Spotting red deer at Minsmere

WHEN was the last time you saw a mammal? Grey squirrels and rabbits may be easy to see, but what about the others? RSPB Minsmere nature reserve is a great place to look for mammals, and for many visitors their day is made more special by seeing them.

WHEN was the last time you saw a mammal?

Grey squirrels and rabbits may be easy to see, but what about the others?

RSPB Minsmere nature reserve is a great place to look for mammals, and for many visitors their day is made more special by seeing them.

Most mammals are difficult to see, so good views are always popular. There are exceptions to every rule though, and rabbits are easy to see at Minsmere. Evidence of Mediaeval rabbit farms is reflected in local places such as North Warren.

Today, rabbits are actively encouraged at Minsmere to help maintain the habitats in ideal condition for the rare stone-curlew.

These big-eyed, long-legged nocturnal birds need very short vegetation in which to nest. Rabbits create the best conditions, keeping the grass just a few centimetres high in large areas of acid grassland. Much of this habitat has been created by the RSPB to attract stone-curlews back to Minsmere, with great success. After first returning in 2003, two pairs have fledged six young at Minsmere this year.

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Another relatively easy species to see at Minsmere is the UK's largest land mammal: the red deer. The biggest stags can weigh as much as 250 kg (quarter of a tonne), with the antlers alone weighing several kilograms.

The red deer at Minsmere are among the biggest in the country because the grazing is better than in Scotland or other upland areas.

Red deer are often spotted grazing on the field behind the Minsmere visitor centre, or near the reserve's entrance road. You might even see an ear or antler popping up above the reeds from Bittern Hide!

Autumn is the most important time of year for red deer, and the best time to see them. This is when the stags battle for the right to mate with the females, which are herded together in harems during the annual rut.

The biggest and strongest stags will have the biggest harems simply because their power deters weaker rivals. The older males have bigger antlers, with more 'points', which makes it hard for a young stag to fight without risking injury.

Physical battles are a last resort, as they are dangerous, because evenly matched stags can fight to the death. Instead, they rely on posturing and bellowing to defeat a rival.

If you want to see (and hear) the red deer rut, you need to rise early, since most activity is at dawn. For the full experience, why not join us on the 'In the rut' guided walks?

There are five walks in October, all starting at 7 am, but places are strictly limited, so book yours quickly. For dates, see the Diary Dates section, or go to www.rspb.org.uk/events.

The only other deer species likely to be seen is the muntjac.

These tiny deer, introduced from China, are no bigger than a medium-sized dog. They have small horns and a dark pattern on the face. Muntjacs are found singly, or in pairs, never in big herds. At dusk, you may hear their strange, dog-like bark.

Another mammal that may bark at night is the red fox.

Foxes are a common sight at Minsmere, attracted by the abundant rabbits. You may be lucky enough to see one waiting patiently in the sun for a careless rabbit to stray too close, though they are much more active at night.

Foxes and muntjacs are regular visitors to urban gardens. The former are sometimes welcomed, and even encouraged, although they will rummage through your waste bins for scraps. The latter are unpopular with gardeners since they have a liking for most plants.

An increasingly common visitor to urban gardens is the badger. These large, black and white carnivores are usually strictly nocturnal, so you may not even realise they are in the area unless you know the signs to look for. Like many mammals, the best signs of their presence are droppings, footprints or bits of fur caught on thorn bushes or fences.

A few lucky visitors even manage to see a badger at Minsmere. I've only ever seen them crossing the road after dark. Sadly, many badgers perish on our roads, as happened to one of Minsmere's badgers recently.

The UK's most rapidly declining mammal is the water vole. Immortalised as Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, water voles have disappeared from many areas in recent years due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Despite this, there is still a healthy population at Minsmere, and you have a good chance of seeing one in the summer. The best place is in the pond in the old car park, where they feed almost under the boardwalk.

Another water-loving mammal is probably the most popular mammal at Minsmere, but also one of the least seen. Otters are thriving after being re-introduced in the 1980s. They are mainly nocturnal, and occupy large home ranges, so you need to be very lucky to see one.

The best chance of seeing otters at Minsmere is from Island Mere Hide in early morning or late evening. Early winter is a good time to look for them because the water levels are lower in the reedbed to allow wardens to cut the reed.

This management is essential to maintain a healthy reedbed for bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and water voles, as well as the many other species. But reedbed management is expensive and, like all of the RSPB's work, is only possible thanks to the continued and valued support of our members. Why not visit Minsmere this month to look for mammals as well as birds and help us to ensure they are here for future generations to enjoy?

Diary dates

(Booking essential. All events at Minsmere unless stated, tel: 01728 648281)

Sunday 30 September, Saturday 6, Sunday 14 and Saturday 20 October at 9.30 am: Weekend wildlife walk

Monday 1, Tuesday 9, Wednesday 17 and Friday 26 October at 10 am: Discovering Minsmere

Every Thursday in October at 7 am: Migration watch

Saturday 6 October at 11 am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings Farmers Market

Sunday 7, Saturday 13, Tuesday 16, Sunday 21 and Tuesday 23 October at 7 am: in the rut

Friday 12 and Wednesday 24 October at 10 am: Birdwatching for beginners

Saturday 13 October, 10 am to 12 pm and Saturday 20 October, 2.30 pm to 4.30 pm: Aren't Birds Brilliant at Mistley Walls (Free. Call 01473 328006 for details)

Monday 15 October at 7 am: What's About at Minsmere

Saturday 20 October at 11 am: Avocet river trip from Orford Quay (book via Minsmere)

Sunday 21 October, 2 pm to 4 pm: Fun with Fungi at RSPB Stour Estuary nature reserve (call 01473 328006 for details)

Tuesday 23 October, 10.30 am to 2.30 pm: Feed the Birds Day family activities at Minsmere

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