Velvet & colouring
A deer’s antlers are first seen as small lumps of tissue at the tip of the pedicle. As they develop, they are covered with a soft fur-like covering, and they are described as being ‘in velvet’.
Growing antlers consist of a blood-filled, bone-forming tissue. This is very soft and sensitive, so if two stags or bucks have a conflict during this time they will ‘box’ each other with their front feet to prevent injury to the antlers.
The growth of deer antlers can be very rapid: a Red Deer stag’s antlers can grow at the rate of one inch per day.
When the antlers have grown to full size, the deer’s testosterone levels start to rise with the approach of the breeding season. This causes the blood supply to the antlers to be cut off, and the stags begin shedding or cleaning the velvet. Stags will ‘fray’ or rub the dead velvet against trees to remove it; at this stage, they are said to be ‘in tatters’.
Antlers are usually clean of velvet by August. Once the velvet has been shed, the antler will not grow any further, and breakages cannot be repaired.
At first the newly-grown antlers are white, which is the natural colour of the bone. However, rubbing and thrashing against vegetation causes them to become stained with peat and tree resin, giving them a colour that can range from black through different shades of brown to dark grey. The points or tines remain lighter in colour. By October, which is the beginning of the rut, the antlers are at their darkest.
High levels of testosterone cause the antlers to be retained throughout the breeding season and often well into the following year (this varies depending on the species). The stage known as the shedding or casting of the antlers is triggered by a drop in testosterone levels in the spring.
The shed antlers may be chewed by deer and other mammals, because of their high mineral content.
For a short time after an antler has been cast, the deer is left with an open wound on the top of the pedicle. However, within hours the pedicle is covered by a scab and new velvet is growing over it.