Antlers are principally structures of display and combat during the mating season. A stag's dominance is largely determined by body size and antler size.
Antlers and red deer behaviour
Rutting stags defend prime rutting territory and seek to keep hinds (the ‘harem’) within that territory.
When two rutting stags confront each other, there is initially a form of ritualised display involving roaring and a showing-off of antlers. This display sometimes involves parallel walking by the stags in a kind of ‘macho bluff’. Generally, if the opponents differ in body size and antler size, the bluff works, and the smaller stag will move away.
However, when two equal opponents square-off and neither submits, then fighting will ensue. The stags will charge at each other, clash and lock antlers, then wrestle backwards and forwards, trying to throw each other off-balance. These fights can last for over an hour but are generally terminated earlier when one of the stags submits to the superior strength of the other and runs off.
What about velvetted stags?
Most farmed stags have their antlers removed before the rut. Even without antlers, stags display their dominance in a similar manner although body size becomes a more important determinant of dominance. Velvetted stags still retain vestiges of their antlers (‘buttons’), and they will still use these in combat (but obviously cannot lock antlers).
Stags with hard antlers or buttons present a very significant hazard to people especially if they have little fear of people.
For more information on velvet and antlers growing cycles, click here >>