Rutting Behaviour In The Fog

Before I talk about this picture, I’d like to mention one thing – the use of the word ‘rutting’.


Rutting is the word used to describe the actions of a deer, or group of deer, engaged in the rut. The ‘rut’ is essentially the name given to the peak of the deer’s breeding season (with the peak defined to be the time when the greatest number of copulations occur), which in the case of the roe deer happens sometime between late July through to the middle of August.  To learn what triggers the rut, you may find it useful to read What Controls a Roe Deer's Reproduction System.


Many people often only use the term rutting to describe the action of two males going head-to-head and ‘locking horns’*; where they’re battle to ensure that only one of them is in position to mate with the in season females.


Although it is true say that two such combative bucks are, indeed, rutting, it is equally true to say that any behaviour which is occurs during the rut, which is linked to reproductive activity, can also be described as rutting behaviour - such as the squeaking sound made by a doe trying to attract or retain the attention of a virile buck that’s within her close vicinity.


*Remember, that deer have antlers, not horns.


What’s Happening In This Photo?


So, looking at the shot above, are these two deer rutting?



How is that?


Because what’s happening here is that the female is emitting pheromones in abundance from her hormonally charged body, and sensing that, the adult buck is compelled to pursue her, so he’s in the perfect position when she comes into oestrus. This is the time period when she has got at least one ovum that is capable of being fertilised by his sperm.


Now, in the photograph above, the doe is not currently in oestrus.


How can you tell?


I had been observing this pair for the previous few days, throughout that time, they had been exhibiting typical early rut behaviour. Specifically, long chases initiated by the doe approaching the buck, squeaking and so, provoking him into chasing her across his territory. At first, these chases were long and fast, with the doe not letting the adult buck anywhere her bottom.


But at the days drifted by, the chases were becoming shorter and shorter, and slower and slower. Until the pair of them spent a significant period of time merely trotting around at slow pace, as the increasingly amorous doe led her buck in circles or figures-of-eight loops, no more than ten metres across – these paths are sometimes called doe rings.   


As well as taking frequent rests, this carried on for another 24 hours.


Finally, on the fifth day (the day after this shot was taken), the doe came into season and allowed the adult buck to mount her, so they could finally mate. That is the time she came into oestrus, and was fertile.


The long courtship period, lasting in this case four days, is called the pre-oestrus period. This is when she lures the buck into courting with her by submissively approaching him and calling out with high pitched squeaks, as well as with emitting a buck alluring scent, which triggers the pursuit.


The reason for the long, drawn out courtship routine is to ensure she has a suitably virile buck nearby for when she doe finally become able to conceive.


It is thought that the vast majority of adult females roe deer only have one time slot in the year when they can become pregnant, and since this oestrus only lasts 24 to 36 hours, it’s essential that she has a well-conditioned male close by when this occurs, otherwise, a whole year of her reproductive life will go to waste.     


The male in this photograph is fully territorial adult buck, at least 5-years-old and in his prime. (Although, six-year-old males are the individuals that are most likely to be successful in the rut.)


The doe was at least seven years old and had successfully raised a number of fawns on the past.


Making This Photograph


This photograph is far from perfect and was a difficult one to make.


First of all, although I had a rough idea where these this pair where likely to be found, the thick fog made pinpointing them very difficult indeed. When roe are courting like this, they will be resting up, lying down in the field, between irregular spurts of spurts of chasing activity. Trying to spot them through the murky conditions was hard enough when they were on their feet, let alone seeing them when lying down and the grass further obscured their outline.


Plus, in foggy conditions, they can hear you well before you can get a firm visual confirmation of their whereabouts. And with him being a prime, adult buck and she being an old doe, they had many years of roe deer experience between them, and were, consequently, very cautious individuals.


Secondly, when they were found, the lack of contrast in the scene meant that the auto-focus system on the camera struggled to acquire a good ‘lock’ onto their outline. So, many shots were missed due to the camera ‘hunting’ to get a focus.


Thirdly, I wanted both deer to be in the frame, which meant they had to be in fairly close proximity to each other. But since the doe wasn’t at the stage where she would let him touch her, there was always too much gap between them in the frame when they were trotting about in a straight line, so I had to wait until they started moving in a figure-of-eight path. Which is what is happening in the photograph above – with the out of focus doe leading the buck.


I chose to focus on the mature buck in this case, since at that time, I was spending a lot time recording and observing his behaviour.


Fourthly, the movement of the deer necessitated a short shutter time that had the knock-on effect of raising the ISO, which is not ideal at the best of times, least of all in the foggy conditions.


To give you an idea of how thick the fog was, this image has been significantly ‘dehazed’ during the post processing of this image.


Just In Case You’re Wondering….


You can tell that this roebuck is a mature beast, rather than a yearling or sub-adult (2-year-old), by the following features:


A thick strong neck – younger males have decidedly thinner neck.


A stocky looking body – youngsters have a slenderer appearance.


The antlers are thick and stout looking, with coronets (where they attached to the head) are starting to slope down each side of the head.


Having pointed out the above points, ageing roe deer by a visual appearance alone is fraught with danger – antlers, especially, are not perfectly reliable indicators of age and status; an individual male’s antlers can vary year-by-year.


But by an individual possessing a number of physical features which indicate the age class of the deer – yearling, sub-adult and adult – a reasonable estimation of age can be obtained.


In this instance, age estimates are based on observations from previous years.


Recommended reading:

Why Do Roe Deer Have Antlers?

Roe Deer Mating Part 2 - The Females' Home Range and the Rut


Technical Details of Image


Shutter time: 1/800 s   Aperture: f/5.6    ISO: 1100   Focal length: 800 mm

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