point of the island of Gometra. Their antlers were still locked together and both had probably died of starvation.