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Ageing Stags on the Hoof

Bachelor group of young stags. Although the bottom left stag already sports a great head, his long neck and noticeable difference in body parts leads us to believe he’s only a five-year-old and will become an even more tremendous stag if given time to mature. Photo: Chris McCarthy

Tremendous roars rattle through the trees. The sounds of brush and ground being trampling grows closer as the stag charges in. Glimpses of antlers navigating through the bush give warning to a wet, well-wallowed, dark and long neck sporting a tall rack with twelve white tips …

Can you judge if this is a mature stag in this quick succession of events? Many will shoot this beast for the number of his tines alone. However, some aspects of the rack – but more of the head, neck, and body – show he’s still maturing and has the potential to become a real monster. The lean neck on this stag is an indicator that he’s still young.

To some, this may still be a trophy worth harvesting, but those graduated to more selective trophy hunting may desire to target mature or old animals.


Recognising age in animals is important for good game animal management. Firstly, it’s vital to recognise the difference between a young animal showing weak traits due to immaturity and a more mature animal that’ll never have the desired features and should be removed from the herd to prevent passing on those undesirable genetics (note, however, genetics in hinds cannot be assessed by these means). This is the main motive for culling stags in a population.

James Cagney, of James Cagney’s New Zealand Hunting Adventures and past president of the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Association, looks to cull animals lacking in main beam length, with  narrow or uneven antlers, or showing poor form – but stresses that the stag should be allowed to age sufficiently to assess its true trophy potential before culling. In his experience, four years old is a good benchmark, but some traits will be more or less apparent in three- to five-year-old stags. “When in doubt about antler potential, a young stag should be given the chance to live and grow another year for further assessment,” James advises. “The most important thing for young or new hunters to learn is how to tell the difference between a ‘small’ or genetically inferior stag and a young stag. That young stag may be a trophy in the making.”

Many work to improve the genetics through these means in the public areas they frequent. Culling poor genetics is even more popular on private land where herds are managed to promote not only ideal trophies but also, in a few cases, representatives of the genetics originally introduced to the area. Chris McCarthy of Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris strives to preserve and promote Otago genetics within his hunting area.

Additionally, the ability to recognise old animals is important for culling to maintain healthy numbers and less density providing for reduced spread of diseases and less stress on food sources. Studies in the UK have found that stags over nine years old rapidly become less successful rutting and sire fewer offspring. These deteriorating stags are never going to be any better, and they’re a drain on the natural resources in the area without contributing back to the herd any more through passing on their genetics. Therefore, it’s good game management to harvest these animals.

Did you know?

Antler growth for the first few years is greatly affected by the time of the deer’s birth. If it was born later in the season and the yearling isn’t able to gain sufficient weight before the winter, it may not be able to reach its genetic potential early on, and weaker heads will result the first few years of its life. This late start normally doesn’t have permanent consequences, and the deer will show better representation of their genes in their third and fourth year – as long as they have good nutrition and avoid injury or disease. This is why it’s important to age deer on other factors besides antlers when making culling decisions.


Rather than saying the exact age of stags, as you can do with many horned animals such as tahr, they’re grouped into categories: young or immature (five years and under), mature (six to eight years), and old (nine years or older). Research in red stags shows development peaking at seven and eight years of age, the animal’s prime, and a rapid decline in successful rutting and sired offspring in stags over nine years old. That being said, from a management point of view on a wild stag herd, stags will likely never be anything more than they were at their prime, and they’re no longer contributing to the gene pool significantly when they’re old.


The traditional outlook of harvesting stags with length, tines, and mass can correlate to age. However, qualities of the antlers have a lot to do with genetics and environment and are much less accurate indications of age than observing the animal’s body or even its face. We often look at the mass and length of main beams and tines when considering age, and sometimes it’s accurate. In an ideal world, more mature stags will have tines of similar length and thickness up a main beam that also maintains thickness, giving them a rectangular appearance on a side profile. Old animals that are ‘going backwards’ lose mass at their tops while maintaining excellent thickness at their bases.

Young stags, too, may have light tines the entire length of their antlers or less developed tops, but some with great prerequisites mature to impressive antler qualities very young.

Antlers can more accurately be indicative of age when comparing the same animal’s development throughout the years. Shed antlers can show perceptive hunters changes in antler growth that manifest the ageing and even deviation of the stag. Still, this isn’t foolproof, as injuries can cause great detrition in stags’ antlers from one year to the next, as can an extremely harsh winter. Still, observing and photographing the same animal throughout the years can better cue dedicated hunters to the stage of life that stag is in – not only from changes in the antler but by observing when the antlers drop and when velvet reforms, as this is normally earlier in older stags than in younger. Not one aspect is gospel for ageing stags on the hoof. The more aware and perceptive hunters are, the better all-round understanding they’ll have of an animal’s age.

Genetics, environmental factors and injuries play too much of a role for antler morphology to be a reliable indicator of age, especially without knowledge of the stag in a previous year to compare.

Clive Jeremy, founder of The World of Deer Museum and the first deer importer and deer stud farmer in New Zealand, outright claims, “You cannot tell the age of a stag by its antlers. Genetics make the most difference.” That being said, there are some antler traits that do significantly correlate with age, namely pedicle height and circumference, along with obvious shape features that change in young development (first and second heads).

