With the exciting news that BBC Autumnwatch has chosen to return to Leighton Moss for a second series (Tuesday 28-Friday 31 October, BBC 2, 8 pm), I thought it was only right that this week's 50th anniversary blog was about some of our autumnal stars - the red deer. They must have known that the cameras are coming back as they have been flaunting their presence on the reserve quite noticeably over the past week or so.
Posing for the camera by Rod Calbrade
Autumn is red deer mating (or rutting) season, so it is the time when the male red deer (called stags) go into battle for the attention of female red deer (called hinds) by bellowing at one another across the reserve and locking antlers in combat. This photo was captured just recently by a regular visitor. The main place to look out for them doing this is Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides in the early mornings and evenings.
Rutting has commenced by Richard Cousens
For most of the year, red deer males get on very well and hang out in all male groups (which is where the term 'stag party' comes from). During the rut (which runs from September to November), the dominant stags follow female groups. Only mature stags of around 5-10 years old, hold these groups of hinds (known as harems). The younger males and older stags tend to hang out on the periphery at this time.
The roaring that can be heard at Leighton Moss at this time of year is the males keeping their harem together. It is also used to establish dominance with other males. It draws stags over and gives them an opportunity to assess each other. If neither backs down then the antler clashing will begin.
Antlers are quite remarkable bits of kit (there are several in the Holt here at Leighton Moss if you've never touched some before). Stags are the only ones which grow antlers and they begin this in spring. They shed them every single year, usually in winter following the rut. Antlers vary in size and weight but they get bigger with age. It isn't an exact science but the number of points (or tines) on the antlers can give you a rough estimation of the deer's age. Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of 2.5 cm a day. When they are growing they are covered in a soft layer called velvet which is actually blood vessels. Following the rut, when the deer want to drop their antlers, they rub this velvet off on trees, sometimes giving them a slightly gruesome appearance!
Now that is a set of antlers! by Ray Bowman
Although autumn is a fantastic time to see red deer at Leighton Moss, they can be spotted all year round. Summer is a particularly good time of year as it is when the young red deer (called calves) are born. They are covered in spots and look like little bambis, gamboling in the sunshine. Again Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides tend to be the best places to see them.
Mum and calf by David Mower
Some people are often taken by surprise that there are red deer at Leighton Moss, as they are an animal more closely associated with the Highlands of Scotland, not wetlands like the reedbed here. Red deer are in fact a woodland species, and forests would have once dominated across Britain. However, due to the removal of much of our woodland and also hunting by man, deer have been pushed out into a variety of other habitats including open moorland.
Mesolithic man would have used red deer for many purposes including food, clothing and the antlers to make tools. You can discover more about how this happened right here at Leighton Moss in a fantastic new book 'Leighton Moss: Ice Age to Present Day' which is available in our shop.
The herd here on the reserve is around 60-90 in number (depending on the time of year). They spend time in the woodlands and fields surrounding the site as well as coming onto Leighton Moss itself to much on fresh reed shoots. Red deer are remarkably good swimmers and so easily move across the deep ditches that run through Leighton Moss. They are also amazing jumpers so tackle surrounding fences no problem.
When asked to describe red deer stags, people often use terms such as regal, majestic and magnificent, and that is exactly what they are. As Britain's largest land mammal they are truly spectacular, so if you've never seen one, or would like to get the chance to see them in action, come and visit us soon!
If you've not been down for the wader watching recently, then come and see us soon, because it is still spectacular. Up to seven little stints are on Lilian's pool along with a pectoral sandpiper and around 600 black-tailed godwits. There is also several ruff around too. A curlew sandpiper has been spotted down at the Allen pool along with the usual crowd of redshanks and lapwings. It's wader-tastic here at the moment!
A firm favourite among our visitors - a kingfisher has been seen regularly down at the Allen pool. Posing on fenceposts and diving in for fish have been seen by many a visitor recently, so keep an eye for this little beauty who is most arguably the best dressed of all the birds on-site.
Catch! Kingfisher by Len Heap
Taking full advantage of the lower water levels at Lilian's hide and excellent fish numbers at Public hide - the three great white egrets have been moving between the two areas. They tend to roost of an evening at Island Mere with their smaller cousins - the little egrets. Can you spot the difference?
A true sign that autumn is here is when the red deer stags start to get angry with one another and lock antlers for the rut. Get yourself down to Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides in the mornings for the chance to spot this incredible action.
With autumn comes the return of our much-loved ducks to the reserve. Wigeon and teal numbers are beginning to build up on the pools around the reedbed. Summer hasn't completely disappeared yet though, as female marsh harrier has been quartering the reedbed for the past few days, and a migrant hawker dragonfly has been zipping around the garden. If you take a stroll around this area, you can't fail to spot all our ideas for giving nature a home - why not try them out in your own garden or school.
For all you otter spotters out there, the male has been coming out at Public hide a lot recently so keep your eyes peeled for him there.
Whatever the weather and the season, there is something special to enjoy at Leighton Moss all year round, come and see us soon!
Those of you who read my blogs each week will have an insight into what the reserve was like 50 years ago, and even 100 years ago, but have you ever considered what Leighton Moss looked like 6000 years ago? Well wonder no further, as this week's 50th anniversary blog is to announce the launch of an exciting new book....
'Leighton Moss: Ice Age to Present Day' has arrived! Written by Andy Denwood, a freelance writer and broadcaster living just up the road, the book charts the changes in the site going back to mesolithic times. So what can you expect? Andy said "the book assembles letters, photos, academic research and the accounts of local people, to chronicle the many ways men and women have used this beautiful slice of England down the centuries, and to celebrate its survival as a haven for wildlife."
With a foreword by our pal Chris Packham and illustrated by dozens of images, the book tells the fascinating story of this much-loved site, from the arrival of the first hunter gatherers, to its acquisition by the RSPB back in 1964. Leighton Moss was once pumped dry by steam engines in the Victorian era and peat moss, pasture and wetlands were turned into 400 acres of corn-field. We are now the largest reedbed in North West England and provide a home for otters, deer, rare bitterns and marsh harriers to name just a handful of the wonderful wildlife that calls this place home.
As 2014 marks a milestone year at Leighton Moss, we have been celebrating our past in many ways, so this book is perfectly timed, and I for one am very much looking forward to discovering more about our interesting history. Whether you have visited Leighton Moss for many years, or are new to the reserve, you can uncover just how much the site has changed over time.
The book is available in our shop for the bargain price of £7.99, and if you would like to hear about some of the intriguing events of our past, uncovered by Andy, then why not come along to an evening meal and talk with him in October - details here.