Thursday 1 November 2012, 13:19
I'm delighted to introduce Stuart Armstrong to the Autumnwatch blog. This year, Stuart has been fillming the red deer rut on Rum and here is his account of the action so far.
It’s quite a trek getting to the Isle of Rum. A 12 hour drive up from Bristol, a quick kip in a Mallaig hotel, then 3 hours on a ferry gets you there. But it’s always worth the journey, not just for the epic scenery that greets you on arrival. It’s the best place in the UK if you want to watch, or in our case, film the red deer rut.
In late September, four of us disembarked with Land Rovers full of filming and editing equipment, ready for a two week trip. The plan? Make four short films following the drama of this year’s rut. Wildlife cameramen, Pete McCowen and Lindsey Macrae would be at the coal face, filming from dawn to dusk, whilst myself and edit assistant Josh Helliker, would start cutting the material together back at base – Kinloch Castle – a magnificent Edwardian mansion that’s now the island's only hostel.
It’s a 30 minute trundle along one of the only tracks on the island to get to our filming location, Kilmory Glen on the north shore. It’s this combination of science, spectacular setting and the closest of views that make this place unique to watch the rut. All the deer in this glen are wild animals, but after 40 years as part of a research study, they’ve become about as tolerant of people as a wild deer can be.
One person who knows this place and these red deer as well as anyone is Ali Morris, a Rum resident who has been studying them for close to a decade, and who was to be our guide for the next two weeks, interpreting the behaviour and just as important, telling us who’s who. The good news was that our timing was just right; the rut was just getting going and we hadn’t missed any action. With everything in place, all we needed now was for the stags to start performing. If they did that, the rest would come easily.
It’s September 28th, and the crew’s first filming day in Kilmory Glen. Framed on one side by Kilmory beach and the Cuillens of Skye across the water, and on the other by the twin peaks of Askival and Hallival up the glen, it’s a magical spot who’s rich pastures attract a good number of female deer, called hinds. And at this time of year, the stags are hot on their heels with one thing on their minds. Over the next few weeks, most of these hinds will come into season, and the stags would battle furiously with each other for the right to mate.
One stag right in front of us, called Mozzarella 03, was an early front runner, already holding a good number of hinds. The scientists name the stags after their mother and the year they were born, so to simplify things we decided to call him Mozart. At 9 years old, he looked in magnificent condition, nearly 100 kilos of testosterone fuelled bulk topped with an impressive set of antlers. But Ali Morris, Rum deer guru and our guide for the shoot, told us that he’d never really amounted to much before. He just lacked experience. He looked magnificent, strutting about and roaring his intent just metres from us, but would he have the strength, stamina and tactics needed.
He was surrounded by competition. Watching in the wings we could see five or six other equally impressive stags, including an old friend of Autumnwatch, Cassius. Now 12 years old, he might be past his physical prime, but he had experience on his side. We knew Mozart would have his work cut out holding top spot.
It’s the end of September and the rut is building nicely. The atmosphere in Kilmory glen is electric, echoing with the stags baritone calls. We’ve seen a few fights already, including one that lasted over 8 minutes. When they’re evenly matched they really do give it their all. It must be exhausting.
Dominant stag Mozart is still holding onto a good sized harem of hinds. He’s mated once, but the challenges are starting to build on this young stag. From Cassius, the old boy, who keeps challenging from across the river. And a new stag called Lucius who at 11 years old is in his prime. Mozart’s starting to look like he might crack.
In early October Lucius is now bossing things in Kilmory Glen. He’s working his socks off defending the largest harem in the area. He’s kept far too busy fending off the challenges to even eat, so every chase, challenge and fight must be a real drain on his reserves. He could only keep this up for so long. Cassius, the old boy, has been keeping a close eye on things from across the river. And when he senses one of Lucius’s hinds is in heat, that’s all the motivation he needs. Fight on.
It’s now October 7th and the previous day we saw Cassius depose Lucius in a thrilling fight, with a bloody stab to the side. Injured in battle, we immediately though Lucius’s rut would be over, but somehow this brave stag stayed in the play, magnificently defending the few hinds he had from other stags in some impressive battles. But would he have the strength left for one last challenge on Cassius? Would he get revenge on the old boy, or would Cassius end up King of the Greens.
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