A stag’s pedicles start off high above their head, and each year sit lower and have more width to each pedicle base. While an animal’s pedicle features aren’t a definite determination of age, a study on Croatian stags manifested that this correlation was significant for height and even more so with width. This may seem hard to judge on the hill or through glass, but the wider, lowered pedicles make a stag’s head appear flat instead of curved on top, a characteristic that can be readily noticed from a reasonable distance.

However, it’s important to note that genes – as well as the environment, nutrition, and injury – can determine how wide or how low a stag’s pedicles become. Some that have the genetic predisposition and the tucker to allow for significant changes each year seemingly appear more mature sooner, while others may never develop massive or sunken pedicles. Therefore, this aspect isn’t as reliable for judging an animal’s age as looking at their body.


Stags’ bodies change greatly as they age, providing hunters the most reliable method of ageing on the hoof.

Lean, youthful lines and movement characterise younger stags. Their necks are thin, almost with a camelish appearance like a long-necked hind, and their backs are straight; their camel-like necks are exaggerated by higher head carriage in their movements. Most noticeably, their guts are tucked up in their barrel, giving them the appearance of long legs. If a stag through glass appears to have long legs, then right away, it can be guessed

that he’s young. The thinness in their barrel sometimes makes the neck appear thicker in the later young ages. Check that the mass in the neck and chest is maintained throughout the animal’s body when looking for more age. This can be demonstrated or practised by going through some old magazines and taping over all red deer heads. Any stags that aren’t instantly recognised as a male will be young. Give it a go with your mates one night!

Old animals will have a gut that sinks even lower than the animal’s chest. This, combined with thicker mass in their neck and much wider and filled out hind legs, makes them appear sturdier and stout. Their generally lower headset as they travel accentuates their stocky and stout appearance, and some old animals even seem to have some extra skin swaying under their jowls. Their deep-filled gut causes their back to sway; a sunken back ahead of full, round hips is indicative of an old bull. This configuration can also make their movement seem stiffer with more sway.

Mature animals have optimum body size and strength, along with their optimum antlers. They maintain much mass through their neck and into their barrel, matching it proportionally with well-developed hind legs. Their gut may sink slightly lower than their chest, but their strong back has not begun to weaken and sag to the gut’s weight. Their level headset matches the evenness in their mass throughout. Their rump, too, is more rounded and matches the bulk and depth throughout the entire body. They’re in their prime and they appear thick and powerful, but not yet diminishing in muscle capability or strength as  their purposeful, balanced movement shows.

While the body gives the most consistent cues for judging a stag’s age, be aware that after the rut, stags have lost a great deal of weight, and older and mature stags that rutted hard may appear to have a leaner body and longer legs because of this. That’s why it’s so important to take into account many different factors and develop a well-rounded view to assess the animal’s age; don’t rely too heavily on any one thing.


The face, too, can show signs of age, though less noticeably than the body. While differences between faces of humans at various ages seem extremely apparent, we’re not as adept at recognising differences in other species. Luckily, the more familiar you are with the species and the more often you look over many individuals of that species, the more your mind can perceive subtle details that furnish cues to age. The face of a young stag can appear youthful for those familiar with the species. Their narrow face has more refined features, as the muscles in their jowls haven’t fully developed.

Chris McCarthy often notes that younger animals have a bright eye, while older animals’ eyes are less pronounced due to lowering eyelids. As the animal ages, muscles in its face become thicker and its coronets sink and expand, giving the whole head a wider and flatter appearance. Old stags can have a more haggard appearance and, like immature stags appear youthful, old stags can appear duller and worn.


The most important aspect to focus on when determining a stag’s age on the hoof is the animal’s body. Yet genetics, environmental factors, diseases, and even angles and our perceptions can make looking at only one trait misleading. Therefore, it’s important to assess as many aspects of the stag as you can in the time given to determine age. Run your eyes over the body and the antler profile. Take time to look at the animal’s face. Even when you’re not hunting, observe farm deer in a paddock or look at stags on TV – study the deer and consciously consider their age. Training yourself to recognise aspects of age subconsciously will greatly help during quick encounters and when under the excitement and pressures on the hill.

Being able to correctly assess age will greatly progress your development as a hunter, leading to better management of our prized game species and more effort spent earning more selective trophies based on age. Subsequent articles will cover other game species to progress your knowledge and judgment of animals on the hoof for the most popularly targeted game species in New Zealand.

High pedicles; round or triangular
top of head; short and thin main
beams; short and thin tines.
Lower and thicker pedicles; tall
main beams with similar length and
thickness in tines; more consistent
outline along the total length of the
antlers; flat appearing head.
Sunken pedicles with more mass
at the bottom than up the antlers;
thinning of top antlers while very
thick bases; flat head.
Thin neck; high head set; long legs;
straight back; noticeable separation
of body parts (neck, shoulder, barrel
and hind features are distinct).
Thick neck; mass maintained
throughout barrel and even into
hips; the neck, shoulder, barrel,
and hind flow and maintain the
same depth without noticeable
separation; short appearing legs;
straight back.
Thick neck; mass maintained
throughout barrel and even into
hips; the neck, shoulder, barrel,
and hind flow and maintain
the same depth without noticeable
separation; short appearing legs;
swayed back; protruding gut; stout
Narrow face; ‘youthful eyes’.Less distinction between head and neck; more ‘aged eyes’.Haggard or worn-looking face.

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