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The dramatic lives of Rum’s red deer

The BBC’s popular Autumnwatch has shone a spotlight on the University’s unique Isle of Rum Red Deer Project.

Rum red deer

The Autumnwatch television crew has visited the red deer project, which is currently led by the University of Edinburgh, five times over the past decade. This season the cameras chanced upon some of the most dramatic stag fights our researchers have witnessed and, for the first time, the Autumnwatch team used night-vision equipment to show that the animals’ nights are just as violent and amorous as their days.

“This year was pretty spectacular, some of the best rut-watching I’ve done actually,” says Alison Morris, a Senior Research Technician at the School of Biological Sciences, who lives on the Isle of Rum and was filmed at work for the programme. “In one day from one observation point we had six fights, we had a broken antler and we had three hinds that were in oestrus. The atmosphere was electric – you could have cut it with a knife.

“The cameraman, Raymond Besant, said it was one of the best days of wildlife watching he’d ever had. Once things had calmed down a little, we just sat there and he was shaking.”

Rum red deer with mountain background
Deer on Rum with the island's mountains in the background. Photograph: Laurie Campbell/SNH

One of the programme’s three presenters, Martin Hughes-Games, spent four nights watching the deer with an infra-red camera, and saw that during the rut season – when the animals are sexually active– the deer fight and mate as much at night as during the day.

“Hinds are in oestrus – meaning they can be mated – for such a short time that we knew they must sometimes come into oestrus at night,” says Morris. “But what we saw was pretty phenomenal. We saw dominance interactions, we saw fighting and we saw matings.”

Popular show

Autumnwatch, which runs over four days in November, is among BBC2’s most popular programmes, regularly attracting more than 2 million viewers. Together with the Springwatch and Winterwatch series, it shows wildlife activity at sites around Britain as the seasons change.

The red deer on the small Hebridean island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland, are a favourite among the programme’s viewers, producers and presenters.

“Martin cares about the project and is really interested in the work we’re doing,” says Morris. “They are a good lot to work with, and hats off to them for staying up all night.”

Follow the action

The Rum Red Deer Project’s website includes a Hall of Fame of some of the more characterful animals, plus a Twitter feed detailing the dramas taking place at this unique study site.

Isle of Rum Red Deer Project website


Long-running research

Research into red deer has been conducted on Rum since 1953, and since 1972 an individual-based study of deer has been conducted in the “North Block” of the island, led for many years by Professor Tim Clutton-Brock of the University of Cambridge. It is the world’s longest-running study of a deer population.

Funded mostly by the Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge and Edinburgh researchers have investigated a wide range of questions on behavioural ecology, population dynamics, variation in individual breeding success, natural selection, genetic variation, ageing and the effects of climate change. The findings are often published in leading scientific journals, and have informed policy and practice in population management and other fields.

Host island

Rum is a small diamond-shaped island, around eight miles across, with a population of around 30, who all live in the village of Kinloch. The research takes place with the permission and co-operation of Scottish Natural Heritage, which owns most of the island.

Now a National Nature Reserve, the island was previously owned by Sir George Bullough, a Lancastrian industrialist who built Rum’s opulent Kinloch Castle at the turn of the 20th century, complete with its own hydro-electric scheme and heated alligator pond.

Today the island is popular with hillwalkers and wildlife enthusiasts, being home to a spectacular mountain range and species such as golden and white-tailed eagles, and one of the largest Manx shearwater colonies in the world.

Cast of characters

Rum’s red deer are also a tourist attraction in their own right. The deer study population is regulated naturally rather than culled, meaning the animals are habituated to human observers.

Recognising individual deer is an essential part of monitoring their behaviour, movement and reproduction from birth through to death. The researchers’ database contains records of more than 4,300 deer observed since 1972.

A full-time field researcher takes a census several times each month, and daily during the calving and rutting seasons. Most calves are marked and sampled for DNA analysis soon after birth, and additional data is collected when animals die.

Some of the deer have led particularly eventful lives, recorded in the project’s Hall of Fame, and the activities of the deer can be followed on the project’s Twitter feed.

And once in a while, the media caravan disembarks from the ferry. “While I might have moved to Rum for the quiet life, somehow you find yourself in the spotlight every now and then,” laughs Morris.

Unique study informs deer management

The Isle of Rum Red Deer Project is the world’s longest running research study of a deer population, having begun in 1972.

It has produced internationally acclaimed science on the ecological and evolutionary forces driving change in animal populations. Discoveries have been made on individual and sex differences in survival, productivity and behaviour. Every year, some of the findings from Rum are published in major scientific journals.

This science has informed deer management practices in Scotland and elsewhere, as well as influencing other important studies of animals across the world.

A recent highlight is a booklet produced in conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage on implications of the study for the management of red deer populations, written by Professors Josephine Pemberton and Loeske Kruuk of the School of Biological Sciences.

Across Scotland, adjacent landowners with sometimes conflicting priorities are managing populations of red deer in different ways. The Scottish government is currently encouraging a more coherent, evidence-based approach.

“This booklet spells out the biology people should know when trying to manage deer populations,” explains Professor Pemberton, Principal Investigator. “The most important thing it shows is the effect of rising population density. If density rises, there are many adverse effects on the deer, and these effects fall preferentially on males.”

View or download the booklet

Visit the Isle of Rùm Red Deer Project website