February

A stag stands with mouth open as if talking.
Welcome to February.

It is now February, and as you can see the snow has gone, and we are getting some nice sunny weather. It is feeling quite warm in the sun already, even through it is still winter. The heather and grass on the moorland sustains us throughout the year, and there is plenty to go round. There are no sheep up here, and no cattle as yet, although highland longhorn cattle have made some appearances in recent years, so what there is to eat is at present all ours!


A hind and calf bask in the sunshine under a small tree.
Basking under a tree.

Here a mother and calf are relaxing under a tree, basking in the February sunshine. It is quite warm for February at the moment. If you look closely, you might be able to see atmospheric disturbances in the background due to the heat rising off the ground as it is heated by the sun.


A group of hinds and calves looking for danger.
Can you see anything that way?

It is not always relaxing up on the moor though. In this sequence, a small group of hinds and this years calves are alert and looking for danger. With ears pricked, and some slightly back indicating concern, they are looking around the local environment to find any threats.


A group of hinds and calves looking for danger.
No, can you see anything the other way?

First one way, then another, but rarely in sync with each other. It seems that many heads, looking in many different directions is a good strategy. If you are a human in the landscape, sitting down, and even wearing camouflage clothing is a good way to remain unnoticed. The deer might have some idea that something is not quite right, but will not know what it is until you stand up.


A group of hinds and calves looking for danger.
What about over here?

They don't realise it, but they themselves are nicely visible against the darker background landscape, as a shadow from a cloud passes behind them, whilst they are in bright sunshine. The lighter parts of their fur such as inside the ears, underside of the neck and rear ends can all light up well against anything dark when in sunlight.


A group of hinds and calves looking for danger.
Or over here?

The red deer colouration can blend well with the moorland flora, especially if amongst heather and seen from a distance. The coat does darken in winter, which helps them blend even better when in heather, but can also make them easy to see particularly against the much lighter sun bleached grasses.


A group of hinds and calves looking for danger.
Wait, is that something in front of us?

However, certain features of the anatomy can stand out given unfortunate lighting. Above we can see the long pale necks of the hinds, and the white rumps of the calves catching the sun. It is often the hind quarters catching the light as the deer are grazing with heads down that makes them quite easy to spot on the moor.


A group of deer walking in single file across a grassy area of moorland.
Line walking across the moor.

The deer's darker winter coat is standing out strongly against the lighter grassy areas on the moor, as can be seen above as they indulge in their favourite mode of getting around the moor - line walking! You can also see the rear area, although it blends well with the grass, when seen against the darker background of the heather it stands out clearly.


A wider view of the moorland environment that the deer inhabit.
A wide expanse of grassy moorland to explore.

Now looking in a wider field of view and the deer can be very obvious on the grassy areas, but there are also some hinds quite well hidden in the darker foliage. If you look carefully in the far middle right of the above scene, they can be identified by some quite obvious features, standing out against the dark heather!


A group of three hinds standing in grass and heather with a stag.
Three hinds with a stag.

Successful stags are still active on the moorland during February. Here is one such stag, with some nice antlers of ten tines, so he is probably still quite young. Youth has not been a barrier to success in the rut for this one though, as we see him here still guarding some hinds. He will protect them against any potential threat, and other interested stags.


A healthy looking stag looking across the moorland.
A healthy looking stag with impressive antlers.

A closer look at the stag shows him to be very healthy looking, with a nice coat and shaggy mane still in evidence. The tips of his antlers look whitened, which is either caused by clashes with other stag's antlers, or probably more likely by rubbing against trees or other moorland flora such as shrubs or even woody heather. Stags will also quite often attack the ground with their antlers during the rut, gouging out earth and bits of foliage, some of which can end up decorating the antlers when it gets caught on the tines.


Two hinds looking like llama as they stretch their necks to see something on the moor.
The long necked llama deer!

Red deer hinds can have surprisingly long slender necks, looking quite llama-like with heads stretched upwards and forwards. Here two hinds are looking inquisitively for some possible threat, perhaps well hidden in the heather below them. They do seem to think something is there though!


A stag in profile looking in a direction across the moor.
Checking the escape route for threats.

Deciding which way to move involves a good look across the landscape in the intending direction of travel. This moorland is well used by humans and dogs, and these are to be avoided if possible. Once the route is clear, it may be time to flee!


Two stags and a calf decide to run to a new area of moorland.
It's clear, lets' go!

Something may be approaching from the left here that seems to cause enough concern amongst these deer for them to vacate the area quickly. If the deer are spooked by something, a chain reaction of alert can cause the herd to move rapidly as one to a new grazing ground. This can quite often be dogs running off the lead, which during the rut can be quite risky, more so for the dogs than the deer. A stag can be very protective of the hinds with him, and will not be worried by something as small as a dog. The dog may be worried when approached by a large stag however! More of this in coming months.


A royal stag with no hinds.
A royal stag with twelve tines to his antlers.

Here we are back with some of the younger and also less successful stags. Having an impressive set of antlers is no guarantee to success in the rut, although perhaps this stag is in decline? If older than about ten years the number of tines can start to reduce, indicating that the stag is past his prime. Luckily for this stag, living wild on the moorland means he is not in immediate danger of being culled as would likely happen to stags past their prime on a managed estate.


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