Stags in the Wood
Ever since I learnt of their existence, I have been desperate to see a Stag Beetle, sometimes known as a “Thunder Beetle” or “Oak Ox”. Living in Scotland gave me the opportunity to see many natural wonders, but wasn’t conducive to spotting this southern specialist. Stag Beetles like areas with a high average temperature and a low average rainfall, so I really was in the wrong place! London is Stag Beetle central. The species only has a limited range in the UK, centring around the Thames Valley.
Last year I got a tempting teaser when I laid eyes on a Lesser Stag Beetle. It was actually quite embarrassing; I’d just been introduced to a friend’s parents and during all the usual pleasantries I interrupted with “Sorry, but I’ve just got to look at that beetle!” and disappeared down on my hands and knees. Lesser Stag Beetles measure up to 30mm in length compared to a mighty 75mm for a large male Stag Beetle.
It was only last month, after moving to London, that I finally saw a Stag Beetle. It was worth waiting for! I was carrying out a recce on a public site in London where, the following day, I was leading a wildlife walk. Never having been one to pass up the opportunity for finding beasties, I turned over an old tree stump at the edge of a deadwood pile. It took a few seconds to truly comprehend what I was looking at. The first thing that strikes you about a Stag Beetle is its size, followed by its mandibles. Imagine something the size of soap bar with projecting mouth parts resembling antlers! Quite a sight! Despite looking ferocious, male Stag Beetles do not bite. Their impressive mouths are used for wrestling with other rival males. On closer inspection, it is the beautiful deep red of the elytra (wing covers) that captures your eye.
I had inadvertently disturbed this chap from his slumbers, and I gently replaced his roof. Stag beetles are most active around dusk, when they will attempt to find a mate. The males will fly more readily than the females, and produce a low pitched buzzing sound to accompany their lumbered flight. The females are more often encountered on the ground, where they will be searching for potential sites to dig down into the ground and lay their eggs.
Stag Beetles only live as adults for a few weeks, in order to breed. They can be seen from May to August, particularly on warm evenings. They can, however, spend up to 6 years living as larvae! Stag Beetle larvae feed on decomposing wood, by living inside deadwood. The serious decline of this iconic species over the last 40 years has mainly been attributed to declines in the availability of deadwood as a habitat. Partly this is due to landowners and park managers “tidying up” deadwood.
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, do the Stag Beetle and its smaller relatives a favour by leaving dead and decaying wood in place. Whenever I see deadwood piles in London’s green spaces I give a little mental cheer. Hopefully with a new understanding of the importance of these habitats we can turn around the fate of our largest terrestrial beetle.
The next day I head back to the deadwood pile with the group of wildlife fans. I carefully lift up the dead stump, and I find …….. woodlice. The Stag Beetle has gone. I’m disappointed not to be able to share this natural wonder with my group. When one of them asks if I was looking for anything in particular I decide to tell them what I found yesterday. As opposed to mummers of disappointment at its absence, instead the response is pleasure. “It’s just nice to know it was there” says one walker. Indeed! Next time you a pass a dead wood pile, think not of its aesthetics, but how nice that it may be home to a species we so rarely get to see.