Monday, 29 October 2012

Rutting or no rutting

For a couple of weeks each year, stags turn from placid, timid creatures into fearsome brutes. In the main they turn their ferocity on each other, though they’re perfectly capable of picking on any human rash enough to get close.

Not wise to tangle with one of these...
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That happens is the rutting season when the females are fertile and the males battle for the right to impregnate them. They famously bellow as they do so, making the sound of their aggression as awe-inspiring as the fights themselves.

Over the last two years, Danielle has taken groups of friends to see the sight, but I’ve been unable to accompany them on either occasion. That’s a pity because I’ve always wanted to be there, if only in honour of William Harvey. Yes, that’s the man who did the work on circulation of the blood, way back in the seventeenth century; what’s less well known is that he also did some ground-breaking research on reproduction.

In the days when I was working on eighteenth-century French science, one of the controversies I came across owed much to his account of the eggs he found in the wombs of rutting does from Windsor Great Park. 

For my part, the only bit of this story that I disliked was the idea that he’d been cutting up females for no better reason than they’d got pregnant. That’s the kind of behaviour that I would associate with worst kind of fanatical extremist rather than a leading scientist. Perhaps with even certain excrescences of the Tea Party, though I suppose they’d be less likely to be that punitive about a female getting pregnant than over her not being pregnant any more.

Harvey: a fine physician but no friend to does
In eighteenth-century France, less squeamish about causing torment or death, but much more prickly about dignity and status, fashionable ladies were appalled by the idea that they might produce eggs.‘What? Like hens in a farmyard? Who do they take us for?’ 

If, like their successors today, you think yourself a cut above other people and born to rule the roost – to use, I think, le mot juste – I suppose the idea that anything links you with animals you roast and eat must be pretty shocking.

Harvey, however, reported what he saw, and I was hoping to pay a small tribute to him when we stepped out of the car in Ashridge forest yesterday.

The forest is one of those places that makes living nearby a privilege to be treasured. Heavily wooded over a large area, it’s the perfect place for country walks at any season, though at its most striking in late spring when the ground is carpeted with bluebells or, indeed, in the autumn when the deer are rutting and the stags bellowing.

Ashridge bluebell carpet
Alas, I was destined to miss that spectacle again this year. We were too late. There were lots of deer and very attractive they were too, but they’d returned to their customary docility. No bellowing. No clashing of antlers.

Getting ready for a clash?
But this was a picture of Danielle's from last year, when I wasn't there

The disappointment was, however, limited. In the first place, should we really be encouraging that kind of behaviour? Rutting stags hardly show an enlightened approach to females, do they? To say nothing of the approach to each other. Why, outside a British pub on a Saturday night, where you’re likely to witness similar scenes, it could lead to an arrest and a night in a police cell.

In any case, an autumn forest walk in good company is sufficient pleasure in itself. And one of my favourite Ashridge characters, a gloriously friendly grey horse I always make a point of visiting if I’m nearby, was in his paddock and only too glad to have me pull up grass to feed to him.

Always good to catch up with an old friend
So it was a successful outing even without the deer making a scene. 

And, in any case, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

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