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  • Writer's pictureKaren-Jane Dudley

The rut ... the importance of the subject...

Understanding and respecting the natural behaviour of particular species when photographing them , can have a serious effect on just how much impact those images will have …

Photography is the art of visual story telling … With the art of wildlife photography , our own actions and understanding of natural behaviour will determine the final outcome , along with the drama of the story about to be portrayed... A story of two sides , nature and the photographer...

With the arrival of autumn in the Northern hemisphere, comes the flurry of activity in our natural world , from squirrels hurriedly , looking to stockpile food for the coming winter ... many bird species beginning their migratory journeys to warmer climes ,as well as signalling the arrival of the numerous familiar wintering migratory birds, who will grace us with their presence over the coming months…

One of the most familiar sights that heralds the arrival of the autumnal air is the spectacular onset of the annual rut .

Aside from the heart pounding effect created by the power of the roar of an African lion , there is another call within nature that truly stirs the soul ... it is that of the roaring territorial bellow of a rutting red deer stag at sunrise … you may not see his majestic presence at first through the dawn mists, but it will immediately give away his location.

The excitement of witnessing a red stag during the rut for many is a memorable experience and one never forgotten.

Sadly in todays world of technology and the era of the selfie , the sight of these magnificent stags being pursued and harassed for the sake of an image, serves to simply demonstrate a lack of respect and understanding of nature, that can have devastating effects as a consequence.

During the rut, a stag is contending with an enormous surge in his testosterone levels , battling his rivals for territorial control and his eye on the prize… a harem of breeding age females.

This natural rutting behaviour is not a behaviour that should also have to contend with additional, unnecessary and unnatural factors, that may directly impact his ability to pass on his genes in the next generation of red deer.

To witness and photograph the rut for any photographer is a challenge … a challenge to bring the drama of this natural behaviour in all its power and glory as a visual story…

The other and most vital part of that story is the challenge faced by any responsible photographer ,with the implementing of a personal level of respect and ethical principles applied in order to produce that story on camera.

The first course of action for any wildlife photographer is understanding and reading both specie natural behavioural patterns and the application of own body language and behaviour .

Red stags are large powerful animals, with a mature male weighing in at approx 240 kg

(350 to 530 lbs) and bearing a set of impressive antlers that resemble a “ set of knives “…

Pump this mature stag full of testosterone, combine with the unrelenting urge to defend and mate , you will arrive at an extremely volatile and unpredictable subject ,who, through no fault of his own is capable of causing serious injury and even death.

Our own behaviour in their presence can have an influential effect on both his behaviour and success of his efforts to defend and breed.

It is vital that at no time, we allow our own urge to gain that one image to influence or force the stag to alter his natural actions and behaviour.

Is he posturing towards a rival male ?.. never pursue to get a better angle … he will be aware of your presence... one momentarily lapse in concentration could render him prone to a challenge from his rival , a challenge he may not be prepared for , potentially resulting in serious injury.

Our actions may also affect his rivals behaviour or direction that could also bring him into a situation that has been unnaturally enforced. A serious injury to a stag could prove fatal .

There is also the added risk to our own safety, as our own movement may cause the stag to see us as a rival and challenge by charging in our direction with the only intent... to repeal that threat.

The consequences of this encounter would not have a favourable outcome on our part.

Our own movements , body language and behaviour in proximity to a group of hinds can also affect natural behaviour .

Deer are herd animals and hold typical flight or fight response behaviour .

When approaching a deer herd especially important for group of photographers , the hinds will remain relaxed as long as there is a safe “ flight “ distance between themselves and the photographers.

If the photographers remain together as a group keeping movement and sound to a minimum, the hinds will continue to rest or feed, with a single female possible continuing to monitor the photographers movements..

Should one of the photographers decide to move away from the group to gain a different angle .. the hinds will all instinctively lift their heads and watch .

A single moment away from the group by an individual photographer , will instinctively trigger the flight or fight mode in the deer, as that individuals split from the group is a classic “hunting manoeuvre “ applied by that of a chasing predatory pack …in other words, a split movement from a pack, is comparable to that of a hunting wolf pack hunting tactic , who would typically prey on deer.

Many deer, may never have had to experience escape from a wolf pack in hunting mode, but the instinct of flight or fight in the proximity of a potential predatory pack is hardwired into the deers survival response.

We need to be fully aware of the implications of our own actions to avoid impacting an animals safety at anytime.

As for the “ selfie “ with wildlife ... lets not even go there …. It is not impressive , neither acceptable nor ethical , it simply has no value, apart from self gratification...

As a wildlife photographer, demonstrating the power of the stags through imagery during the rut, is a relatively easy process, if the correct ethics are applied and the rules of nature followed , the action of the rivalry battles is all around as the territories are established.

But the exhaustion created from these battles, is a sight that is almost overlooked with the camera.

Patience , respect and understanding on both sides, will enable wildlife to feel safe enough with your close proximity to grant the exhausted stag an opportunity to take that much needed rest and sleep, in order to regain his strength for the battles ahead.

Close proximity with respect to this image , was set at an approximate ,respectful distance of around 50 ft away , use of a long lens and patience, so as not to cause disturbance...

The most important component of any visual story the subject...

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