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Deer stalkers

Proud and noble, russet brown and with sweeping branched antlers, the stag is a majestic figure in British wildlife and a common sight in the landscape surrounding Another Place.

October marks the start of the famous Martindale red deer rut. The throaty calls and clatter of antlers create a centuries-old aural experience like no other, as the chorus ripples down the valleys. Wondrous and bewildering, it has to be heard to be believed – so why not join a deer rutting hike this autumn? We talk to mountain leader, Nicola Merrett, to find out more…

Red deer hikes can be booked directly through October can be booked directly with Hiking Highs. 4-22 October.

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Deer rutting lake district

Having grown up observing and tracking deer with her father on the Lake District’s Shap fells, mountain leader and hiking guide Nicola Merrett – who runs Hiking Highs – now takes visitors to see the famous Martindale deer join in the rut each autumn.

Standing tall with their shoulder height over a metre and weighing an impressive 190kg, the red stag cuts an imposing figure on the horizon – especially when shrouded in autumn mist. The ‘deer rut’ means the fighting of the stags in an ancient duel to establish hierarchy amongst the males before the mating period with the female hinds can begin. It’s famous on the Dalemain Estate in particular, where a red deer population has lived for over 300 years.

“The rut echoes down the parallel valleys of Martindale, Patterdale and Boredale just across the lake from Another Place,” explains Nicola. “You might be standing on Beda Fell or Martindale and be desperately looking for these deer because you think you can hear them across the way. But they’re actually on the opposite side – it’s just the particular way that the steep-sided valleys echo. It’s amazing to hear.”

Deer rutting guided walks

Red deer, the largest UK deer species, congregate from all around the Martindale Valley to perform this special rite. The best time to hear the rut – or the ‘bolving’ to give it its proper name – is during October at dawn and dusk. “On the early morning group walks I lead, people bring a little packed breakfast,” explains Nicola. “We set off with a head torch and we just sit and listen to the noise that surrounds us – it’s magic.”

As her deer walks grew in popularity, Nicola found herself working more closely with Dalemain, which owns the sanctuary that’s home to the oldest red deer herd in England. Before long, Channel 4 had been in touch wanting to film the deer rut for an episode of Extraordinary Escapes with Sandi Toksvig.

Dalemain recommended Channel 4 use Nicola as a guide, given her local expertise. “I was a little worried that the chances of the rut coinciding with the chosen September filming date were slim, as the rutting season normally starts two weeks later,” Nicola recalls. “So I went out on the fells almost every day to check where the herd was lying and what the weather conditions were. Then serendipity struck. Two days before filming was due, I heard the deer begin to call. They’d started early.”

“On the early morning group walks I lead, people bring a little packed breakfast. We set off with a head torch and we just sit and listen to the noise that surrounds us – it’s magic.”

Deer rutting sunrise

On the day of the shoot, Nicola was only given an hour or so to find the deer that morning. “I was running around all those mountain tops, taking photographs, marking on them where the deer were,” she says. “So that when they put the drone up, they could know exactly where to fly it to get the best shots.”

Then, Nicola guided Sandi Toksvig and the episode’s guest comedian, Judi Love, up from Dale Head. “Judi was magic at spotting the deer,” she says. “They performed the rut and it was really special. And those two ladies are so funny. It was a real hoot.”

Deer rutting guided walks lake district

For others keen to experience the deer rut first-hand, Nicola’s company Hiking Highs offers a series of special deer rut hikes around Ullswater in October. The walks are flexible and can be adapted to suit different abilities – from a gentle amble to more strenuous routes. Expect an early start to catch the sun rising over the fells and the optimum time to hear the deer.

“You take the Ullswater Steamer and walk into the valley and over the top to hear this magical sound,” she says. “Even after all these years, I’m still astounded by the wonders of the Cumbrian fells and wildlife.”

Deer rutting

The stags can be heard and seen from early October to mid November, but can vary slightly from year-to-year. For more on Nicola’s October guided fell walking and to book a Red Deer Rut experience this autumn, visit Hiking Highs or ask at Front Desk.

Time your stay for the deer rut.

Get a taster for the deer rut in Sandi Toksvig and Judi Love’s Extraordinary Escapes Lake District episode on Channel 4 (starts at around 11:20 minutes in, and continues after the first ad break).

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