According to the Guinness Book of Records, the tallest man who ever lived was Robert Pershing Wadlow who had reached a staggering 8ft 11 ins. when he died at the age of 22 – of illnesses associated with his height. Apparently he was well over the size viable for a human being – a victim of a hormonal aberration. I was reminded of this when attending a talk about trees, part of the Literature Festival. The tallest trees, giant redwoods in the USA can grow to 100 metres or more. Imagine the amount of energy required to carry water and nutrients to the topmost branches. These great trees can regulate their growth too, the youngsters remaining at the same height for decades, then, when a lofty neighbour falls, shooting rapidly upwards to take advantage of the available space and sunlight.
Such huge investments of energy are widespread in nature if the incentive is there. Hedgehogs are currently piling on weight in preparation for their winter hibernation – about a quarter of this will have disappeared by spring. Some birds moult and replace their feathers over a few weeks; they can’t afford to be flightless for long. A spectacular example of this investment in growth has been featured on our TV screens recently in the BBC’s Autumnwatch programmes. Our living rooms have been full of sounds of roaring and the clashing antlers as cameras catch every nuance of the red deer rut. The stags grow these enormous antlers solely for the purpose of competing for, and then maintaining, their place in the hierarchy in order to mate with as many hinds as possible. Once this seasonal competition is over, the antlers are redundant, and next spring they will be cast and the process of growing new ones will begin again.
If we would like to see deer rutting in the open air, as opposed to the comfort of in our own homes, we need to go no further than Studley Royal where a large herd of red deer roam freely over the parkland. As well as the reds, our largest British land mammal, you can also see both fallow and sika deer in the same park. These species were introduced to Britain for hunting but are now a regular part of our native fauna. In the woodland at Studley you may also catch a glimpse of our other native deer, the roe. Roe deer are much smaller, about the size of a large dog, and are not quite so ambitious as regards antlers. They have their rut in early summer when you may come across the traces of their activities in our local woods – small trees with damaged foliage, frayed by their antlers, or circular trods in the grass which the bucks make as they pace round and bark out their challenges.
You might wonder why good deer habitats are not knee-deep in discarded antlers. Well, all that calcium doesn’t go to waste; the canny beasts eat them and so the important nutrients are reused. Nature is a great recycler.